Shevardnadze's Tough Task

October 22, 1992

Congratulations are in order to Edward Shevardnadze. In recent elections, the one-time Soviet foreign minister was overwhelmingly elected to head the government of his native Georgia.

At first glance, nothing much would seem to have changed. After all, Mr. Shevardnadze has effectively been the top man in Georgia since March, when he was called in to stop his Black Sea republic's slide to anarchy and civil war. Yet this past weekend's vote will give him a badly needed popular mandate to complete that difficult job.

Georgia was the first former Soviet republic to hold parliamentary elections back in 1990, when the Kremlin's controls were faltering throughout the empire and communism was about to collapse. At the time, the Georgians' resounding choice for a leader was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident, translator of Shakespeare and Whitman and the son of the republic's most famous writer. His seemingly attractive credentials masked a man with such capricious judgment and dictatorial tendencies that he was soon turning Georgia into a fratricidal battleground.

Before going to Moscow, Mr. Shevardnadze had been Georgia's communist satrap and secret police chief. Later, as an internationally known key player in the Gorbachev administration, Mr. Shevardnadze became enough of an outsider to be acceptable to a variety of armed anti-Gamsakhurdia factions, to which he owed his power. In that sense, the weekend's election gives Mr. Shevardnadze the legitimacy he desperately needs to sort out his homeland's problems.

Although Mr. Gamsakhurdia and his loyalists still vow to return to power, they are a secondary concern. A far bigger headache comes from several unruly militia organizations which have so upset Georgia's delicate ethnic situation that the republic is now fighting a rebellion in two areas, Abkhazia along the Black Sea coast, and South Ossetia, near the Caucasus Mountains. Neither of these uprisings can be extinguished unless the militia organizations are reigned in.

This is particularly true about a formation known as the Georgian National Guard. Provocative actions by those troops -- which are controlled by Defense Minister Tengis Kitovani, a political kingmaker -- were catalysts for the two insurgencies. As long as the National Guard operates as a private army and is not controlled by the Georgian top leader and parliament, it is likely to continue to play havoc with mediation efforts.

Mr. Shevardnadze had no world experience when he became Soviet foreign minister, yet he proved a quick study and splendid achiever. He now faces a challenge worthy of all his talents.

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