Georgia on the Brink As Shevardnadze Turns to Russia

Economy is near collapse, civil war continues unabated

WORKMEN are slowly repairing the brown marble-faced parliament building that stands at the end of tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue, filling the bullet holes and patching the walls shattered by fighting between rival Georgian political factions.

Those battles took place almost two years ago, in December 1991, but the civil war continues unabated. Among the former Soviet republics, none stands closer to disintegration than Georgia.

The forces of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, ousted in January 1992, are again on the offensive from their base in western Georgia. Government militia, aided by Russian tanks, have driven them back, but a final victory is still elusive.

The civil war follows a drastic military defeat last month at the hands of ethnic separatists in Abkhazia, along the Black Sea coast. At least 250,000 Georgians have been driven out of the region in what many believe is a case of deliberate ``ethnic cleansing.'' Together with the de facto gains of separatists in the northern region of South Ossetia, the Georgian government has now effectively lost control of about a fifth of the country's territory.

The economy here has virtually ceased to exist. Production is about a fifth of earlier levels. The Georgian coupon, its ersatz currency, has lost two-thirds of its value in two weeks.

The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, once considered the richest in the former Soviet Union, is desolate. Shops are totally empty, with only the bazaar still offering goods. Elderly Georgians wait in lines for as long as eight or nine hours for state-subsidized loaves of bread, often their only sustenance. Residents are afraid to venture out at night, fearful of armed gangs.

``What more can happen? It's a nightmare,'' exclaims a knowledgable Western resident here.

These feelings are in sharp contrast to the hopes raised when Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, returned to his homeland from Moscow in March 1992. After the overthrow of Mr. Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze was welcomed by almost all Georgian political factions, as well as by the populace, as the only man who could restore unity.

From a personal point of view, coming back ``was a mistake,'' the Georgian leader says in an interview. ``Who would want to come to turmoil? I don't think any politician would. But I am happy that I am with my people in these times of hardship.''

Shevardnadze made some progress earlier on. His extensive ties to Western politicians ended Georgia's isolation, brought about by the paranoid behavior of nationalist Gamsakhurdia, and triggered a flow of Western aid. Internally, Shevardnadze was able to clip the wings of two warlords - Tengiz Kitovani and Jaba Ioseliani - who control private militias.

The Georgian leader succeeded as well in negotiating a Russian-mediated cease-fire in South Ossetia. The Abkhaz conflict, triggered in August 1992 in part by the aggressive acts of Mr. Kitovani's men, has proved more intractable. Three attempts at a political settlement, the latest signed last July, have failed to hold. Georgians blame Russia for backing the Abkhaz rebels, a view Western diplomats here share.

During the summer, Shevardnadze sought backing to introduce a state of emergency, supposedly to end the reign of criminal gangs. Many politicians opposed this as a move toward dictatorship, but Shevardnadze got his way in mid-September after threatening to resign.

Shevardnadze is criticized more for being too eager to seek compromise among the warring political factions. ``Unfortunately, I am not strong enough,'' the white-haired Georgian leader says with a smile. ``Although most of my fellow citizens would gladly agree if I turn into a dictator. They want a strong hand.''

Whatever possibility existed for stabilizing life in Georgia was shattered by the almost simultaneous offensives of the Abkhaz separatists and the pro-Gamsakhurdia rebels, beginning on Sept. 16 and 15 respectively. Despite a resistance led personally by Shevardnadze, the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi fell on Sept. 27. The Gamsakhurdia forces followed that with an offensive that threatened to sweep across Georgia to the capital.

By all accounts, the Georgian government has been saved only by the intervention of Russia, which according to several Western and Georgian government sources, supplied 10 modern T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles.

And Georgia was compelled to join the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States on Oct. 8. The Georgian leader in part blames this on the failure of the United Nations and the West to come to Georgia's aid, both before and after the Abkhaz offensive.

But Shevardnadze defends this as an unavoidable step to save Georgia from total economic collapse. ``This is not a matter of politics. It's more a matter of economics, because our people are hungry.... We do not have any other way out.''

By restoring shattered economic links to Russia and other former Soviet republics, the Georgian leader hopes to get industry and agriculture moving again. And he is looking for vital credits from Russia to stave off disaster.

Many Georgians appear to back the decision, but only if it improves economic conditions, something most analysts here do not believe will happen.

The decision, however, has lost Shevardnadze considerable support among political factions. ``We are becoming a colony of Russia,'' charges Nodar Notadze, head of the People's Front, and previously a Shevardnadze backer.

But no one here, including the growing ranks of political opponents, is eager to remove Shevardnadze. He remains perhaps the last barrier against complete political chaos in Georgia.

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