Soviet Georgia in Crisis

April 16, 1991

When Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected Georgia's president Sunday, he was given the power to declare war, to institute martial law and presidential rule and to revoke or grant citizenship. These powers illustrate that the republic bordering Turkey is dead-serious in its attempt to secede from the Soviet Union. They also suggest that, unlike the calm and orderly Baltic republics, Georgia fully expects violence in its rebellion against the Kremlin.

Bloodshed is a foregone conclusion with a leader like Mr. Gamsakhurdia. He may have translated Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to Georgian, but in his political ideas and tactics he sounds like an ultra-nationalist tyrant.

He and his chauvinist supporters have declared a veritable war against all ethnic non-Georgians, who total about 30 percent of the republic's population of four million. Thus, citizenship and land ownership are likely to be restricted to those families whose ancestors lived in Georgia before its 1801 annexation by Czarist Russia. Such a move would be a particularly heavy blow to the republic's substantial Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities, whom Mr. Gamsakhurdia classifies as "enemies" of Georgia. "Moscow has been artificially increasing other nationalities, bringing them here and helping immigration -- everything against the Georgian nation," the president claims.

Radical Georgian nationalists have been agitated since April 9, when Soviet troops attacked peaceful demonstrators with shovels and toxic gas, killing at least 16 people. Yet the truth is that more people than that have been killed in inter-ethnic clashes since Mr. Gamsakhurdia's political alliance came to power last fall. Particularly bloody has been the conflict over Ossetia. Residents of that mountainous ethnic enclave seceded from Georgia last fall, saying that they needed to stay in the Soviet Union to be protected from discrimination and violence.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia's short tenure as the prime minister of Georgia was marked by vindictiveness toward his political rivals, including arrests and reprisals. One of his chief targets was the media, which he quickly moved to control. Mr. Gamsakhurdia, it seems, is unable to tolerate any kind of criticism. Observers have also noted in him a tendency to disclaim all responsibility for any developments that might be considered to reflect badly on him personally.

With its fertile land and energetic people, Georgia could become a success story. Instead, its local economy is in a shambles and would-be entrepreneurs are filled with fear. Independent or not, Georgia under Mr. Gamsakhurdia, sadly, has all the makings of a new Lebanon.

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