TBILISI,U.S.S.R. — TBILISI, U.S.S.R. -- "Georgia is a nation of warriors," said Merab Gelashvili, and half a dozen would-be warriors gathered in the republican parliament building chimed in with their assent.
But these young men would be warriors for Georgia, only Georgia. They will not, they say, serve the Soviet empire that sprawls to the north, west and east from this little, ancient, spectacular, troubled republic.
"I categorically refuse to serve in the occupying army," said Mr. Gelashvili, 18, a history student at Tbilisi State University.
"I'll join the Georgian army with pleasure and defend the interests of Georgia."
The next day, inside the fortress-like headquarters of the Transcaucasian Military District across town, Col. Gen. Anatoly K. Nikolayev bemoaned the results of last autumn's Soviet army draft.
Of the 12,000 draftees called up in Georgia, only a shade over 10 percent actually reported for duty -- the lowest response among the 15 Soviet republics.
"Mainly," General Nikolayev said, "those who showed up were of the non-Georgian nationalities."
In view of the glorious history of Georgian soldiering, the turnout is particularly painful, he said.
"Georgia," General Nikolayev explained, "is a nation of warriors."
The coincidence of phrasing seems to sum up the dangerous state of Georgian-Soviet relations: Everyone is willing to fight. The only disagreement is what and whom to fight for.
The Georgian parliament and the Soviet army headquarters seem like different countries: different languages, different heroes, different visions. A visitor to both places comes away with the feeling that they are headed for a collision.
As in most of the non-Russian republics, free speech and free elections have transformed this republic of 5.4 million people, who live in a mountainous territory the size of West Virginia.
Georgia has turned decisively away from seven decades of Soviet communism to its roots in 2,000 years of rich culture and history, to 17 centuries of Orthodox Christianity, to the fabled 11th century rule of King David the Builder and the classic 13th century poems of Rustaveli.
No republic has been so uncompromisingly defiant and contemptuous of decrees and demands from the Kremlin.
If Lithuania has been more directly targeted by the Gorbachev regime, that appears to be for reasons of political and military strategy. Many Georgians fear that their time is coming.
Georgia's transformation had two critical moments.
The first came April 9, 1989, when Soviet troops attacked peaceful demonstrators with shovels and toxic gas, killing at least 16 people. For many Georgians, that night was the end of illusions about the possibility of reform producing a free and normal existence within the Soviet Union.
The second came last October, when the so-called Round Table/ Free Georgia coalition led by former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia won easily in the republic's first contested elections since Soviet rule began in 1921. The vitriolic campaign featured shootings, car bombings and other manifestations of the intense spirit of competition and revenge that characterize Transcaucasian politics.
Since then, Georgia has plunged into a crisis, focusing on South Ossetia, a mountainous territory in the north of the republic inhabited mainly by ethnic Ossetians.
It is a conflict that illustrates Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's oft-stated fears about the dangers of bloody chaos resulting from the breakup of the union. In fact, it illustrates the Kremlin views so well that many Georgians, including Mr. Gamsakhurdia, say the clash has been artificially incited by the hand of Moscow.
The South Ossetians, fearful of what they see as Mr. Gamsakhurdia's Georgian chauvinism, moved last fall to secede from Georgia, saying that they needed to stay in the Soviet Union to be protected from discrimination and violence. Mr. Gamsakhurdia responded by having the Georgian parliament dissolve South Ossetia's autonomous status -- which the Georgian president had promised before the elections to preserve.
In the subsequent three-way conflict among Georgian police and volunteers, Ossetian police and volunteers, and Soviet troops, at least 30 people have been killed in several weeks of on-again, off-again shootouts.
Georgia has cut food and power to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhin
vali, reducing the city of 42,000 to a freezing, starving armed camp.
Both Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet parliament have threatened to declare a state of emergency in South Ossetia, in effect removing it from Georgian control. Mr. Gamsakhurdia says that the Soviet president has threatened to detach from Georgia both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another autonomous region on the Black Sea, if the republic refuses to stay in the Soviet Union.
Whatever the real role of behind-the-scenes Kremlin incitement,