Politics & Policy

When the West Saved Tbilisi

A view of Tbilisi
An excerpt from the forthcoming Where the West Ends.

Getting into Georgia on the train was easier than getting out. As soon as the Georgian customs officials stamped my passport and finished hand-searching my luggage, I stepped off and into a taxi. A friend warned me in advance that while the train sits at the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan for hours, an inexpensive taxi ride would get me to the capital in less than 45 minutes. So I took his advice and arrived in Tbilisi long before any of my fellow passengers.

The taxi ride was my introduction to Georgia, and it wasn’t pretty. Azerbaijan’s countryside beyond its booming capital, Baku, reminded me of Iraq in some ways with its bad roads, walled-off houses, general poverty, and vaguely Middle Eastern characteristics. But the part of Georgia my taxi drove through was considerably rougher and poorer. It looked brutally Stalinist.

Hideous smokestacks made up the skyline. Nothing new had been built in decades. Homes were falling apart. Monstrous public-housing blocks desperately needed paint, new windows, and general repairs. Many of the factories were shuttered. Very little economic activity was evident. It was as though the area was still operating under a command economy even though it was not.

More than half the cars on the road were banged-up Russian-built Ladas. Nearly all had cracked windshields, including the taxi I rode in. These Ladas are tiny. They have tiny doors, tiny steering wheels, tiny dashboards, tiny seats, and no seat belts. A Lada is the last car you’d want to crash in.

#ad#A thick film of gray ash from the skyline of smokestacks covered everything, including the leaves on the trees. This blighted region looked like an apocalyptic dystopia where absolutely everything modern was broken. My heart ached for Georgia.

I really did feel like my 18 hours on the train set me back 18 years as well as sending me sideways a few hundred miles. This portion of Georgia might look even worse now than it did when it was part of the Soviet Union. The buildings and cars have had more time to deteriorate, and nothing has been repaired.

“In the Caucasus,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in Eastward to Tartary, “one could be optimistic in the capital cities, but in the provinces one confronted the hardest truths. . . . Compared to [South Ossetia], rural Georgia was like Tuscany.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. And if South Ossetia was in even worse shape than this part of Georgia, then God help the Ossetes.

The Stalinist apartment blocks were uglier and more dilapidated than any I’ve seen in post-Communist Europe, including Albania. This unreconstructed corner of the Soviet Union gave me an idea just how nasty and oppressive that system was. You can’t always learn much about a country’s past political system by looking at its current physical infrastructure, but in this part of Georgia you can.

Most Eastern European countries were in no better shape immediately after the Communist era ended, but they’ve been able to pull themselves up in the meantime with help from the European Union. Georgia, though, is an outpost of Europe so remote that it is in Asia, too far away to be rescued by the EU or NATO.

#page#“I remember how some of the Eastern bloc countries looked just after the fall of the wall,” independent journalist Michael Yon wrote me in an e-mail shortly after I arrived in Georgia and told him what I had seen. “East Germany was like zombie land but quickly emerged because of West Germany; Poland was, too, but quickly emerged; Czechoslovakia (or now Czech Republic and Slovakia) was nothing like what you see today and was nothing but gray and shortages; Romania was like Hell. Hungary was okay, but it had started to emerge ahead of the rest. Any of these countries that you have seen in the last fifteen years were nothing like that eighteen years ago.”

Tbilisi itself, though, is better.

#ad#Tbilisi could be any European Mediterranean capital — though with an Eastern twist.

Aesthetically exquisite in some places, and at least average in most of the others, Tbilisi is a pleasant city to visit despite the fact that it’s loud and smells of exhaust. The post-Communist recovery in Georgia’s largest city is far more advanced than in the border area I saw when I first arrived. It’s Asian, but it looks and feels European. It’s in at least adequate physical shape, even if it isn’t exactly what I would call prosperous. Seeing it was a relief.

But Tbilisi felt tense, as though the air was electrified. The Russian invasion unleashed a refugee crisis all over the country and especially in its capital. Every school in Tbilisi was jammed with civilians who fled aerial bombardment and shootings by the Russian military — or massacres, looting, and arson by irregular Cossack-like paramilitary units swarming across the border.

