It's hard, nearly impossible, to refute the fact that Russians love Georgia and Georgians love Russia. We adore each other down to the bone. Shashlyk, wine, Borjomi, Basilashvili, Mimino... There's an entire shared culture and history. It's possible the all-too-often heard phrase the "Russians are our brothers" may only be genuine when spoken by Georgians. But isn't this is a strange love? For some reason, it doesn't prevent us from hating and killing each other. KP correspondent Dmitriy Steshin spent time on the other side of the Tskhinvali front to find out why.
I've been to many Caucasus republics. You could say this gives me a basis for comparison. Georgia is the only republic that could become an independent nation without the preface "quasi." When you are in a foreign country you feel every detail of your strange, new life. Then you put them together like a jigsaw puzzle and make your conclusions.
They pulled the ramp up to our plane right after we landed. We were quickly driven to Tbilisi's super-new airport on a regular bus — not some four-wheeled rusty remnant of Soviet transport infrastructure. Surprisingly, the taxi driver who met me by the exit wasn't late. And when I arrived at the hotel, although I ended up paying European prices for the room, there was drinkable water running from the tap, the place was clean and the air conditioner worked.
As soon as I got settled in, I walked outside and and asked 10 people the same question: "What has changed in Georgia since Saakashvili came to power?" It was that I understood how little people need for happiness.
The answer I most often heard was: "You can walk down the street calmly. There aren't any robberies and people aren't being kidnapped. And the prisons are full!" True enough, many Georgians who want to earn a living illegally do so in Russia. But that's just another plus for Saakashvili and this doesn't concern ordinary Georgians in any shape or form.
The revolutionary president's second feat, they said, was dismantling the State Motor Police. New personnel were hired. The promised $1,500 monthly salary plus compensation and accommodation was appealing for many. The only criterion for applicants was absolutely "no previous work experience in governmental bodies." A reward was also created for policemen who catch drivers offering bribes. Pulling over vehicles without due reason was also made illegal. Stationary roadside posts were also removed, which in Russia resemble feudal castles.
Georgian drivers told me laughingly about one the new force's legendary officials. "He got into his green 'Moskvich,' put on a torn jacket and drove around the country breaking motor regulations and trying to offer bribes," he said. "In Kutaisi the police handcuffed him, in Zugdidi they beat him and in Tbilisi they brought him in for charges. Then he gave them all rewards for work well done!"
Saakashvili cancelled vehicular technical inspections and simplified the procedure for renewing licenses, registering automobiles and issuing plates. He also did other wonders for the police. Although the country relies heavily on imported oil, the police always have gas to get to timely arrive at a crime scene. It's a mystery. He also ordered police stations to be painted in bright colors so Georgians wouldn't be fear them and instead experience positive emotions while passing by. Saakashvili has brought many other changes, although they are less significant for ordinary Georgians. They include simplified tax procedures for Western investors and a strong preference for Western banks. Yet for some reason Russians are still surprised why Georgians don't share our dislike for their current president.
War and lies
Every war begins with a lie. This confrontation is no exception.
As it just so happened, I was the only Russian journalist in warring Georgia. As a result, I had to bear the brunt for us all.
Minister of Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili began by apologizing. "I don't have any business cards in Russian," he said. "You're a rare exception." Then he got on my good side with one lone phrase.
"So we'll occupy Tskhinvali. No one is doubting that," he said. "We didn't invest $5 billion in the army for no reason. But what happens after our victory?" Then he answered his own question. There is a smart tactic for regulating these types of conflicts. It's called "European autonomy." The Georgian and Ossetian languages would receive an official status and a parliament would be formed.
Today, after three days of fighting, the proposition seems absurd. But at the time it sounded more than reasonable. The only thing I didn't like about our meeting was when I left his office. An onslaught of Georgian TV journalists trampled past me to speak with him and as I turned around his press secretary blocked my path.
"The press conference is in Georgian," he said. "You wouldn't understand anything anyway."
I shrugged and headed to my meeting with the Georgian President of South Ossetia Dmitriy Sanakoyev. The rugged politician had served as defense minister in South Ossetia's separatist government. First he cursed the separatist president, Eduardo Kokoyta, and called him a thief. Later, he said neither he nor Georgia needed this kind of a war. His parents were still in Tskhinvali and patriotic Georgian businessmen had invested billions of lari in building the infrastructure of Georgian towns in South Ossetia.
"Who would do this if you were preparing for a war?" he said. "Go take a look!"
And I did. I saw everything he had said with my own eyes — a fancy movie theater, athletic clubs, a massive pharmacy, supermarket, electronics magazine, pool without water, hotel under construction and attractions park. But everything was empty and covered lightly in dust. With each passing minute, the bombing pounded louder and louder. The first Georgian refugees sped in our direction from Erdneti.
Ночной обстрел Цхинвала системами залпового огня. Кадры: Youtube.com. Монтаж: Вадим ШЕРСТЕНИКИН
An Ossetian woman, Lila Bagloyeva, who had taught the Georgian language at a local school for 40 years, screamed loudly.
"I can't live like this anymore! Kill me! Right now!" she yelled painfully.
The village's large ornate homes meshed poorly with what was happening. In the end, they were only expensive decorations — a false image of a serene life that never was... No one had actually expected peace here. I learned this as I headed back to Tbilisi.
Hundreds of trucks filled with soldiers headed in the opposite direction towards South Ossetia followed by hundreds of artillery tanks and military jeeps. I took their photographs until I got tired. Meanwhile, a member of Sanakoyev's press service said by my side: "Look at those beauties! Just like a parade!"
As we parted, Sanakoyev's press secretary Iya Barateli told me: "Dima, so you decided to go to Tskhinvali tomorrow? I'm afraid that's not going to happen... Stay with us for a few days!"
Only two hours were left before the war would commence…
Читать русскую версию: Война в Южной Осетии: "Конец времен пришел, дальше - только тьма..."
Грузинские самолеты бомбят село Джава в Южной Осетии. Видео, снятое на мобильный телефон местным жителем. Монтаж: Вадим ШЕРСТЕНИКИН