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In Moscow, A Mix Of Pride And Regret

How do Russians feel about the conflict in the Caucasus? State-run and independent pollsters alike say as many as two-thirds of Russians support the Kremlin's recent actions in Georgia, and that Tbilisi and Washington are to blame for escalating tensions in the region to a full-scale military conflict.

But beyond simple statistics there lie more nuanced views of the unfolding events. RFE/RL correspondent Veronika Bode spoke to Russian professionals in the capital, Moscow, and came away with a complicated mixture of pride, regret, and an overriding sense of historic inevitability.

Mikhail Alshibaya
Mikhail Alshibaya, heart surgeon

Alshibaya: The situation with Georgia and Russia is definitely a humanitarian catastrophe, in many ways. The reasons for it are profound, and their roots go significantly deeper than early post-Soviet history. Further back in history you also see tension between Georgia and Russia, like in 1917, 1918, 1919. You can find books written about relations between the Menshevik republic of Georgia and Bolshevik Russia.

RFE/RL: What do these events mean for you personally?

Alshibaya: I was born in Georgia, and though I've spent most of my life in Moscow, Georgia remains my homeland. I haven't lost my connection with it. I still have a house in Batumi, where I was born and raised. So for me it's an enormous tragedy that there's a war between Russia and Georgia, between two peoples who were, until recently, fairly close, especially as far as the Georgian and Russian intelligentsia are concerned.

RFE/RL: You were in Georgia recently. What were your impressions?

Alshibaya: I arrived in Georgia at the end of July. On the outside, everything looked calm. Georgia made a very good impression on me. But the war is a tragedy for the Georgians. For everyone: supporters and critics of the Georgian president alike. I should note, however, that at the time -- I left relatively early, on August 9 -- even [President Mikheil] Saakashvili's opponents had united behind him, and this is understandable in the face of the intervention and occupation that followed.

Irina Vasilyeva, college history teacher
Irina Vasilyeva

To put it in dry, official language, what we have on our hands right now is Russia's intrusion onto the territory of a sovereign state, an absolutely illegal intrusion that follows Russia's imperialistic goals. For everyone who thinks Russia's actions are a peacekeeping operation, I have a few consumer-level questions. First, where is the moment that allows it to cross the borders of an independent state, which have been recognized both by the international community and by the aggressor? Where is it written that up to a certain point the intrusion is not acceptable, and then suddenly acceptable?

Second, who gave Russia's troops peacekeeper status, and when? As far as I know, this is the prerogative of the United Nations, and not that of the commander in chief of the Russian Army.

Third, how would Russia's government respond if somebody else's peacekeepers entered Chechnya to protect its citizens from our carpet-bombing raids? The Russian military has, on more than one occasion, talked about the need to protect its citizens residing on South Ossetian soil. Explain to me, please: since when are Russian citizens the dominant population of South Ossetia? Who exactly are we defending there? And if the Abkhaz and Ossetian people are allowed to be separated from Georgia, why can't the same be true for Chechnya and Tatarstan? The problems are the same.

RFE/RL: Do any analogies come to mind?

Vasilyeva: Many observers have drawn the parallel between the events happening right now, and those that happened in the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, in 1938. I came up with another analogy: Crimea in the 18th century, when, after the war with Turkey, Russia annexed the region.

Let me remind you that after Crimea was captured by Russian troops, the only question raised was that of the Crimea's independence from the Ottoman Empire. Then, after a series of what we would call political games and internal fighting between local khans, the pro-Russian Khan Shagin-Girey was installed as governor. We all know how it ended: in 1873, Crimea was simply annexed by Russia.

The plan of the Russian peacekeepers is more or less obvious. It is, of course, not a humanitarian mission. It is, at the least, an attempt to overthrow Saakashvili. At the most, it's the restoration of the Russian -- or Soviet, or whatever you want to call it -- empire to its borders of 1917 or 1991.

RFE/RL: How do you think these conflicts can be resolved?

