A STUNNING election victory by nationalists in Soviet Georgia means that another piece of the Soviet Union has begun to slip out of President Mikhail Gorbachev's grasp. Regular visitors to the warm southern republic became convinced this was inevitable after the Soviet Army killed 20 peaceful demonstrators on April 9, 1989.
At the first anniversary of the event this past April, more than 300,000 grim-faced people walked in silence through the night up and down Rustaveli Avenue past the scene of the killings, strewing millions of red carnations along their route.
The republic's Communist government under Givi Gumbaridze, postponed the scheduled elections ``for security reasons'' and managed to cling a little longer onto power. Mr. Gumbaridze is the republic's former chief of the KGB, the Soviet secret police.
Today the Communists must face a new reality. The statues of Vladimir Lenin have all been pulled down, and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a veteran nationalist campaigner, has wrenched away their power by winning 54 percent of the popular vote in elections on Oct. 28.
With a second round still to come, his Round Table of Free Georgia, an alliance of seven political groups, drew double the Communists' vote and could occupy 70 percent of seats in the Supreme Soviet.
The new leadership is not yet clear. Mr. Gamsakhurdia, a philologist who has translated Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot into Georgian, says he is not ``playing presidential games.'' He will wait until after Round 2 on Nov. 11 before making decisions.
Gamsakhurdia is tall, silver haired, and distinguished looking, often dressed in a white suit, always noticeable. He joined the nationalist cause in 1956 at age 17. He has spent time in detention. His father was rich and the son moves with armed bodyguards. Middle-aged Georgian women are said to adore him. Intellectuals dismissed him as a mere populist, a rabble rouser.