A LANDSLIDE victory in parliamentary elections has given Eduard Shevardnadze's leadership the legitimacy it needs to attempt to implement long-awaited reforms in this war-torn Transcaucasian republic.
Mr. Shevardnadze's goal is to create a Western-style democracy and market economy here. Yet despite winning overwhelming popular support in the vote Oct. 11, the Georgian leader will be hard pressed to bring order and prevent this nation from being buried under a mountain of problems, including a rebellion in the separatist region of Abkhazia.
Ending the civil war in Abkhazia, a semi-autonomous region on the Black Sea in western Georgia, is the top priority for Shevardnadze, the chairman-elect of Georgia's new parliament. "In order to start economic reforms we must have good relations with our neighbors. We must have peace," Shevardnadze said last weekend in a speech to the Georgian Academy of Sciences.
The conflict has been steadily escalating since the fighting began in mid-August and threatens to spill over into mountainous regions of southern Russia.
Hundreds have been killed in the civil war so far. Georgian officials say mercenaries from the so-called Confederation of Mountain Peoples in southern Russia, as well as elements of the Russian Army itself, are supporting the Abkhazian separatists and are the main obstacle to peace. Abkhazians make up only about 17 percent of the territory's population, while ethnic Georgians comprise about 45 percent. Russians and other ethnic groups round out Abkhazia's population.
Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, is seeking a negotiated settlement in Abkhazia. But his chances appear to be fading. Many Georgian leaders are disillusioned with negotiations, Shevardnadze says, because of the failure of Russian and Abkhazian leaders to adhere to a cease-fire agreement signed last month.
"I don't see a political solution to this question. The only way to restore order in Abkhazia is through force," says Georgy Chanturia, leader of the National Democratic Party, one of the most influential political organizations in Georgia.
But it is far from certain that the Georgian government is capable of militarily imposing peace on Abkhazia. Of late the war has gone badly for Georgian government forces. Abkhazian fighters, backed by their Russian allies, have taken control of the northern part of the territory and are threatening to retake Sukhumi, the capital.
The civil war is not the only threat to Georgian stability, however. Shevardnadze must also cope with several internal problems to pave the way for reforms.
The Georgian leader has said one of his first moves following the elections will be the formation of a Defense Council, designed to unify the command structure of the several armed groups now operating in Georgia. In particular, Shevardnadze seeks to establish firm control over the Georgian National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani.
Since its formation about two years ago, the National Guard has operated as a quasi-independent force under Mr. Kitovani. Some local political observers claim, for example, that Kitovani acted independently when his troops moved into Abkhazia.
Shevardnadze, speaking at a news conference last weekend, insisted all military groups were under parliamentary control, but admitted there were "problems." It is unclear whether Kitovani, who also was a member of the ruling council before the parliamentary elections, will willingly submit to Shevardnadze's authority, local observers say.
"It's one of the key questions, but there is no clear answer," says Sergei Chornikh, a Tbilisi-based correspondent for the Pravda daily, "Kitovani commands great loyalty within the National Guard."
An easier task for Shevardnadze will be dealing with supporters of ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whom critics accuse of trying to establish a dictatorship in Georgia. The election results appeared to take away the governing mandate Mr. Gamsakhurdia had enjoyed.
Although voting did not take place in nine western Georgian districts - either because of a boycott organized by Gamsakhurdia supporters or because of the Abkhazian violence - voter turnout was high. In the vote for parliament chairman, Shevardnadze won the endorsement of about 90 percent of those casting ballots.
FORTY-SEVEN political parties battled for 234 seats in the parliament. When all the votes are counted it is unlikely that any one party will capture more than 20 percent of the seats in the legislature, local political observers say. Keeping such a diverse parliament in line could prove difficult for Shevardnadze.
Shevardnadze wants to strengthen Georgia's independence through market reforms, especially large-scale privatization, he says. Other plans include adopting a new constitution and introducing a Georgian currency to replace the Russian ruble.
Shevardnadze also says he wants to restore traditionally friendly relations with Russia, currently strained by the Abkhazian conflict. "It is of vital importance to have good relations with Russia, but they must be those of equals," he says.
But hopes for Russian-Georgian rapprochement seem to be dimming, along with the chances for a peaceful settlement in Abkhazia. Russian officials postponed a summit scheduled for Oct. 13 between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Mr. Shevardnadze. to discuss a possible solution to the Abkhazian conflict.