Protests in Georgia's capital spark new tension with Russia

Along the border with South Ossetia, villagers say Russian tanks have recently arrived – their barrels aimed squarely at Georgia.

Sergei Grits/AP
Supporters of the Georgian opposition march in the capital, Tbilisi, on Tuesday calling for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's resignation.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Thousands of people continue to rally for President Mikhail Saakashvili's resignation in Tbilisi. But for those living in villages along the South Ossetian border, the protests have only brought anxiety as they try to reestablish their lives in the conflict zone.

"We're just simple farmers here," says Ilia Kasradze, part of a group of a dozen people who gathered to distribute a recent delivery of firewood in Ergneti, a Georgian village only a mile from the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. "The protests will spoil things and have a bad effect on us."

During Russia's war with Georgia in August, 125 of Ergneti's 178 homes were totally destroyed. Dependent on handouts from aid agencies, 45 families have returned, although there is neither electricity nor livestock. Gunshots regularly heard in South Ossetia keep most people from spending the night.

"Things have gotten more tense since April 9th," says police Lt. Zurab Chuhuladze, from the nearby border post, just meters away from the Ossetian line. "Russians have been moving into the abandoned Georgian posts."

Are Russian forces preparing to invade?

On Tuesday night a powerful blast was heard from the Tskhinvali area, with the shock waves felt as far away as the Georgian border post. The cause of the explosion remains unexplained.

The Georgian Ministry of Defense has accused Russia of increasing its military presence in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia over the past week – a charge that Moscow firmly denies, labeling Georgia's allegation "informational provocation."

The fear that Russian troops are amassing in places like Akhalgori – a mere 25 miles from Tbilisi – has lead to rumors that they intend to invade if Mr. Saakashvili doesn't resign.

Pamela Preusche, spokeswoman for the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), which operates on the Georgian side of the border, says that they have noted nothing of concern in terms of a Russian buildup of forces. The mission is not allowed to enter South Ossetian territory.

"Russia has told us they have been engaging in routine rotation and that they are concerned about the situation in Tbilisi. We have seen nothing particularly alarming," she states.

Border villages squeezed by politics

In Tbilisi, the protests are entering their second week. President Saakashvili has refused to resign and the opposition refuses to accept his offer to negotiate. On Monday, the 13-party opposition coalition moved the demonstration to the presidential palace and set up tents to hold a round-the-clock rally.

The situation is becoming more tense as opposition leaders urge their followers to be more confrontational as reports come in of isolated attacks against opposition demonstrators by small groups of unidentified men.

"Either the president or the opposition must give in or else there will be war," says Tamaz Gulitashvili, in Ditsi, a village near the South Ossetian border.

Although opposition leaders in Tbilisi blame Saakashvili for being duped into the August war, Ditsi villagers, like others interviewed by the Monitor along the border region, overwhelmingly blame Russia. The sentiment is underscored by the fact that Russian bombs destroyed their homes and Russian troops now occupy the land they once farmed. They hear shots fired nightly from across the border and live on edge, ready to flee at any moment.

"It wasn't Saakashvili's fault. The war started 20 years ago. The opposition are just idiots standing there. We don't have time for this," asserts Givi Lapach.

Some people disagree, however, including Lado Adamashvil. "They're not idiots," he says. He admits the opposition hasn't promised them anything, but feels Saakashvili hasn't delivered anything either. "We have no water, no electricity, nothing.… He's got to go."

First protests, then tanks

Predon Kristasiashvili was forced to flee from Eredvi, a Georgian village in South Ossetia, along with all its other inhabitants on Aug. 10. The village was subsequently looted and torched. He lives with his family of nine in one of the 380 three-room refugee units built by the government in the outskirts of Gori.

Unemployed and with no fields to tend, Mr. Kristasiashvili and his neighbors live on handouts of macaroni, beans, potatoes, flour, salt, and sugar, as well as a token monthly allowance. He follows the demonstrations on TV and fears the return of Russia as he believes the Kremlin intends to "establish order" in Georgia.

"Now is not the time for this," he says of the demonstrations. The sentiment is echoed throughout the former "buffer zone," which was occupied by Russia until Oct. 9.

In a field between Tskhinvali and the Georgian village of Zemo Nikozi, a Russian tank is poised, its barrel aimed toward Georgian sandbags on top of the nearby cemetery. This tank and others along the border arrived on April 9, say locals and police.

"Nothing good will come of the protests," says Amiran Lomsadze.

Locals cannot tend their apple orchards due to water shortages and land mines. The presence of Russian tanks, which locals blame on the Tbilisi protests, only makes the situation more tense.

For apple farmer Gocha Mchedlidze, the solution to the Tbilisi protests is as plain as day: "When you harvest apples you've got to do it to the end. Let him [Saakashvili] finish what he started."

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