Georgian President Toughens Public Line Harsh Civil Conflicts Are Drawing Shevardnadze into Nationalist Rhetoric - a Reporter's Notebook

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GEORGIAN parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze looks very much as he did in his days as Soviet foreign minister. The familiar shock of gray hair still sits atop his balding head, he flashes the same disarming smile, and he speaks with the same, deliberate, diplomatic cadence that he used when he was the top Soviet envoy from 1985 to 1991.

But local political observers say Georgia's internecine struggles - the Abkhazian civil war in particular - have caused noticeable changes in Mr. Shevardnadze since his return in March to lead the Georgian provisional government.

"He seems to have lost his diplomatic touch. He uses nationalistic rhetoric that he would never have used before," says Sergei Chornikh, a reporter for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

During a news conference on the eve of the parliamentary elections Oct. 11, Mr. Shevardnadze raised a few eyebrows with some un-diplomatic diatribes. In one instance, he called the so-called Confederation of Mountain Peoples in southern Russia a "fundamentalist-terrorist organization."

Volunteers from the confederation are fighting for Abkhazian partisans, who have been struggling since August to break away from Georgia. Shevardnadze says he wants a peaceful solution, but he has made it clear he is prepared to fight, even against Russia. "We won't give our land away to anyone," he says.

Some experts say they were surprised when Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia, where he was Communist Party boss prior to becoming Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister. They say he seems daunted by the political and economic chaos.

"The big mystery is why would he agree to do it," says Prof. Darrell Slider of the University of South Florida, a specialist on Georgian politics. "Partly he enjoys being in the limelight. But he also wants to do things that really affect people, and sitting around in retirement and writing books just don't do it for him. …