Matthew Collin: Georgians remain loyal to Saakashvili, for now

Few Georgians will criticise Mikheil Saakashvili openly while the Russian invaders remain. But they are counting their casualties

As I locked the door of my apartment in Tbilisi at around midnight and got in a car to head for the border, I felt like a traitor. I was leaving Georgia at a moment when my adopted home, and my friends there, felt more threatened than they had been in many years. I had my own reasons – the impending birth of my first child – but I still felt I was deserting them.

I lingered for a while at my local shop, where a small crowd of neighbours had gathered around an old Lada with its radio on, trying to work out exactly how close the Russian tanks were to the capital. "You're the foreigner who lives here," one of them correctly identified me, before asking, "Will the west help us, or are we on our own?"

That was one of the questions that many people have been asking over the past few days in Tbilisi, as the crushing reality of Georgia's defeat has become clear. There's been a sense of disillusionment that the government's western allies, particularly the United States, haven't been more robust in their response in their response to Moscow's military assault.

"Where is Bush? Where are his weapons?" demanded one woman, who had fled to the capital from her village in South Ossetia. She pointed out that Georgians had died in Iraq while serving alongside the US president's military mission there. "But when we needed him," she cried, "all he gave us was words."

Many people do seem to have had unrealistic expectations that the US and the EU would ride to the rescue. But that doesn't mean that their feeling that the west has left them alone to face the might of the Russian army isn't genuine.

Other locals spoke of bringing their old guns out of their basements and cleaning them, ready to resist the Russians, guerrilla-style, if they advanced on the capital. One of my best friends, a child psychologist, whom one could never describe as warlike, told me that the Georgian army had to fight on to the end, to show the world that Russia's behaviour was simply unacceptable in the 21st century – even if, she declared, that meant that everyone had to die.

Many Georgians have been unwilling to criticise President Mikheil Saakashvili's strategy publicly while Russian tanks are rolling across Georgian soil and Russian warplanes are in Georgian skies. Even some of the people who accused Saakashvili of falsifying elections earlier this year have rallied behind the war effort.

But privately, a few have expressed concerns that Saakashvili – or "Misha", as he's known to almost everyone in Georgia – might have made a fatal miscalculation in trying to seize back control of South Ossetia from the Moscow-backed separatists, thus invoking the wrath of a ruthless Kremlin. "Didn't Misha remember what Putin did in Chechnya?" a student friend asked me.

No one really knows how many have died in this conflict so far. But many people have lost friends. I want to take this opportunity to remember Alexander Klimchuk, colleague and occasional beer-drinking companion, a 27-year-old Georgian photojournalist who was shot dead in unclear circumstances while photographing the fighting in South Ossetia a few days ago.

Last autumn, Klimchuk and I worked together in South Ossetia, covering a government-sponsored Boney M concert in a remote, impoverished village. It was a surreal day, and we spent most of the time laughing and joking as the disco veterans belted out hits like "Daddy Cool" in the middle of what was then a "frozen" conflict zone.

That seems a long time ago, and now the village is deserted and Klimchuk is dead – another victim of the latest brutal conflict in a country most people couldn't find on a map.


Matthew Collin

The GuardianTramp

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