The enemies of Georgia's head of state formed a rival government Thursday and proclaimed a national state of emergency, but in his underground command post, President Zviad Gamsakhurdia insisted that he is still the lawful leader and will never relinquish power.
"No negotiations are possible with terrorists and criminals," Gamsakhurdia declared, his mood defiant but his dark-hooded eyes betraying the strain that he has been subject to during the past two weeks.
During most of Thursday, the guns of Gamsakhurdia's allies and opponents were silent, although defenders at the president's headquarters in the basement of Government House said they came under heavy artillery shelling at about 4:30 a.m.
Gamsakhurdia, who met with a small group of journalists in a makeshift television studio two floors underground, said that, in fighting over the past few days, presidential forces had gradually pushed opposition troops out of several buildings around the Parliament. That broke the noose that the anti-Gamsakhurdia leaders were trying to tighten.
Despite the siege's easing, Gamsakhurdia, who has been unable to leave Government House since the fighting began in late December, admitted that the violent struggle for power is hamstringing his ability to govern this Transcaucasian land of 5.5 million. "I cannot control the whole republic--power is paralyzed," he said.
To capitalize on the leadership vacuum and legitimize their fight against a president who, after all, won 87% of the vote in elections last May, the chiefs of the two main anti-Gamsakhurdia armed groups spearheaded the formation of a provisional government. It is to be headed by Tengiz Sigua, a former prime minister and Gamsakhurdia ally.
Opposition commanders--Tengiz Kitovani of the Georgian National Guard and Dzhaba Ioseliani of the Mkhedrioni or Horsemen paramilitary group--also fused their forces. They formed a "military council" and proclaimed a state of emergency in Georgia.
One of the council's first acts was to declare an 11 p.m-to-6 a.m. curfew, ostensibly to halt the looting that has become rampant during the struggle for power, and to appoint a military commandant to enforce it.
The curfew was taking effect Thursday night, announced Georgian television, now in the hands of the opposition.
The state of emergency throughout Georgia seemed largely a symbolic measure, since the bulk of forces controlled by Kitovani and Ioseliani are in Tbilisi laying siege to the Parliament, and no trouble has been reported elsewhere. But, like the creation of a new government, the proclamation was a direct challenge to Gamsakhurdia's authority.
Sigua, named interim prime minister in the new Cabinet being formed by the opposition, had resigned under pressure from Gamsakhurdia's government last August. An engineer by training, Sigua has accused the president of sabotaging Georgia's economy and "wanting to create a closed dictatorial state like Albania where he would rule supreme."
He has advocated close economic ties with the United States, which has treated Gamsakhurdia's ultranational government as a political pariah.
Opposition leaders also said they have decided not to call new parliamentary elections for the 178-seat Supreme Soviet, perhaps a tacit admission that support for Gamsakhurdia remains dangerously strong in much of Georgia.
Speaking to reporters before the creation of the rival government was announced, Gamsakhurdia said that, unless Georgia's political crisis is rapidly brought to an end, "a catastrophe" will result. It was unclear what he could do from his subterranean redoubt to counter opposition efforts to wrest the machinery of government from him.
"I call upon all honest people who value democracy and the principles of democracy to defend the legally elected authorities and stand on our side, so the president will not be toppled," Gamsakhurdia said.
He called his opponents, Sigua included, "a bandit junta created by reactionary forces outside Georgia." He also suggested again that Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin was ultimately to blame. "There is a plot against Georgia, a big plot," Gamsakhurdia asserted, attributing Moscow's enmity to Georgia's decision last month not to join the 11 other former Soviet republics in forming the new Commonwealth of Independent States.
Adversaries of Gamsakhurdia, an academic whose specialty is American literature, accuse him of megalomania, paranoia and tyrannical tendencies.
When asked Thursday how ready he is to ride out the uprising against his rule, Gamsakhurdia replied, "Indefinitely."
He likened himself to Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, who, exactly a year ago this month, was also holed up in his republic's Parliament building waiting for what then seemed like an inevitable assault by Soviet troops.
According to the most recent figures available from the Georgian Health Ministry, at least 71 people have been killed and 350 wounded in the street fighting between pro- and anti-Gamsakhurdia units. But many Georgians believe that the true figures are far higher.