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Georgians vote in shadow of war

The first to hold multiparty elections and the first to topple its elected president, Georgia today also will become the first former Soviet republic to hold a second national ballot. But after two bloody conflicts and a brutal new one shaping in the region called Abkhazia, this time there is no jubilation.

The outcome of the voting is known to all. Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and leader of the provisional Georgian State Council, is certain to win an overwhelming electoral endorsement for his leadership from this nation, which has found in its former Communist boss the lone anchor in a whirlwind of conflict and grief.

Nobody here, and least of all Shevardnadze, conceals the fear that the elections are very likely to be followed quickly by war.

The collapse of a cease-fire in the mutinous coastal province of Abkhazia put Georgia on the edge of a civil war against Abkhaz nationalists backed by militant Muslims from the north Caucasus range, Russian reactionaries, and a variety of mercenaries from across the crumbled Soviet empire.

"I cannot say our mood is festive before these elections," a somber and tired Shevardnadze said at a news conference Saturday.

He repeated what he has said in recent days, that he will continue seeking a political resolution of the conflict to the end.

"But the chances for a political settlement have significantly decreased," he added. He said the new Parliament's first act after the election would be to form a military council.

The current governing state council was formed in January by the political forces that drove out independent Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The council's dubious legal position has been one of the forces tying Shevardnadze's hands in the current crisis.

The elections are technically for a new Parliament. But in a curious improvisation, Shevardnadze is running separately and nationally for the post of speaker. That in effect would make him the popularly elected leader of Georgia, with a legitimate popular mandate.

His expected victory will be a remarkable return for a politician who made his mark in Georgia first as a ruthless police chief and then as the Communist Party boss. After he left in 1985 to become Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister and comrade in reform, few thought he would ever dare return.

"When he was an orthodox Communist, I was totally against him," said Akaky Bakradze, a writer, member of the State Council and honored veteran of the independence struggle. "That he was a Communist may not be forgiven, but it's overlooked now. Now we see him as the man who played a key role in dismantling the Soviet Union. He came back a different man. I think his contact with the West in all those years played a big role in changing him."