On the Streets of the Capital, a Sense of Patriotism Mingled With Defiance

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 10 -- Russian forces had just routed Georgia's army from the capital of the disputed territory of South Ossetia, but on Sunday night the mood here in the Georgian capital was almost festive as tens of thousands of people streamed through the streets, waving flags and singing the national anthem in what some called defiance of the Russians.

"This is our field of battle, this is what we can do," said Vakho Babunashvili, 41, a musician who helped organize the rally. It started at 8 p.m. and lasted late into the night, with protesters gathering in a central square, holding a silent vigil in front of U.N. headquarters and finally descending on the Russian Embassy.

Men, women, children and even a few dogs massed in front of the embassy. People shook their fists and chanted " Sa-kart-ve-lo!"-- Georgian for "Georgia" -- at its darkened windows as if to remind those inside that the small country still existed. "They have a lot of artillery and tanks, but we have heart," said Gvantsa Katsiashvili, 37, who held a candle in a plastic cup. "We are a brave people."

Until 1991, Georgia was a Soviet republic, dominated by the faraway communist government in Moscow. The war here has roused patriotic feelings among government supporters as well as opposition members, who see it as a bid by Russia to reassert the influence it lost with the Soviet collapse.

The rally took place on the third night in which Tbilisi residents looked to the skies, fearing their city could be bombed. Earlier in the day, a nearby airfield was hit, and for much of the day, the streets were eerily empty.

Many Georgians said their allies abroad have not done enough to help them. Some pointed to the 2,000 Georgian troops in Iraq, now being recalled to defend against the Russians, and asked why Georgia was not getting similar support from foreign soldiers. Others said that if the NATO alliance had not denied Georgia a formal plan toward membership this spring, Russia would have been less likely to attack.

Near Gori, a city targeted by Russian bombs, some Georgian troops vented similar frustration.

"Where are Georgia's friends?" asked one major, who refused to be quoted by name. "The United States and the European Union spat on Georgia."

Some Russian soldiers were curious about the West's perception of their country's actions, and seemed uncertain whether the escalating campaign was justified. "What does the world think?" asked one Russian peacekeeper who, despite the war, has continued to man a checkpoint at the South Ossetian border. "Is Russia guilty?"

Many at the Tbilisi rally said that, despite the retreat from Tskhinvali, the war was far from over.

"There is still a big danger that Russia might decide to do the complete job, but it's not something that people are going to stand for," said Humphrey Abbott, 61, a Briton who recently became a Georgian citizen. As he spoke, an airplane rumbled overhead, but it could hardly be heard over the chanting and the honking of car horns.

A few miles away, the mood was more somber. Outside a state hospital, people scanned lists of the injured, looking for friends and relatives. In front of the city hall, Georgians who had fled South Ossetia and Gori prepared to spend their second or third night on the sidewalk.

As evening fell, several hundred people milled around, comparing stories and occasionally collapsing into tears. Many had fled with nothing more than what they were wearing; some described towns strewn with the dead bodies of soldiers.

Of the Georgians who had lived as members of an ethnic minority in South Ossetia, many said they had had good relations with their Ossetian neighbors. But some said those neighbors had been evacuated several days before the conflict started, which made them believe Russia had planned an attack.

"The Russians came in and started taking busloads of women and children," said Sigho Maghaladze, 51. "We were suspicious, because in the last 20 years, we've never seen any mobilization like this."

While most of the anger was reserved for Russia, many in front of city hall also placed blame on the Georgian government.

After fleeing her town in South Ossetia, Ina Lomauri, 42, said she and 20 people are now sharing a room in a former hotel that houses refugees from an early 1990s secessionist war in the Abkhazia region.

"We thought that this year, all the refugees would be returned to their places, but now there are 20 times more refugees," she said. "We believed our president," Mikheil Saakashvili.

Trucks had come earlier in the day to distribute bread, cheese, sausages and water. But some of the refugees complained that no officials had come out to talk to them. "I have been lying here for three days and I need shelter," said Yoseb Gogidze, 69, who was looking for his son among the crowd. He said it should have been clear to the government that a battle with Russia over South Ossetia was not winnable.

"The government ended up in the hands of babies," Gogidze said. (Saakashvili is 40, and many members of his government are known for their youth.) "They can't run this state, they can't recover from this situation. . . . We won't be able to go back there. It's impossible. It's finished."

But most people echoed Georgian politicians who put aside their differences this week. "I'm not thinking about this kind of thing," Babunashvili, the rally organizer, said when asked about what the war might mean for the current administration. "We're in a war, and our first goal is to survive and win."

Correspondent Peter Finn on the border of South Ossetia contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company