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Georgia's Future Uncertain After Flight of President

WITH President Zviad Gamsakhurdia gone, opposition leaders in Georgia are contemplating the Transcaucasian republic's political and economic future. And by all appearances, building a new society will prove much tougher than destroying the existing order.

Much of central Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, was still smoldering Jan. 7, a day after Mr. Gamsakhurdia, his family, and about 100 supporters fled the city following two weeks of devastating street battles. Gamsakhurdia, accused by the opposition of trying to establish a dictatorship, was in the Armenian city of Idzhevan while local officials considered a request for asylum, the Tass news agency said.

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Back in Tbilisi, the opposition said Gamsakhurdia's departure would give democracy a chance to take root in Georgia, the only former Soviet republic outside the Baltics not in the new Commonwealth of Independent States.

"Today, Jan. 6, the new democratic Georgia has been born," said Tengiz Kitovani, a leader of the revolt against Gamsakhurdia.

Djaba Ioseliani, leader of the Mkhedrioni, a paramilitary opposition faction, said preparations were underway to hold parliamentary elections in the spring. A military council of opposition factions is currently in charge, rebel leaders said.

Rebuilding the republic and creating a democracy will take time, says former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Mr. Shevardnadze is a native Georgian who served as Georgian KGB chief and Communist Party boss before moving to Moscow.

"It will be a very difficult and painful process given the shattered economy, the exhausted resources, and the huge suffering of the people," Shevardnadze said in a television interview Jan. 6. He added he was willing to return to his homeland to help with democratization.

Opposition leaders, particularly Georgi Chanturia, who heads the National Democratic Party, have reacted coolly to Shevardnadze's proposed return. Though Shevardnadze enjoys a reputation as a democrat, some opposition members link him to the era of communist repression.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chanturia is pressing for the creation of a constitutional monarchy. Georgia was a monarchy before it was annexed by Russia in the early 19th century. The royal family lives in exile in Spain.

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Despite all the talk, reviving the democratic tradition established during Georgia's period of independence from 1918 to 1920 will be difficult under the present circumstances, says Vladimir Dolin, a historian in Moscow.

"Right now there are many armed groups and that will probably hinder the growth of democracy," says Mr. Dolin.

"The only true democrats in Georgia can be found in the small group of intelligentsia," he continues. "But they are not politicians, and besides they have no weapons."

Dolin characterizes the anti-Gamsakhurdia effort more as a struggle for power than a democratic uprising. Indeed, many opposition leaders were staunch allies of Gamsakhurdia only 18 months ago, when he led the "Round Table" movement, an umbrella group opposing the then-Communist leadership of Georgia. The coalition quickly crumbled following the overwhelming Round Table parliamentary election victory late last year, followed by Gamsakhurdia's election as president in May.

Gamsakhurdia's departure has shown how fickle the opposition can be. Mr. Ioseliani, the Mkhedrioni leader, said the opposition allowed Gamsakhurdia to flee, according to Tass. But now Ioseliani and others say they will press for Gamsakhurdia's extradition if he is granted asylum in another former Soviet republic.

Dolin said the dislike for Gamsakhurdia is the only thing keeping the opposition together.

"The opposition is varied and the shared hate for Gamsakhurdia probably can't keep them united for long," he says. "I fear that after a while, events may again take on a forceful character."

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