Thursday, September 18, 2008

Russians and Georgians agree: other country's leader is crazy

TBILISI – Most Georgians and most Russians agree on at least one thing: the other country’s leader is crazy.

I talked with a few of each during the 30+ hours of airports and airplanes it took to reach Tbilisi. All of them said they had nothing against the people of the other country, but that its leader – either Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia or President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia – is crazy.

“I think Georgian people are very good people,” said Stanislav, an engineer, waiting in Munich for his flight to his hometown, St. Petersburg. He would not give his last name.

The 25-year-old man said the war was a surprise for Russia. When it began Putin was attending the Olympic Games in Beijing and President Dmitri Medvedev was on vacation.

Georgia was the instigator, he said.

”Saakashvili is a crazy man,” Stanislav said.

His flight to St. Petersburg had been delayed, causing the airport to change its departure gate to one adjacent to the gate from which a Lufthansa flight to Tbilisi was leaving. The flight to Tbilisi was very quickly moved down four gates. A Lufthansa official at the airport said he did not why the flight was moved.

Perhaps airport officials did not want Russians and Georgians sitting forty feet away from each other.

Katie Khitarishvili, an endocrinologist from Tbilisi, said she could not generalize about Russians, adding that some supported the war, while others didn’t.

For her the war – and Georgia’s relations with Russia – had a significant historical context.

Since Georgia became a protectorate of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, Russia has felt a right to control the area, the 39-year-old woman said.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia never had a history of independence, Khitarishvili said.

South Ossetia was made an autonomous republic under the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin, who, like Khitarishvili, was born in Gori, Georgia.

Russians seized Gori shortly after invading Georgia proper in early August. Khitarishvili said she owns a house there, which was slightly damaged.

Thousands of other people in Gori were displaced from their homes, and over 2,000 of them are living in tents in a camp in the city.

“In the 21st century for two presidents to talk in the language of war – this is terrible,” Khitarishvili said.

Nonetheless, she does not want Georgia to give up South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have declared their independence with the Kremlin’s support.

Before the fighting broke out Russia had been issuing Russian passports to inhabitants of the two breakaway provinces.

“One thing I can’t understand is if they want independence, why did they take Russian passports? This isn’t independence, this is going to be with someone else,” she said.

She lived through the country’s civil war in the early 1990s when fighting broke out in the breakaway provinces and a coup d’etat bloodied Tbilisi’s streets. She had never been frightened until the Russian invasion.

“It was the first time in my life when I didn’t know what to do,” Khitarishvili said.

Life in Tbilisi appears more or less normal on the street and in cafes. Most people are going about their normal daily routines, but no one has forgotten that Russian troops still occupy parts of their small country's land.

Thousands of people whose homes have either been destroyed or are in occupied territory are temporarily being housed in kindergarten buildings throughout the city. One official with an international relief organization said there is not proper sanitation in the so-called shelters, where a couple thousand of people have to share ten toilets.

Tbilisi remains a city of contrasts, as it was before the war. New construction abounds, much of it by international hotel chains, while all around are decrepit buildings. The new hotels are clearly aimed at foreigners. A night at the Marriott in Tbilisi costs several times more than what the average Georgian makes a month.

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