Soviet Georgians Probably Will Vote Today to Secede : Nationalism: After 70 years, the southern republic is extricating itself from the grip of Moscow.


A former political prisoner is president. The Communist Party bosses, the men who used to run the place, are out of work. The KGB security police now answer to the people they used to jail.

With nationalists in power for the first time in 70 years, the southern Soviet republic of Georgia is extricating itself from the grip of Moscow.

Today, its people will probably vote to secede entirely.

“The great majority of the population will vote for independence,” Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s dissident-turned-president, said in an interview. “This local referendum will be an argument before the world that we want independence.”

But Georgia, a small republic in the Caucasus Mountains, has already taken many steps away from the Kremlin.

There was only a little more than a year between Gamsakhurdia’s last day in prison and his first day as president. He was selected by a pro-independence Supreme Soviet, the Georgian legislature, which was elected in October in the Soviet Union’s first multi-party elections.


The Communist Party committees, which had ruled each city, town and district in the republic for decades, have been stripped of their authority.

“The Communist Party exists no more,” Gamsakhurdia said triumphantly.

The huge statues of Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin, which dominate most central city squares across the Soviet Union, have been dismantled throughout Georgia.

Even the old Soviet court system--infamous for imprisoning political activists such as Gamsakhurdia and others who now hold top government positions--has been replaced with a new system; judges are sworn in with a Bible.

“Psychologically, we are already independent, and we will always remain independent,” said Nodar Notadze, another nationalist leader. “Either quickly or gradually, we shall reach our legal independence.”

As they vote on independence, Georgians will also cast ballots in their first post-Communist local elections for a new type of government structure. They will be electing district councils to share the responsibilities of local government with recently appointed prefects.

“We decided on this form of government because there was horrible chaos and anarchy in Georgia and nobody was working,” Gamsakhurdia said. “There was no power, no authority, no police, nothing. Everything had stopped. The old power was no more because the Communist Party was gone. But there was no new power yet.”

Gamsakhurdia’s bloc, a coalition of seven parties known as the Round Table, controls the legislature, and the Communists often vote with it.

The charismatic president has fierce critics among ultranationalists, who accuse him of setting up a system that gives him all but dictatorial power.

Gamsakhurdia brushes off such charges about the prefect system and his policies in general.

“Some ignorant men here say this is not a democratic system,” he said. “Why? Our Parliament is democratic rule because it was elected by the people.”

Notadze, who leads the minority Popular Front in the Georgian legislature, said Gamsakhurdia and his supporters have given too much power to the prefects and not enough to locally elected councils.

“We have made many steps toward democracy,” said Notadze, a philosophy professor. “But we have many steps yet to make. Democracy is not the freedom from chains. It’s a building you have to erect, and you can’t build it in a year.”

Gamsakhurdia contends that what his government has achieved in a few months is already democracy. “In Parliament, we have more than 10 parties,” he said. “All over Georgia, there are 130 parties. Isn’t that democracy?”

Gamsakhurdia calls his critics terrorists, criminals and crazy.

“They cry, ‘Dictatorship! Fascism!’ because we won’t give them their own newspapers or access to television,” he said.

Some of his political opponents have set up a National Congress as a parallel parliament to challenge Gamsakhurdia’s rule. His critics accuse him of holding more than 70 political prisoners. Gamsakhurdia contends that they were all legally arrested on such charges as kidnaping, robbery and assault.

Members of the National Congress, Round Table and even the Communist Party here all agree on one thing--Georgia’s independence.

Georgians, a fiercely proud people who value their national identity, have avoided assimilation into a generic Soviet culture more effectively than have most other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union.

They trace their history to a kingdom that was founded in the 4th Century BC and reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. After being divided between Turkey and Persia for more than 200 years, Georgia became a protectorate of czarist Russia in 1783. It was formally annexed by Russia in 1801 but enjoyed a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1921 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Georgia’s most famous son was the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who ruled the country from 1924 to 1953. A huge statue of Stalin, the last in the Soviet Union, stands in the central square of Gori, his birthplace.

