GEORGIAN parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze looks very much as he did in his days as Soviet foreign minister. The familiar shock of gray hair still sits atop his balding head, he flashes the same disarming smile, and he speaks with the same, deliberate, diplomatic cadence that he used when he was the top Soviet envoy from 1985 to 1991.
But local political observers say Georgia's internecine struggles - the Abkhazian civil war in particular - have caused noticeable changes in Mr. Shevardnadze since his return in March to lead the Georgian provisional government.
"He seems to have lost his diplomatic touch. He uses nationalistic rhetoric that he would never have used before," says Sergei Chornikh, a reporter for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
During a news conference on the eve of the parliamentary elections Oct. 11, Mr. Shevardnadze raised a few eyebrows with some un-diplomatic diatribes. In one instance, he called the so-called Confederation of Mountain Peoples in southern Russia a "fundamentalist-terrorist organization."
Volunteers from the confederation are fighting for Abkhazian partisans, who have been struggling since August to break away from Georgia. Shevardnadze says he wants a peaceful solution, but he has made it clear he is prepared to fight, even against Russia. "We won't give our land away to anyone," he says.
Some experts say they were surprised when Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia, where he was Communist Party boss prior to becoming Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister. They say he seems daunted by the political and economic chaos.
"The big mystery is why would he agree to do it," says Prof. Darrell Slider of the University of South Florida, a specialist on Georgian politics. "Partly he enjoys being in the limelight. But he also wants to do things that really affect people, and sitting around in retirement and writing books just don't do it for him." Stalin immortalized
Democratic ideals appear to have won over the residents of the Georgian city of Gori, and the birthplace of Josef Stalin.
There were long lines at polling stations here, about 35 miles northwest of Tbilisi, for parliamentary elections Oct. 11. Many voters say a democratic system is Georgia's only hope for the future. "Rule by a strong hand is no longer possible and we must accept new methods," says Lela Eliosidze, a teacher.
Many may repudiate the former Soviet dictator's means, but he is still held in great esteem here. The city's central square boasts the only statue of Stalin still standing in the former Soviet Union. And the small, two-room brick house in which he was born is still preserved under a structure resembling a Greek pantheon.
"Feelings about Stalin are mixed, but nearly everyone agrees he was an important personality," says farmer Vano Merabishvili. Main Street in Georgia
Before civil war broke out in the center of Tbilisi last winter, its main street, Rustaveli Prospekt, was widely regarded as one of the prettiest thoroughfares in the former Soviet Union.
These days sections of Rustaveli are nothing more than bulldozed rubble. Rustaveli's once-buoyant atmosphere has been swept away by shortages, rising prices, and lawlessness.
"Nobody goes out at night any more," says student, Dato Vardiashvili. "There's shooting and it's dangerous."
But despite the fact that Georgia has experienced one crisis after another this year - most recently the civil war in Abkhazia - the reconstruction effort has begun.
"It's going to be better than it was before," says Eldar Tsitsishvili, the chief architect for the restoration. He said restoration of the badly damaged parliament building would be completed by the end of October.