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Poor Josef Stalin.

The once all-powerful dictator, sculpted on the facade of the Institute of Party History here, has white paint resembling runny marshmallow dribbling from his walrus mus-tache down the front of his coat.A few feet away on the same building, martyred revolutionaries who fought for Soviet rule in the Caucasus region have lost their faces to vandals' chisels.

Just down Rustaveli Boulevard, the main drag in Tbilisi, a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin is still standing - but just barely. Georgian Communist Party chief Givi Gumbaridze and some comrades blocked a recent attempt by hooligans to drag it off.

It is reputedly the last Lenin statue left on its feet in this southwestern republic of 5 million people.

Since Soviet troops sent in with Politburo approval killed 19 protesters in Tbilisi one year ago, it's been hard to be a Communist in Georgia.

Vazha Gurgenidze, ideology secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, said that for days after last year's April 9 clash, "I couldn't look my children in the eyes."

Although he helped evacuate the wounded from the square, the attack can morally be pinned on the Communist Party and "it will always be with us," he said in his office in the imposing, golden-marbled Central Committee building.

Gurgenidze denied that Georgia's Communist Party is under siege, saying its membership of 400,000 has even risen slightly. But after the clash and the resulting furor, "We felt immediately that we couldn't go on as we had been. We had to go with the people," he said.

The party supports calls for eventual Georgian independence. Party officials even laid wreaths at the graves of the victims before anniversary protests last week.

But Georgia's many independence activists say the Communist Party is a thing of the past and is a passive caretaker until elections this fall.

Even the official Soviet news agency Tass commented on a "certain vacuum of power" in the Caucasus republic.

Unlike in the Baltic republics, where well-organized popular movements have stepped in to replace discredited Communists, the Georgian political scene is a hodgepodge of splinter parties.

In the past year, and particularly since the Georgian Supreme Soviet legalized a multiparty system last month, about 120 parties have sprouted by Gurgenidze's count.

Among the most prominent is the Georgian Popular Front, whose leader, Nodar Natadze, is trying to persuade radicals that they should run for the republic's parliament.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former political prisoner now considered the dean of Georgia's dissidents, said he believes Georgia will be the fourth of the 15 Soviet republics to secede. "As soon as the Baltic states have independence, Georgia will too," he said.

Lithuania's March 11 declaration of independence "encourages us, it gives us force and it gives us hope," he added.

But activists also acknowledge that Georgia faces some special obstacles.

The republic includes three autonomous regions - Abkhazia, Adzharia and Southern Ossetia - and disputes over their status have led to several violent ethnic clashes in the last year. In the bloodiest, more than 20 people died in fighting between Georgians and Abkhazians last summer.

According to the law on secession passed this month, such autonomous regions have enormous say on whether - and on what terms - a republic can leave the Soviet Union.

Also, Georgia, unlike the Baltic republics, does not have widespread international recognition that it was forcibly annexed, although it is acknowledged that it joined the Soviet Union in 1921 while occupied by the Red Army.

But what Georgians do have is a "Don't-tread-on-me" attitude.