TBILISI, U.S.S.R. -- These days, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his fat-necked bodyguard with the automatic tucked under his armpit strut outside the local KGB headquarters like they own it. Children chalk the words "Out Communist Vipers!" on the walls. Never mind the high-minded talk of free markets and liberty in Moscow. Such is the clenched face of democracy in the southern republic of Georgia, where the most unlikely reformers have flourished.

The most popular political leader in the republic, Gamsakhurdia led his followers from the Helsinki Union and the Society of St. Ilya the Righteous on a midnight raid of the KGB last month, breaking through the gate, kicking in all the electronic equipment and carting off crates of classified documents. Now Gamsakhurdia stands outside the building on the street, laughing.

"We terrorized them and no one resisted! We'll make a museum out of this place," he says. "They couldn't defend themselves because they fear us. Soviet power has disintegrated in Georgia. The Communists are finished. They cannot tell us what to do. They are afraid. All Georgians now are armed."

Across town on Rustaveli Boulevard, Gamsakhurdia's main rival for power, Giorgi Chanturia of the National Democratic Party, roams through his headquarters, inspecting the previous night's damage: bullet holes in the ceiling and the windows; files toppled; furniture reduced to cinder and ash. Chanturia's face reddens and his neck flares like a bullfrog's. "If Gamsakhurdia wants civil war," he says, "he will get civil war! He isn't the only one with arms." Chanturia confides that Soviet army troops sell pistols for 5,000 rubles on the black market.

At Communist Party headquarters, First Secretary Givi Gumbaridze is, against all odds, trying to sell the party as the "force of reform, unity and compromise." The republic is holding multi-party elections late this month and Gumbaridze, a former head of the Georgian KGB, is the communists' last chance. He makes it ostentatiously clear that he knows "the sort of people" his vistors have been meeting with all week. "And I'd advise you not to listen to their shouting," he says across the polished mahogany. He does not smile.

As for the storming of the KGB building, Gumbaridze says, the government's seeming inability to resist such "is not a display of weakness, but of the moral strength of the political leadership and the ruling party." Suddenly the leader of a party of tyranny is taking the moral high ground. It is probably too late.

From a distance, perhaps, the independence movements in the various republics seem about the same: anti-Moscow, pro-democracy. Velvet revolutions all around. But while the Baltic revolutions really did have, even at their worst moments, the outward serenity of a New England anti-nuke protest, the current multi-party election campaign in Georgia seems to have all the democratic spirit of a war between the Corleones and the Tattaglias.

There is something tragic as well as dangerous about the chaotic state of politics in Georgia, the homeland of Joseph Stalin and his notorious secret-police chief, Lavrenti Beria. The part of the liberal intelligentsia here that was hoping for a triumph of reason now finds itself chilled by buffoonery and the constant threat of violence.

"I am really afraid. There is extremism everywhere you go," says Tengiz Abuladze, director of an extraordinary film about the Stalin era, "Repentance." Abuladze is so fearful of an escalation of factional violence and of the Communist Party's ability to react with force that, he says, Georgia "probably needs someone like Pinochet in Chile." Strange and frightened words for a hero of democratic reform.

There are now well over 100 parties, fronts and political groupings in Georgia. The lunatic fringes are well represented, most recently by the newly registered Stalin Party led by the former head of Georgian state television and a World War II veteran. Chanturia and his supporters are boycotting this month's parliamentary elections, contending they do little more than help "prop up Gorbachev's attempt to maintain the old structures and hang on to the empire."

Georgia is a republic of 5.5 million people, a favorite of poets of landscape since the days of Lermontov. Despite seven decades of Soviet power and architecture, Tbilisi has managed to retain a sense of character and style. Ivy vines have a way of bringing life even to the concrete apartment blocks of the Bolshevik architects. People dress better here than perhaps anywhere else in the country -- clear evidence of the republic's efficient black market. The villages, too, are relatively prosperous. The weather is mild, the soil decent. More than half of all the private farms in the Soviet Union are in Georgia.

As in many other Soviet republics, the Gorbachev reforms gave voice to a longing for independence -- a faint memory from 1918 to 1921. But the movement in Georgia remained diffuse until April 9, 1989, when Soviet troops, brandishing clubs, shovels and poisonous gas, rampaged through a peaceful demonstration and killed 20 people, 14 of them women. Subsequent government investigations revealed that high-ranking Politburo members such as Yegor Ligachev, Marshal Dmitri Yazov and ex-KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov ordered the assault. Gorbachev himself managed to escape blame.

"What followed was what you could call the unified, or romantic, period of the Georgian independence movement," says Eldar Shengelaya, a filmmaker who shot horrifying footage of the April 9 massacre. "April 9 made it clear who the common enemies were: Moscow and the Communist Party."

Shortly after the incident, I arrived in Tbilisi and watched the endless stream of mourners at the city's biggest Georgian Orthodox Church as they lay piles of flower in front of the portraits of the dead. Nervous, angry groups gathered in front of the government building, tossed funeral carnations on the steps and swore revenge.

At a drafty city hospital where demonstrators were recovering from the effects of the poisonous gas, a young theater worker named Zurab Gabrielashvili told me, "I saw friends of mine killed in front of my eyes, dying from the gas and soldiers hitting everyone with shovels and clubs. When you go through something like that, you grow stronger. Something has begun and it will not stop until we are a free state." A young man named David Lontadze rose up in his bed and said, "This was our national tragedy, but it was also our breakthrough moment."

In the following months, the generation of human-rights activists who cut their teeth in the Brezhnev era began to gain political force. Gamsakhurdia was one, certainly, but his reputation was stained by an incident in 1977 when he was arrested for distributing "anti-Soviet" literature and then apologized for his "mistakes" on television.

