MOSCOW — President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, moving quickly to avert further outbreaks of violent nationalist unrest that could threaten his policy of democratization, rushed Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze to the Republic of Georgia to appeal for calm after at least 17 people were killed in clashes with Soviet security forces.
The Kremlin, in a series of lightning steps aimed at restoring peace to the southern republic, also sent condolences to the families of those killed, declared today an official day of mourning and established a commission to investigate the reasons for the rioting.
But the Foreign Ministry acknowledged that, despite Moscow's efforts, scattered demonstrations continued Monday in the republic's capital of Tbilisi, where the troop presence was beefed up. Armored personnel carriers and tanks were reportedly parked in public squares and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed. A general strike closed schools, stores and factories and halted some mass transit.
The State Department, in a statement issued in Washington on Monday, called on Soviet authorities to use restraint in dealing with "those wishing to exercise their right to peaceful political expression."
"What is at issue here is peaceful political expression," spokesman Richard Boucher said of the demonstrators in Georgia. "We certainly support them in that."
Boucher said the United States was "saddened by the loss of life," a statement echoed by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who had no other comment.
Georgia, lying southeast of Moscow, is the third Soviet republic where nationalist unrest in the past 12 months has led to the dispatch of security forces to restore order, the other two being Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The latest troubles provide further evidence that Moscow has underestimated the extent of the nationalistic emotions unleashed by Gorbachev's policy of glasnost , or openness in politics and debate.
In republics far from Moscow, resentment runs high because the government is dominated by ethnic Russians. That resentment, thanks to glasnost , is now being voiced. Many of the protesters want to preserve their own languages and display their own flags--and some even demand independence from Moscow rule.
The mass demonstrations, sometimes accompanied by threats and violence, are testing the limits of officially permitted openness and providing ammunition for critics who allege that Gorbachev's policy is getting out of hand. More than 90 people were killed in earlier protests in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Annexed in 1921
In Georgia, the latest protests center on demands from nationalists that the republic, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921, be given independence.
"We do not accept the Communist Party in Moscow," one woman at a demonstration in Tbilisi, who declined to give her name, told an American television crew filming in the city last week. Protesters waved Georgian flags remaining from the republic's brief period of independence from 1918 to 1921.
The second issue spurring some protests focuses on secessionist demands from the tiny Black Sea enclave of Abkhazia, whose residents allege discrimination by Georgians. Demonstrations began in Georgia last Tuesday and boiled over early Sunday, when at least 16 protesters, including 10 women and six men, were killed and about 200 people, including 75 Soviet troops, were injured in clashes in Lenin Square in Tbilisi, according to official figures.
One or two other women have died since Sunday of injuries suffered during the demonstration at the Tbilisi government building, bringing the toll to 17 or 18, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov.
The latest violence prompted a ban on travel to Georgia by foreign journalists, and details about the violent protests remain vague.
But some witnesses have alleged in telephone conversations with foreign reporters that troops trying to stop Saturday's demonstrations beat protesters with metal sticks.
Asked about those allegations, Gerasimov told journalists Monday: "You must remember that on the other side they had knifes, metal sticks, bricks and bayonets. So I admit police sticks might have been used."
But he contended that initial reports showed "most of those killed died because they were crushed by the crowds."
Gerasimov said the clashes were sparked by "die-hard nationalists, extremists and political adventurists who are abusing democratization to the detriment of our new policy of openness and of our very society."
The speed of Moscow's reaction to the Georgian protests indicated the seriousness with which it views this threat.
Shevardnadze, who was born in Georgia and once headed the republic's Communist Party, canceled a planned trip to East Germany and flew instead to Tbilisi, a city of 1.2 million. Party personnel chief Georgy P. Razumvosky accompanied him.
The two men sat in on a meeting of the Georgian Communist Party Central Committee, which concluded that the situation in the republic is "extremely tense and in need of urgent measures to stabilize it," the official Tass news agency said.
The region's central committee set up several commissions, including one that will investigate the causes of the incident, Tass said. Shevardnadze then met with Georgian scientists and intellectuals, the news agency reported.