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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Tbilisi, Georgia

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Friday, September 27, 2002
From the Field
York Mark


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Pictures from Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgian Interior Ministry troops stand guard in the Pankisi Gorge.
Photo: Shakh Aivazov/AP

A SU-25KM Scorpion jet is serviced in Tbilisi, Georgia. In late August, Georgia accused Russia of bombarding the Pankisi Gorge, while Russian sources said the bombardment was carried out by a modified Georgian air force jet, similar to this one.
Photo: AFP


Strolling down the cobble-stoned back streets of Georgia's relaxed capital city, you could almost be forgiven for feeling that you're holidaying in a peaceful Italian village rather than one of the most troubled countries on the planet.

Palm trees line the streets and the temperature sits in the low 30s here even in September. Restaurants and cafes spill out onto Tbilisi's shady sidewalks. The locals, famous for their hospitality, are quick to invite a stranger in for wine, conversation and khachapuri, the delectable local cheesebread.

But a trip down Rustavelis Avenue, Tbilisi's main drag, quickly rights any misconceptions that Georgia is as well as the Georgians let on.

The short journey starts out well enough: an enormous fountain joyously splashes at the foot of the street, in the same spot where the city's main statue of Lenin once stood through Georgia's repressed decades as part of the old Soviet Union. The traffic circle around the fountain has been renamed Freedom Square. Few here miss Vladimir Ilyich's steely glare.

But a just few blocks to the east, you get your first hint of the new problems that have replaced the old. In front of the country's parliament, dozens of demonstrators hold a day-and-night vigil, calling for the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze and his "illegitimate government." They whistle and chant long into the night, providing a soundtrack to the street that only a true democrat could love.

Their concerns are about corruption and mismanagement, crippling economic ills that any visitor will quickly see first-hand, but not the biggest problems plaguing this Caucasian country. For that, you need only to wander on few blocks further, to what was once the Hotel Iveria.

The Iveria, a Soviet-era concrete monstrosity - the likes of which can be found in almost every city across the former USSR - was once the only hotel in town foreigners were allowed to stay at. It had a stunning view of the Mtkvari River, and an Intourist office on the premises - the one and only tourist company in the old Soviet Union, famously staffed by spies - all the better for the KGB to keep tabs on what you were up to whilst visiting this most rebellious of the Soviet republics.

Once a grey blight that blocked an otherwise pleasant view of the nearby mountains, the Iveria is now overflowing with colour, the mark of the refugees who have made it their home and hang their laundry out the windows to dry.

While Georgia has made the headlines recently because of Russian allegations that it harbours Chechen "terrorists" in its Pankisi Gorge, these refugees are here because of conflicts the world barely noticed and quickly forgot.

The majority are from Abkhazia, a province in Georgia's north-west that was once a Black Sea playground for the Politburo, the vacation destination of choice in the Soviet Union. When the USSR disintegrated in the early 1990s and Georgia won independence, Abkhazia followed suit by declaring its own sovereignty from Georgia (as did a second province, South Ossetia), triggering a bloody civil war.

Despite the fact that ethic Abkhazians made up only 17 per cent of the province's population, they prevailed militarily, with the covert, but well-documented, help from the Russian army. People here say Russia's encouragement of Abkhaz nationalism was Moscow's payment-in-kind to Tbilisi for the decades of headaches Georgia gave the Kremlin.

In the end, the rag-tag Georgian army withdrew from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, leaving behind two provinces with de-facto autonomy.

Since then, they have been in an economic and diplomatic deep-freeze. Lacking any international recognition, the provinces have few links, trade or otherwise, to the outside world, and because most of their populations have fled, there is little chance for economic advancement.

Meanwhile, the rest of Georgia, and in particular Tbilisi, remains mired in poverty, largely because of the refugee crisis, which shows no signs of lifting.

On the evening of Sept. 11 this year, I found myself wandering in Tbilisi's stunning Old Town in search of a bite to eat. I wound up in a small café, chatting with the woman behind the counter - a refugee from Abkhazia - about the events of a year before.

"Terrible, terrible," she said, recounting how she had felt when she first saw the television footage of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

A bewildering year later, American troops are in Georgia, and Russia is threatening to invade the Pankisi - all of it sparked by Sept. 11, 2001 and George W. Bush's subsequent "war on terror."

The woman in the café said she couldn't understand how the world could be so transfixed by that one event, and yet ignore the less spectacular suffering of so many others. "We have our own pains, too. We have lost our brothers and fathers. We want to go home," she told me.

She asked me why everyone - in particular journalists like me - was concerned about whether or not there were a handful terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge, and so uninterested in the plight of thousands of refugees in Tbilisi. I had no convincing answer to give.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.