Georgia's real moral and political leader was Merab Kostava, a music professor and human-rights activist who refused to recant after the 1977 arrests and spent more than a decade in labor camps and Siberian exile. "He was our prince, our giant," says Georgian Popular Front leader Nodar Notadze, who keeps several pictures of Kostava taped to his wall.

Last October, Kostava and two young activists were driving at night on a winding road in western Georgia. They crashed into a car approaching from the opposite direction. All three died. Since then, the Georgian independence movement has fractured badly. No one believes Kostava's death was an accident. Notadze blames the Communist government. Gamsakhurdia and Chanturia blame each other. At the same time, all sides try to claim the name of Merab Kostava.

Thomas Gamkhrelidze, a deputy in the Congress of People's Deputies and the director of Tbilisi's Oriental Institute, says, "We have passed through the romantic stage and now we are in what I call the 'Afghanistan period' of Georgia. In Afghanistan, all the opposition groups unified against the common invader -- the Soviet Union. Now that the invader is gone, the opposition fractured into pieces. Here the picture is the same."

The Georgian election campaign would do the creators of the Willie Horton ad proud. A few nights ago, Chanturia went on television and said he had "tapes and documents" that would prove Gamsakhurdia's collusion with the KGB. Gamsakhurdia and the KGB, he said, are working together to stir up violence to give the central authorities in Moscow an excuse to crack down and "keep the empire going."

Chanturia challenged Gamsakhurdia to a televised debate. Gamsakhurdia refused. "I don't talk with crazy people," he said. As for the accusations of conspiracy, Gamsakhurdia said, "If tomorrow my people and I were to take over the Kremlin and hang Gorbachev and his aides, Chanturia would say we did it on Kremlin orders."

The day after his broadcast, Chanturia was ecstatic: "It was a major hit. Gamsakhurdia immediately called a meeting of his people and said they will declare war on us. The war begins tomorrow morning." Chanturia boasts, "Soon Gamsakhurdia will be a political corpse."

Chanturia is, at 31, 28 years younger than his rival, and has been active in various independence groups since he was a teenager. He's spent time in jail -- a critical credential -- and has the support of many of the city's younger intellectuals and some big-name activists in Moscow like Alexander Podrabinek, the editor of Express-Khronika. And yet, at least in mannerism, he is his enemy's mirror image, full of swagger, full of conspiracy talk. At an afternoon rally at the local university, he makes a Castro-length speech wearing dark sunglasses and a sleeveless denim vest.

Neither man seems to live the life of Gandhi. Gamsakhurdia is the son of the republic's best-loved modern writer and lives in a glorious house in the center of town that is well protected by an iron and brick gate and an ever present team of bodyguards. Chanturia, for his part, mocks his rival ("he lives on his father's legacy"), but when I ask him how he and his wife get by, Chanturia says, "Well, our parents support us." When a waiter brings a bottle of lemon vodka over from another table -- "A gift from the gentleman!" -- Chanturia nods solemnly as if it were his due as a political boss. Quiet flows the Don.

The problem for Georgia is that Chanturia and Gamsakhurdia seem determined to put personality and revenge before the most difficult questions to face the republic in decades. Foremost is the economic issue. Georgia relies on imports from the other 14 republics for all its gas and oil, 82 percent of its timber, 94 percent of its grain, 40 percent of its meat, 93 percent of its steel. In the long term, Georgia may develop into a prosperous independent country, but how is it going to happen? With whom will it trade? While such questions were at the center of attention in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, most of Georgia's radical leaders waffle on the big questions. "They'd rather fight," film director Abuladze says.

All of which leaves two factions, both with doubtful popular support: the moderate Georgian Popular Front and the Communist Party. (The Stalinists, so far, appeal -- mercifully -- to a small number of nostalgic veterans and retired party officials who lust for the return of the "iron hand.")

Popular Front leader Nodar Notadze, 61, is "saddened" by the continuing conflicts among the radicals. A mild-mannered professor of philosophy in a place that demands a firebrand, he seems in despair, showing no faith in the radicals at home or the reformers in Moscow. "Gorbachev just wants to save his empire by modernizing it." he says. "You see, no man of my age can believe Gorbachev is a real democrat. My generation watched Khrushchev, who played for a while at being a democrat. The process of 'democratization' is really just the process of weakening. The empire found it could no longer challenge the world as it once did, so it had to adopt some of the judicial norms of a genuine state and that is all."

The Communist Party is a more complicated case. Following the April 9 massacre, Moscow relied on Foreign Minister, and former Georgian party chief, Eduard Shevardnadze to calm the situation here and install someone in power with a chance of holding on to it. Shevardnadze's choice, the 45-year-old Gumbaridze, has since followed a strategy that might be described as Communist Party judo. Instead of sounding aggressive and throwing his weight around, he is trying to turn the agitated atmosphere in Tbilisi to his advantage.

Gumbaridze is smooth, serious, intent on presenting his own image as stability itself. "The absence of political culture you see here is the result of the dictatorship and military reign that was here for so long," he says. "But now many of the parties mirror the previous regime. They want a monopoly on power, they are absolutist."

Whereas the Communist Party of Georgia -- late of Stalin and Beria and April 9 -- is now "the consolidation of reformist forces," he says. "The party has rid itself of the stereotypes of the past and stands for the most progressive ideals in society and for economic and political transformation, for national and spiritual development."

Chanturia for one can no longer "bear to hear" such words and equates them with the center-left alliance that has formed, if bumpily, in Moscow between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Once more, Chanturia sees conspiracy in the air. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are "secretly cooperating" to continue the "enslavement" of the non-Russian republics. How does Chanturia know? Neither he nor his political rivals are called on their rhetoric.

"You're going to have to trust me on this," he says.