In 2008 Russia seized and effectively annexed two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, ostensibly to protect civilians from Georgian government fire. It also invaded the region of Gori, which unlike them had been under Georgia’s control. Gori is in the center of the country, just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi. Ninety percent of its citizens fled, and the tiny remainder lived amid a violent mayhem overseen by Russian occupation forces that, despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary, were not yet withdrawing.

I visited one of the schools transformed into refugee housing in the center of Tbilisi and spoke to four women — Lia, Nana, Diana, and Maya — who had fled with their children from a cluster of small villages just outside Gori.

“We left the cattle,” Lia said. “We left the house. We left everything and came on foot because to stay there was impossible.”

Diana’s account: “They are burning the houses. From most of the houses they are taking everything. They are stealing everything, even such things as toothbrushes and toilets. They are taking the toilets. Imagine. They are taking broken refrigerators.”

And Nana: “We are so heartbroken. I don’t know what to say or even think. Our whole lives we were working to save something, and one day we lost everything. Now I have to start everything from the very beginning.”

Seven families lived cheek by jowl inside a single classroom, sleeping on makeshift beds made of desks pushed together. Small children played with donated toys; at times, their infant siblings cried. Everyone looked haggard and beaten down, but food was available and the smell wasn’t bad. They could wash, and the air conditioning worked.

#page#“There was a bomb in the garden and all the apples on the trees fell down,” Lia remembered. “The wall fell down. All the windows were destroyed. And now there is nothing left because of the fire.”

“Did you actually see any Russians,” I said, “or did you leave before they got there?”

#ad#“They came and asked us for wine, but first we had to drink it ourselves to show that it was not poisoned. Then they drank the wine themselves. And then they said to leave this place as soon as possible; otherwise they would kill us. The Russians were looking for anyone who had soldiers in their home. If anyone had a Georgian soldier at home they burned the houses immediately.”

Her husband had remained behind and arrived in Tbilisi shortly before I did. “He was trying to keep the house and the fields,” she said. “Afterward, he wanted to leave, but he was circled by soldiers. It was impossible. He was in the orchards hiding from the Russians in case they lit the house. He was walking and met the Russian soldiers and he made up his mind that he couldn’t stay any more. The Russian soldiers called him and asked where he was going, if he was going to the American side.”

“The Russians said this to him?” I said.

“My husband said he was going to see his family,” she said. “And the Russians said again, ‘Are you going to the American side?’”

“So the Russians view you as the American side, even though there are no Americans here.”

“Yes,” she said. “Because our way is for democracy.”

Senator John McCain may have overstated things a bit when, shortly after the war started, he said, “We are all Georgians now.” But apparently even rank-and-file Russian soldiers view the Georgians and Americans as one. Likewise, these simple Georgian country women seemed to understand who their friends are.

“I am very thankful to the West,” Maya said as her eyes welled up with tears. “They support us so much. We thought we were alone. I am so thankful for the support we have from the United States and from the West. The support is very important for us.” She tried hard to maintain her dignity and not cry in front of me, a foreign reporter wearing fresh clothes and carrying an expensive camera. “The West saved the capital. They were moving to Tbilisi. There was one night that was very dangerous. The Russian tanks were very close to the capital. I don’t know what happened, but they moved the tanks back.”

My translator, whose husband worked for Georgia’s ministry of foreign affairs, made a similar guess that the West helped save the capital. “The night they came close to Tbilisi,” she said, “Bush and McCain made their strongest speeches yet. The Russians seemed to back down. Bush and McCain have been very good for us.”

#page#Likewise, the women seemed to understand what Russian imperialism has always been about — and not just during the Soviet era. “Why do you think the Russians are doing this in your village?” I said.

“They want our territories,” Nana said. “Some of them are Ossetians, too, not only Russians, and not only soldiers. Some are there just to steal things, from Ossetia and Chechnya.”

#ad#Russia didn’t want to annex Gori permanently, in all likelihood, but it did want, as it always has, a buffer zone between itself and its enemies. It was George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, who said, “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Now Georgia has been all but dismembered.

“We will never forget this,” Lia said. “Never. Ever.”

— Michael Totten is author of the upcoming Where the West Ends, which can be pre-ordered here

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