In the end, Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a coward.
"I will hold until death," he declared on Christmas Day, foxholed in a bunker as his loyalists were trying to keep opposition gunners from taking over the government complex. Yesterday, he ignominiously fled in the cover of darkness to a neighboring republic after realizing he had lost a bloody struggle for power. "Not only the Georgia people but all the democratic forces of the world will celebrate this victory," a rebel commander declared.
Seldom has any elected official squandered his goodwill as fast as did Mr. Gamsakhurdia.
In April, he was a hero who led the proud Georgian nation to independence. A month later, he was elected its first president with 86.5 percent of the vote. Yet by the summer he was embroiled in a deepening crisis as many of his former allies accused him of dictatorial tendencies, stifling political and press freedoms. As time went on, he became increasingly isolated.
Some of this isolation was self-imposed. He refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States other former Soviet republics formed. To the end, he blamed outsiders for his own difficulties. "What happened here is the work of Moscow; Moscow doesn't want a free Georgia," he declared.
That, of course, is nonsense. The many conspiracies of internal and external enemies Mr. Gamsakhurdia claimed to see in Georgia were mainly creations of his own paranoia. Now that he is gone, Georgia, perhaps, has an opportunity to try again to create a just and democratic society.
Georgia at this point is a badly divided country. Mr. Gamsakhurdia still has much support in the countryside, even though his popularity among the members of the urban elite is gone. It is conceivable that he may try to establish a government in exile wherever he ends up. He might even try to fan the flames of a full-scale civil war. Yet Mr. Gamsakhurdia, an erudite linguist, is a spent force, a man who had his moment and tragically missed it.
Now that the splintered opposition has come to power through violent means, we hope it shows more maturity than did Mr. Gamsakhurdia. Above all, the new interim government should waste no time declaring Georgia's readiness to join the Commonwealth of Independent States and become a serious partner in attempts to forge a post-Soviet power-sharing arrangement.
When Washington recognized Russia and Ukraine, Georgia was one of the former Soviet states that did not receive an immediate promise of full-fledged diplomatic ties from the Bush administration. In the weeks and months ahead, Georgia will be on trial.