TBILISI, U.S.S.R. -- Following a string of defiant gestures, the republic of Georgia's nationalist parliament voted this week to create its own army, signaling to Moscow that it would meet strong resistance if it tried to crush Georgia's independence movement.
From President Zviad Gamsakhurdia on down, the government boasts that its people are intemperate, armed and unwilling to relinquish any of the gains in autonomy made over the the past two years.
On Tuesday, the parliament approved the creation of a Georgian National Guard. Gamsakhurdia said he expects the initial force to consist of 12,000 and to be under the control of the Georgian Interior Ministry. The National Guard would join the ministry's 20,000 troops and policemen to form what Gamsakhurdia boasted would be "a real army."
That decision represented a two-fold challenge to the Kremlin. A law passed here last December exempted Georgians from conscription into the Soviet army. Similar laws passed in the Baltic states provided Moscow with an excuse to move paratroops into Lithuania and Latvia. But far from rescinding that law, the Georgian parliament has now introduced the draft for its own competing army.
Gamsakhurdia said that if Moscow should choose to try a Vilnius-style crackdown in Georgia, the result would be quite different. Georgia is "united," he said, with no significant number of pro-Soviet ethnic Russians to help the Kremlin or form parallel governments on the model of Lithuania's pro-Moscow National Salvation Committee.
"It would be the Kremlin versus the whole population," said Gamsakhurdia, predicting that a guerrilla war would follow, "like in Afghanistan." The parliament has voted unanimously on all issues touching independence since elections in November.
The easy availability of arms is immediately visible to a foreign visitor in Tbilisi. The Georgian hostess of one of the city's better restaurants, suggested an upstairs room for fear of a brawl, miming a gun with her hand. Halfway through the meal, an uproar began downstairs, with the smashing of bottles, the thump of overturned tables and the explosion of gunfire.
In the corridors of the Tbilisi Intourist Hotel, Georgian men compared pistols without embarrassment. "Most of the population is armed," said Interior Minister Dilari Khabuliani.
He said the stock of private weaponry had been growing since "things became political," meaning since April 9, 1989, when Soviet army troops used poison gas and sharpened shovels to subdue a pro-independence demonstration in Tbilisi, killing 19 civilians. Most of the weapons here were sold by the army, he said, or came from other Soviet republics or Turkey.
The tactic of appeasing Moscow seems largely to have been abandoned. Each of the recent Soviet decrees that Russian liberals and nationalists in the republics believe are marching the Soviet Union back to austere centralized control has been condemned by the Georgian government. In another unanimous vote on Tuesday, the parliament condemned the order by Moscow's defense and interior ministries that Soviet troops join local police in city patrols throughout the country starting today.
President Mikhail Gorbachev's recent monetary reform, invalidating 50- and 100-ruble notes, has come under attack from the Georgian finance minister, Guram Absundze, as "not really a reform but an order that will make no difference to our financial policy." He said it was "physically and politically impossible to refuse" the currency decree, but added, "We will do everything possible to help change all the money Georgians have."
Illegal earnings would be "a little harder, but we think there will be few losses," Absundze said. He noted that the "workers' committees" which would judge who could exchange more than one month's pay in large notes would consist of Georgians. "The people of Georgia should not lose a kopeck," he said.
His greatest fear, Absundze said, was that Moscow might retaliate against Georgian intransigence with a total economic blockade to throttle the already weakening Georgian economy. That, he said, would be "worse than tanks." Since December, he said, Moscow had subjected Georgia to a "partial blockade," causing oil and energy shortages in the republic.
Absundze said he hopes to create a separate banking system and a Georgian currency within three years, and added that the government has begun to collect the gold needed to support it.
Most Georgians, however, are more worried about army tanks, and the possibility that ethnic conflicts between Georgians and the separatist Ossetian minority 90 miles from Tbilisi could cause disorder that Moscow would use as a reason to send them in.
Georgia's Interior Ministry has withdrawn the bulk of its militia from the region, as Gorbachev demanded in a decree issued Jan. 7. It also has permitted joint patrols by Soviet Interior Ministry troops and its remaining militiamen.
Yet violence in the area appears to be escalating again and the parliament is having second thoughts about whether the militia should have been withdrawn.
For public consumption, at least, Gamsakhurdia was undaunted at the prospect of army intervention in Georgia. "Our people are prepared," he said.