Fratricidal Georgia

December 24, 1991

The fratricide going on in the Republic of Georgia, a fertile and historic land on the shores of the Black Sea, is a stark reminder of the potential for violence in the former Soviet Union. About the only good thing that may come out of this senseless bloodletting is the possibility that Georgia, the only holdout among former Soviet republics, may get a new, democratic leader and join the new Commonwealth of Independent States.

The confrontation in Georgia has been building for months as opposition to President Zviad Gamsakhurdia's autocratic rule mounted. Even before the weekend's fighting, Georgia had become a new Yugoslavia, a time bomb ticking away. Tensions have been high ever since September, when the president removed Tengiz Kitovani from the leadership of the Georgian National Guard. The commander took 15,000 guardsmen and organized them into a private, anti-Gamsakhurdia army.

Calling his opponents "criminals" who were directed from Moscow by Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze, an ethnic Georgian and former leader of the republic, Mr. Gamsakhurdia refused to seek a negotiated settlement. That hard-headedness has seriously eroded the popularity of the erratic president, who was elected in a landslide seven months ago.

While many foreign governments have severely criticized Mr. Gamsakhurdia's recent record on human rights and freedom of the press, his failure to condemn August's coup d'etat attempt in Moscow raised serious questions about his commitment to reforms and democratic ideals. A once-jailed former human rights activist himself, Mr. Gamsakhurdia insists such criticism is unwarranted but pledges, "We will not allow anarchy in Georgia or an orgy by the dark forces of the Kremlin."

Even if he survives the violent attempt to oust him, Mr. Gamsakhurdia has no real future as Georgia's leader, unless he is prepared to squash his opposition with merciless repression. His best course would be to step down voluntarily and make room for a healer. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Shevardnadze has emerged as one possibility. As Georgia's communist chief, he ruled Georgia intelligently from 1972 to 1985, trying fearlessly to uproot crime and corruption. His subsequent political behavior has shown him to be a man of principle and conviction. Those are qualities that Georgia could now use.

With its access to the Black Sea, strategic location on the Turkish border and inventive people, Georgia has much going for it. This ancient land -- the rich Colchis of Greek legend -- deserves better than the megalomaniacal autocracy of President Gamsakhurdia. The sooner he is gone, the better.

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