Vasilyeva: All such conflicts should be resolved by way of negotiations. We can involve international observers, we can involve peacekeeping forces -- but only legally valid peacekeepers. In general, we need to make sure that human lives are never used as a bargaining chip in the political games of politicians, especially Russian politicians.

Marina Kulakova
Marina Kulakova, writer

I can't get used to this feeling. I grew up in the Soviet Union, and since my childhood I've been accustomed to this feeling of vast space, the sense that the phrases like "15 republics -- 15 sisters" had meaning and were some of life's fundamental truths.

So to see things like this happening in places where our country used to be, where our brothers live, is very difficult, because these feelings have not gone away. And the war affects everyone, regardless of geography. Take my next-door neighbor. Her son, a professional soldier, was relocated to the conflict zone. Her tears are my tears. These are real tears, real lives, and real deaths.

RFE/RL: Where do your sympathies lie in this conflict?

Kulakova: Well, based on the information I have, I can say that Ossetia was attacked by Georgia, and Russia stepped in to protect the people who became victims of aggression. President Saakashvili has behaved in a very aggressive manner for some time. Based on my observations and impressions of him, it seems as though he had been planning this for a long time. And if you are attacked with force, I think you should respond with force, so Russia's response was very appropriate and I support it.

RFE/RL: Do you see any way out of the situation at this point?

Kulakova: I'm not very good at judging these situations. It always surprises me how confidently politicians and journalists comment on things they do not see with their own eyes. So I can't really bring myself to make a judgment. Of course, I'm hoping for peace and prosperity, but in the current context, how do the prospects of that look?

Andrei Stolbunov, lawyer
Andrei Stolbunov

There shouldn't be such conflicts. What's happening now has been in the making for at least 15 years, I think, and it had to happen sooner or later. The situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been quite unhealthy all these years. I think Russia's actions were absolutely correct. They showed that we could be strong, that we could be right, righteous, and just. That's my opinion.

When you're provoked, you have very little choice how to respond. You can slam the door and leave -- if analogies are to be drawn with human behavior. Or you can retaliate, proportionally or disproportionately. In this case, I think Russia retaliated without exceeding what it had to do to ensure its own safety.

RFE/RL: So you think Russia's response was appropriate?

Stolbunov: Absolutely. It was a provocation. There was a period of name-calling, and then they got slapped in the face. To have apologized and gone to "wash it off" would have been inappropriate, I think. The Russian government was absolutely correct in framing this situation in strictly legal terms. Criminal cases are being drafted; the Prosecutor-General's Office is investigating the matter, as if we were looking at an ordinary criminal investigation. It's necessary to gather all the facts, all the forensic data, and only then to present findings to the international community and to the nation.

RFE/RL: Georgia argues it is protecting its territorial integrity. But when Russia was fighting for its own territorial integrity, the Kremlin's governing policy was somewhat different, wasn't it?

Stolbunov: Are you trying to draw the parallel between Russia's fight for Chechnya and Georgia's fight for South Ossetia and Abkhazia? I'm not sure how legitimate this parallel is. We will be just as successful in trying to draw Crimea into this, and saying Crimea is Russian, if we really look at it, so why did we give it to the Ukraine as a present in the first place? In that sense, I don't think it's an appropriate comparison.

The processes that were under way in Chechnya are completely different than those that were under way in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the early 1990s, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were very quick to declare independence from Georgia, so they always had a choice.

Tatyana Tolstikova
Tatyana Tolstikova, nurse

The initiator of this incident -- or I should say crime -- was of course Georgia. If Georgia had not been supported by the United States, it would never have dared to do something like that. But they felt the support of the Americans, and the Americans prepared them well, by supplying them with arms.

Of course, you can't blame the people, only the leadership. The people always lived happily together. Remember, we were all part of one country: Ossetians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Russians. We all intermarried, we all have relatives everywhere. So in the current situation, only the people suffer. As for Saakashvili, it's just his personal ambition. So one day he decides to do it this way, to subjugate a territory, Ossetia in this case.

