Confrontation in Soviet Georgia

September 19, 1991

Events unfolding in Georgia serve as a painful but necessary reminder of the fragility of democracy in various parts of the former Soviet empire.

Although Russia and Ukraine, along with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, may have relatively good long-term prospects for building societies based on the rule of law, many other former parts of the Soviet Union are not likely to fare as well. A thinly disguised communist government is in power in Azerbaijan. Several of the Central Asian republics are democratic only in their rhetoric. The most dangerous imminent crisis, however, is developing in Georgia, a West Virginia-sized republic on the Soviet border with Turkey.

Outraged by criticism of his authoritarian rule, Georgia's President Zviad Gamsakhurdia is urging supporters to defeat the forces trying to curb his power. Growing numbers of dissidents are under arrest. "The president has divided the nation and is choosing confrontation over dialogue," warns Sandro Kavsadze, a parliament member. "This is dangerous and will only make things worse."

None of this is unexpected to those who have been following the antics of Mr. Gamsakhurdia over the past year.

He may have translated Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman into Georgian, but his political ideas and tactics come from the ultra-nationalist tyrants of the 1930s. He persecutes non-Georgians, hates critics and does not tolerate a free press. Just listening to the president's rabble-rousing gave goose bumps to a 13-member U.S. congressional committee which visited Georgia earlier this month. "I see severe human rights problems within the present new government, which is not willing to address them or admit them or do anything about them yet," declared Sen. Dennis DeConcini.

A number of parliamentarians are expected to demand curbs on Mr. Gamsakhurdia's power today. But the legislature is badly divided among those who support the president, those who want new elections and those who want to abolish the presidency altogether. It is quite conceivable that Mr. Gamsakhurdia will thwart all moves against him and only harden his grip on his republic. The potential for violence is rising: while the militia is loyal to the president, the national guard has turned against him.

Ordinarily, the United States could do little to control Mr. Gamsakhurdia's megalomania. Amid the Soviet split-up, however, outside governments hold powerful cards. By blocking recognition of Georgian independence, the West can make it clear to Georgians and other separatist republics that irresponsible bullying by Mr. Gamsakhurdia and his ilk will not be tolerated.

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