But Georgians never took well to Communist Party rule. Georgia has been known for decades as the wildest of the Soviet republics, with a powerful Mafia and a strong, if tiny, group of outspoken, ardent nationalists and human rights activists.

“It’s just a little country,” said Vazha Barnabishvili, a sculptor. “But Georgia has been here since before Christ, and if we give up our struggle and miss this chance for freedom, future generations will never forgive us.”

Georgia’s battle for independence gathered momentum after an attack two years ago on peaceful demonstrators by Soviet troops using shovels and gas.

“It was a horrible massacre,” said Gamsakhurdia, who was jailed for the third time after the incident. “But after this, all of Georgia was for the national movement and worked toward the fall of the Communists.”

Unlike the struggles for independence in the Baltic republics, which were bloodless until Soviet troops cracked down there in January, the Georgian freedom fighters have never been strangers to weapons or bloodshed. Political figures often carry guns and sometimes automatic rifles. Gamsakhurdia carried a gun before he became president and is now protected by a squad of well-armed security men because of recent attempts on his life.

The new government is recruiting men for a new Georgian National Guard, which would become the army if Georgia gains independence. The force, started about three months ago, will number at least 12,000 men by the end of the year, said Tomaz Dumbadze, a National Guard officer.

“When each person is born, he has a yearning to be free,” Dumbadze said. “If we have to fight for our freedom, I will give my blood so our children will be free.”

If the Georgians vote overwhelmingly for independence, as expected, their separatist government will use the victory as leverage with Moscow, which insists that republics go through a long secession process before becoming independent.

Gamsakhurdia said that after meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III this month, he believes that the United States and other countries will help Georgia and other republics fight for a new secession law that will enable republics to become independent after a referendum.

“Now, the government of the United States is more attentive to us,” Gamsakhurdia said. “Baker met me in Moscow and we talked. It is a very good sign, and if it will result in political help (from the United States, then) we can soon be independent. Baker said they are interested in . . . reforming laws about secession from the Soviet Union. This is a great hope.”

Gamsakhurdia said if the referendum is successful, he will start appealing to Western governments to acknowledge Georgia as an independent country. “It’s impossible to predict when we will be independent. It depends a lot on Western governments.”

For now, Georgian nationalism frightens the Abkhazians and Ossetians, two minorities in the republic who are worried that they would lose their rights in an independent Georgia.

These tensions exploded into warfare in southern Ossetia, a region that late last year declared itself an autonomous Soviet republic and, effectively, independent of Georgia. The Georgian legislature responded by ending southern Ossetia’s special status as an autonomous region within Georgia.

Extremist bands of Ossetians, a small, ethnic group that forms the majority in the region, are fighting Georgians for rights to the territory.

More than 50 Ossetians have died in the conflict, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda reported. A government spokesman said about 30 Georgians have been killed. Hundreds more on both sides have been wounded, and thousands of Georgians and Ossetians have fled their homes.

Ossetians favor continued Soviet rule to ensure their rights in increasingly nationalist Georgia. They voted strongly for it in the March 17 referendum on the preservation of the Soviet Union as a federal state, but the Georgian legislature banned the referendum.

Most Georgians believe that the conflict with the Ossetians is being orchestrated by Soviet officials because of the Georgian government’s refusal to sign the proposed union treaty, which lays out a new political foundation for the country.

“No one doubts that the Kremlin is behind it,” Notadze said.

(Bulldog Edition) MINDING GEORGIA

The Georgian republic, which joined the U.S.S.R. in 1922, has an area of 26,900 square miles and a population of 5.49 million (1989 estimate). Its capital is Tbilisi. Its population is 68.8% Georgian, 9% Armenian, 7.4% Russian, 5.1% Azerbaijani, 3.2% Ossetian and 1.7% Abkhazian (1979 estimates). Its chief products include wheat, sugar beets, barley, tea, citrus fruits and livestock. In addition, it manufactures textiles, chemicals and steel products and produces hydroelectric power.