RFE/RL: Do you think Russia was right to become involved in the conflict?

Tolstikova: Yes, of course it was necessary. After all, we have to take into account the fact that it was on our border. It would have been wrong to deny help to a people who asked Russia to intervene on its behalf. There wasn't even a declaration of war. Georgia just started bombing civilians -- old people, children, women -- at night, like criminals.

Just think, after Ossetia has seen the barbaric murder of its own people, how can it possibly go on as part of one state with Georgia? So Georgia did the exact opposite of what they should have, and Saakashvili must understand this. He must understand that he will never coerce the Ossetians into cohabitation with Georgians. Self-determination is the future for these republics. Abkhazia and South Ossetia deserve to choose where and with whom they want to live.

Aleksei Kiriyenko, deputy chairman, National Insurance Group
Aleksei Kiriyenko

The situation was long in coming. It's unfortunate that it developed into military action and war. I can only feel sorry for those involved. War, as such, cannot possibly evoke sympathy. When the problems at hand are so complicated -- these national questions, especially in the Caucasus, where there is such an incredible density of various ethnicities -- it is impossible to resolve them by such crude means as tank fire.

Of course, the personal interests of the politicians involved are obvious, but there needed to be a different kind of solution. Though I do understand that Russia eventually had no choice but to defend itself by military means.

RFE/RL: What do you see as the way out of this situation?

Kiriyenko: The independence of the Caucasus territories is the most straightforward solution, at least based on what I've been seeing on Russian television and foreign satellite television. No matter how much the Georgian government might oppose the idea, Georgian territorial integrity will not be upheld.

RFE/RL: You say you've been watching both Russian and foreign television. Whose depiction of the events do you think is the most adequate?

Kiriyenko: I don't think such a thing exists, because I will often see the same footage in both -- the same tank, the same road, the same soldier with a gun, and the audio commentary will be completely different in each one. Our television will describe the scene as a defense of the civilian population of Ossetia, while the foreign audience will hear that it is the violation of the territorial integrity of Georgia.

RFE/RL: How do you see Russia's role in this conflict?

Kiriyenko: Unfortunately, we cannot shed our national chauvinism, the idea of our country as the great patron of the republics. Of course, we want to guarantee our own security, which is impaired by NATO expansion, but we also have to recognize that the republics of the former union have gone their own way, and will most likely not return to the so-called "friendly family of nations."

Maksim Moshkov
Maksim Moshkov, founder of the online library

This is an ancient conflict -- one which is constantly reinvigorated by obvious factors, and which could have been ended many years ago. But right now the situation has developed in such a way that we are now further than ever from its resolution.

There are people whose only source of news is the television, and I feel sorry for them, because according to the television, there is nothing but trouble. I've watched some of the commentary and felt relieved that I've long since stopped watching TV. On the other hand, the Internet didn't have much good information either -- just a few crumbs here and there. But at least you had the choice.

RFE/RL: What about foreign sources of information?

Moshkov: Foreign information sources have no information. The only people who can provide information are eyewitnesses, people who were there. But there were few eyewitnesses, and a group of journalists, who arrived after almost everything was over.

RFE/RL: What kind of picture was painted by Russian television?

Moshkov: To put it softly, it was generally truthful, but, unfortunately, often too patriotic, hysterical, and militant. I'm no longer used to hearing news in that key, and with that kind of presentation. The fact that our troops had won was obvious, but I didn't really want to be happy about it. There are those who are in the right, and there are those who are in the wrong, but that doesn't make the situation any better.

RFE/RL: Who, then, is right and who is wrong, in your view?

Moshkov: The ones in the right are the people who live in the area. The ones in the wrong are the people who come there and start shooting and fighting: the snipers who come and shoot civilians, the artillery officers who fusillade a peaceful city with howitzers and Grad launchers, the politicians who direct and egg on these troops to murder civilians. Who is more right and who is more wrong? I'd say Russia is more right, but that doesn't make it any better.

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