MOSCOW — The people of the southern Soviet republic of Georgia danced in the streets and wept with joy Tuesday as their legislature formally declared independence from the Kremlin.
The proclamation came on the second anniversary of an attack by Soviet soldiers on unarmed civilians, which killed 20 people and rallied the Georgians around the pro-secession movement.
A rally had originally been called to mourn the deaths in 1989 in what is known as the "Tbilisi Massacre." Instead, the crowd rejoiced at the unexpected news of the independence declaration.
"This will be the day of restoration of Georgian independence because it was on this day that people taking part in a demonstration perished in the struggle for freedom and independence," Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the republic's political prisoner-turned-president, said in a television interview.
More than 100,000 people filled the streets in front of the House of Government in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, according to officials.
The independence declaration came 10 days after nearly 99% of Georgian voters cast ballots in favor of secession.
"It means we are a legally independent country," said Roman Gotsiridze, a member of the Georgian legislature. "But until Moscow pulls out its army, we are not completely independent."
The legislature sent a telegram informing President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of its vote.
But in Moscow, Gorbachev had no official reaction, according to spokesman Vitaly N. Ignatenko.
"We have a constitution and a constitutional framework in which a nation's will for secession, for declarations of independence can be expressed," Ignatenko said.
The process takes at least five years.
Officials in Georgia as well as in the southern republic of Moldova and the Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--have indicated that they do not intend to wait for their independence.
At the same time, Georgians and pro-Moscow Ossetians are battling over an area in Georgia known as the Southern Ossetia Autonomous Region.
Georgia had announced last autumn that it was starting a transitional phase to independence instead of immediately declaring a break with the Soviet Union.
Representatives of the three Baltic states recently met with Kremlin officials about their intentions to leave the Soviet Union.
"This is a good start," Ignatenko commented. "Conversations already have been good. Everything should go well."
Lithuania, which declared independence little more than a year ago, had been the only Soviet republic to declare full independence before Tuesday's vote by Georgia's legislature. Moscow retaliated with a blockade of food, fuel and other necessities.
The announcement sent to Gorbachev by the Georgian legislature asserted that Georgia was "restoring" its independence "on the basis of the act of independence from May 26, 1918," which followed the breakup of the Russian Empire.
In 1921, as the Bolsheviks solidified their control over czarist lands, they occupied Georgia's capital. The next year, Georgia was declared part of the Soviet Union.
Some Soviet experts predict that Gorbachev will take much more aggressive action against Georgia than he has against the Baltics, whose forcible annexation in 1940 by the Kremlin has never been recognized by the United States and some other Western nations.