Can Tbilisi neighbours remain good friends?
They are 21st century barbarians, thugs, thieves, fascist hordes bent on killing, sacking Georgian cities, burning treasured forests, humiliating and crushing a proud people. “I see,” said President Mikheil Saakashvili, “evil in their eyes.”
Such is the picture of Russians painted by Georgia’s leaders over the last two weeks of war and uneasy ceasefire. Russia, of course, has been far from courteous about Georgia. You have to wonder, though, what effect this deluge of vitriol might have on historically good relations between ‘ordinary’ Georgians and Russians living in Tbilisi. In the southern Caucasus, a volatile patchwork of ethnic groups, the Georgian capital has been a relatively harmonious place through two centuries of imperial Russian rule, Soviet mastery and then the turbulent years since independence. Georgians, Russians, Azeris, Jews, Armenians all called Tbilisi home, their common tongue Russian.
How soon can fury vented on a state level turn the minds of neighbours?
There is an almost unreal calm these summer evenings on the tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue, elegantly restored from the blackened ruins I saw here after a civil war in 1992. Old people, young couples sit on lines of benches facing each other, reading books, chatting, flirting.
The promenaders of Rustaveli may not have been touched directly by the bitterness of war, like fellow citizens around the town of Gori, but most are angry about “Putin’s invasion”.
“Yes, I was shocked when we heard bombs, even here in Tbilisi. I have so many Russian friends, even Russian relatives. We’ve talked about it,” says David, a young man in black tee-shirt and jeans. “They feel as bad about it as we do. It’s awkward for them. Should I hold it against them? Of course not.”
Lali Moroshkina, a Russian and head of an NGO that works on ethnic minority problems, says about 50 Russians came today to her office to sign a protest letter over the invasion. “Ethnic Russians haven’t had any major problems so far, maybe some minor problems and only in the town of Gori.”
David and Lali seem to reflect majority opinion here, but there are others. Sveta, a Georgian with a Russian first name, seems more distraught about how things could develop than seized of any real resentment of her Russian neighbours; but she
“I am afraid that after all this time, all these years, Russia could have spoiled things for us,” she says. “My friends all are angry about the Russians. No Georgian will go up to a Russian and insult him or abuse him. We’re not like that. But there is this feeling. Give it time and it will go away, I hope.”
Russians were by far the largest minority population in Georgia during Soviet rule. Any resentment felt by Georgians against Moscow was directed largely against the central ‘apparat’, the Communist Party. Even that was laced with a certain irony. Many Georgians took leading positions in the Party; not least, of course, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. Former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is a more recent example. One popular Georgian joke has Georgians lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Georgia has lost a useful colony.”
The old Soviet communist slogan of “Druzhba Narodov” — friendship of the peoples — may have rung falsely in many areas of the old Union, attended as it was by forced transportations and persecutions of ethnic groups; but it was more or less reality in Tbilisi.
Many Russians left Georgia during the 1990s, to escape civil war, deprivation and stirrings of nationalist militancy under first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. But many remain, married to Georgians or simply preferring Georgia’s lighter, sunnier
climes. The official figure of a 3 percent share of the population doesn’t reflect the true influence of Russian culture here.
“I grew up in Soviet times. I went to Moscow so often. I loved the girls,” says Gyul, a schoolteacher. “Russia is part of me. How can that change?”
The prevailing feeling seems one of shock that precludes any real, balanced conclusions yet about what has befallen Georgia.
“The town’s half-empty now, So many people are away at their country houses, on holiday,” says Gyul. “When everyone gets back in September, then is the time for taking stock. Then I’ll be talking about it with my Russian friends. We will be looking
into each other’s souls.”