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Hope And Despair On The Streets Of Tbilisi

  • Brian Whitmore

Georgians protesting outside the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi.

TBILISI -- By evening, the rubbish was piling up in front of the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi. There were pots and pans. There were dishes and cutlery. An old refrigerator and a stovetop. A smashed television set.

A young Georgian man, a native of Abkhazia who fled to Tbilisi with his family more than 15 years ago, explained the symbolism. When Russian soldiers looted civilians' homes during their incursion into Georgia, they took everything, even toilet seats.

"Since they seem to like such things so much, we decided to help them out and bring them more," he said.

About 200 people gathered at the embassy on the night of August 26 to protest Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's announcement earlier in the day that Moscow would recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

The demonstrators waved Georgian flags. They chanted "Freedom – Yes!" They taunted the Russian soldiers standing guard behind the embassy gates. They carried placards reading: "Today It's Us. Who Will It Be Tomorrow?" and "Say No To Russian Fascism." They made speeches in Georgian and Russian.

Drivers passing by honked their horns and shouted words of support -- apparently undisturbed by the fact that the protestors spilled off the sidewalk and into the street, clogging rush hour traffic.

Lost All Hope

Prominent among the demonstrators were internally displaced persons, or IDPs, from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some 250,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians, were driven from their homes in Abkhazia when the Moscow-backed province broke free from Tbilisi's control in the early 1990s. Another 100,000 Georgians fled South Ossetia and the surrounding area in the current conflict.

Fighting back tears, a middle-aged woman from the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi -- half ethnic Georgian, half ethnic Russian -- said that with Medvedev's announcement she's lost just about all hope she would ever see her home again. She lost her husband and son in the fighting in Abkhazia in the early 1990s and has been living in Tbilisi with relatives for more than a decade.

But others were more optimistic.

"Young people have never given up hope that we will someday return to our homes," said the young Georgian man from Abkhazia who had earlier explained the meaning of the garbage in front of the embassy.

A group of older women, also IDPs from Abkhazia, joined the conversation.

"We have not given up hope and never will," one said. "The whole world is now with us. Now everybody sees what the Russians are doing."

Baring Its Intentions

The contrast of hope and despair that was evident among the protesters at the Russian Embassy reflected the conflicting opinions of Georgians in general, as the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow enters a new -- and potentially very dangerous -- phase.

Some are arguing that by pushing things this far, Moscow is baring its intentions for all the world to see -- and in the process is waking up the West and the rest of the international community.

Others saw Medvedev's announcement as proof that Moscow is intent on subjugating Georgia once and for all -- whether the West likes it or not.

"They want to re-establish the Soviet Union under a different name," is a refrain often heard on the streets of Tbilisi these days.
Video
Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play

For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.
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