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Is Tbilisi Becoming West Berlin In The South Caucasus?

  • Brian Whitmore

Something foreboding in the air?

Something foreboding in the air?

TBILISI – It comes up again and again in conversations with Georgians.

This plucky little South Caucasus nation -- strategically located along key energy transit routes -- has found itself on the front lines of an emerging high-stakes confrontation between Russia and the West.

The phrase "a new Cold War" has been overused in recent years as Russia has reasserted itself on the global stage. But now, finally -- and sadly -- it somehow seems appropriate.

So if a new Cold War is really revving up, then is Georgia turning into the new West Berlin, a little Western-protected enclave located on the tense front of a global struggle, constantly teetering between run-of-the-mill ordinariness and lurking Armageddon?

It's beginning to feel a little bit like that in Tbilisi.

In many ways, life in Georgia's scruffy, chaotic, and charming capital goes on as always.

On Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main drag, the bankers are banking, street vendors are vending, khachapuri stands are selling khachapuri, kids are playing, and loafers are loafing. Old men sit in front of shops chatting the day away. Old women lug home bags of groceries.

Smells Of Fear

In Tbilisi's graceful Old Town, the cafes, bars, and winding cobblestone streets are packed late into the night with young revelers. By many accounts, Cold War-era West Berlin was a pretty fun place, as well.

But just below the facade of normalcy, there is also something foreboding in the air in Tbilisi -- something that smells of fear, apprehension, and uncertainty. Dark humor is omnipresent. With a hostile neighbor to the north, such uneasiness has always been present here. But lately it has increased exponentially.

Residents of the capital worry that the free and easy European lifestyle they have enjoyed since the 2003 Rose Revolution -- the feeling that they are on the cusp of really joining the West -- could end once and for all and at any minute.

One man who lives near Tbilisi's television tower says he is worried that his home is located a bit too close to a strategic target for comfort. A colleague who lives near the Russian Embassy deadpans that hers is probably safe -- unless, of course, the Russians decide to bomb their own embassy and blame it on the Georgians as a "provocation."

People yearn for Western support but worry what an increasingly unpredictable Russia might do when it comes.

When a U.S. Coast Guard ship loaded with humanitarian supplies cruised toward the Russian-occupied port city of Poti, some openly wondered if World War III was about to break out. "What if they start shooting?"

Nevertheless, Tbilisi residents swelled with pride when they heard that locals in Poti planned to salute the American vessel in an act of open defiance against Russian forces in the town.

In the end, the ship avoided Russian-occupied Poti and instead docked at the Georgian-controlled port of Batumi, 80 kilometers to the south.

There will, no doubt, be more such nervous moments in the weeks, months, and perhaps years to come.