Georgia's intellectuals seek to save their nation

THE TRAGEDY of Georgia hit the heart of national consciousness yesterday as the country's most famous actors, musicians and artists united in the vaulted lobbies of Tbilisi's main theatre for a first joint stand to defend what remains of their battered former Soviet republic.

The Georgian intellectual elite clustered gloomily around columns at the entrance to the Rustaveli Theatre or inside the gilt-and-red velvet playhouse itself, listening to urges to action from leaders perched on kitchen chairs on the bare boards of the stage. There was little good news to be heard.

After the loss of the rebel republic of Abhkazia last week, another set of rebels in western Georgia loyal to the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, expanded their area of control with the capture yesterday of the small town of Khoni near Kutaisi. The key port of Poti was taken on Saturday by the 'Zviadistis' and the Tbilisi government is now virtually cut off from the Black Sea and its main source of food and relief supplies from Europe.

To make matters worse, the government says up to 40,000 Georgians displaced from Abkhazia may still be trapped in the 5,000ft mountains of Svanetia. The strongest are still picking their way to safety along slushy tracks between large trees, clutching cloaks or pieces of plastic to fend off icy cold and flurries of snow. At least 20 of the weakest have died, said Vata Georgikia, a spokesman for the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze.

'One of our staff from Abkhazia was walking with a woman who died of a haemorrhage while having twins. He carried the boys but they died. It was just too cold,' Mr Georgika said, repeating Mr Shevardnadze's appeals for food, clothing and helicopter fuel. The government counts a total 200,000 displaced Georgians who once made up nearly half the population of Abkhazia.

All Georgians blame the national disaster on Russian efforts to destroy their two-year-old independence, but Mr Shevardnadze was reduced to begging for Moscow's help on Saturday to open a security corridor for those trapped in the mountains so that they could come back down into Abkhazia and then out into Georgia. A Russian Foreign Ministry official arrived in Tbilisi to discuss a Russian proposal to send a peace- keeping force to Georgia. 'We have no other way,' said Mr Georgika.

Georgia is indeed in a sorry state. The Georgian army has virtually disappeared since its defeat in Abkhazia and state television has been reduced to making calls for soldiers to return to their barracks. But the hundreds of actors, musicians and artists who met in Tbilisi were determined to defend their city.

Shouting and arguing in a smoky back room, directors of theatres, musical academies and schools agreed to set up an emergency network that would organise themselves and their students for civil or even armed action in the event that supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Tbilisi should try to challenge Mr Shevardnadze's government.

'We defend the city first of all. We need peace, and it is our determination to keep together and to keep order in our institutions,' said Nodar Gaburnia, a pianist, composer and director of the Tbilisi Musical Conservatory. 'We are being severely punished for seeking our independence. That is our only guilt.'

But aside from the ground-breaking gesture, it was hard to know what the intellectuals could do other than raise their own morale. The young activists around Mr Shevardnadze are talking tough, but the fact remains that Mr Gamsakhurdia's forces appear to be gathering strength and apparently advance at will.

'We are all soldiers of conscience,' said a tall man with a regal bearing who turned out to be Vano Iantbelidze, lead actor of the Telavi Theatre, whose last stage role was Pirandello's Henry IV. 'But I admit I've never killed a chicken in my life and I've only ever been a soldier in films.'