Taming the unruly people of Georgia: Moscow still has 'imperial ambitions' on his country, Eduard Shevardnadze tells Hugh Pope in Tbilisi

THE HELICOPTER skiing is still said to be great in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. But hanging round the lobby of Tbilisi's best hotel one evening recently, guests on the weekly charter flight from Vienna discovered why trips to the former Soviet republic are so inexpensive just now.

First shouts, then shots, rang out. One man lay on the marble floor, his face bleeding. Another man wildly waved a pistol, dragging a second body towards the revolving door.

It was not a scene to inspire faith in Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgia, although Fred Wieland, manager of the pristine Austrian-owned hotel, showed the same cool that the former Soviet foreign minister has had to master to deal with his unruly country of 5.4 million people.

Rallying his unarmed security guards, Mr Wieland herded the evening's drunken episode of army officers vs the mafia into the courtyard. A few more pistol shots popped out and within minutes the lobby settled back into its fountain-fed calm. Amazingly, nobody seemed badly hurt. 'It's a great country, a great people, great prospects,' Mr Wieland said later. 'The trouble is, weapons and alcohol are a bad combination. And the wine here is very good.' He did not have to add that weapons were in plentiful supply: his hotel has a separate desk for guests to check in their guns.

Mr Shevardnadze seemed under few illusions either. Rubbing his famous pale face into a smile that folds up everything except the black points of his pupils, whose steady gaze never ceases to appraise his visitors, he described his main problem as 'the nature of the Georgian people'.

That is just the start of it. Six months after Georgians elected him chairman of parliament and transitional chief executive until elections under a new constitution due in 1995, Mr Shevardnadze is virtually the only force holding Georgia together.

Celebrated for his role in freeing Eastern Europe from Moscow, Mr Shevardnadze is locked in his own struggle with Russia over the only issue that seems to unite the Georgians: rejection of a return to two centuries of Russian rule.

Mr Shevardnadze's fame won help from President Bill Clinton at the Vancouver summit - Boris Yeltsin's ear was bent to Mr Shevardnadze's complaints about Russian attacks - but it has earned him only a small stream of Western aid, much of it from a Germany grateful for reunification. 'If Russia could have just pursued a sensible policy towards us, we would not have this instability at all,' Mr Shevardnadze said, complaining more sharply than ever of Russia's 'imperial ambition' to stay in the Transcaucasus.

Moscow has easily exploited Georgia's natural anarchy, which has brought separatist revolt to most of regions of the country. First the Russians quietly backed South Ossetia against Tbilisi. Then they helped rebels in Abkhazia, ordering in air strikes against Georgian positions at the height of eight months of fighting in the once-rich Black Sea autonomous republic.

This month, Moscow cut off its supply of roubles, forcing Georgia to issue coupons. With trade at a minimum and no foreign currency reserves, specialists fear all Georgia's roubles will bleed out to buy black-market fuel and food from neighbouring republics. 'We are under financial blockade,' Mr Shevardnadze said.

Georgians fear the country's second autonomous republic, Adjaria, may be next. The Muslim territory on the Turkish border is quiet, but Russia and the Adjarian leadership have recently made threatening statements about mutual interests and Black Sea ports.

Russia could also try to destabilise the alliance of warlords and democrats who support Mr Shevardnadze, notably the Defence Minister, Tengiz Kitovani, who is thought to have the sympathy of at least half Georgia's 15,000 fighting men.

Despite all this, Georgian politicians speak optimistically, pointing out that Mr Shevardnadze remains popular and has succeeded at least in calming the civil war which broke out during the overthrow of the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and wrecked Tbilisi's picturesque centre. 'Without this, we could be a banana republic, shooting at each other. Shevardnadze tries to make emotions calm,' said Irina Sarishvili, a democrat activist in the 234-seat, 25-party parliament. 'People think him too much of a compromiser. But he has to make some kind of a balance.'

Quietly, Mr Shevardnadze hopes to start training a new army to replace the loosely organised bands of troops fighting in Abkhazia. Some diplomats discern a new sense of military discipline. Others say the country is far from facing reality.

Many Georgians believe that the crisis is a brief, nightmarish interlude, from which their country will soon awake to the relative wealth it enjoyed under Russian rule. Few understand that Georgia is staring into an abyss. Output per head is down to dollars 60 ( pounds 38) a year, and fell 45 per cent last year alone. Agriculture is in a mess. Trade routes are cut by fighting and plagued by bandits. Supplies of energy and raw materials are between one tenth and half of normal levels.

'Formerly one of the richest republics of the Soviet Union, the country stands on the brink of catastrophe in the spring of 1993,' are the cold words of one German official report. 'Without normalisation with Russia . . . and unless Georgia can get access to raw materials and energy before the second half of the year, the economy will collapse.'

(Photograph omitted)

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