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CONFLICT IN CAUCASUS: STRATEGIC MOVE; REASSERTING DOMINANCE

A nation's growing ease lies shattered

Many felt safer in the company of the West. Now they're distraught to find that they face Russia's wrath alone.

August 13, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

OUTSKIRTS OF GORI, GEORGIA — The Russian bombs and shells were falling fast Tuesday afternoon, dropping unseen through mist that clung to the mountains and wisped over the valleys.

Panicked people pressed the gas pedal to the floor and roared toward the capital city of Tbilisi, trying to outrun the explosions. Russian helicopters hung low over the foothills. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had said that the "operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace" was finished. But here in Georgia, the war dragged on.

"They want to destroy us," groaned Aftondil Huroshvili, who begged for a drink of water in a crowded hospital ward in Tbilisi.

The retired topographer had been strolling through Gori's central square when Russia bombed the post office. Shrapnel from the blast shattered his lower leg.

"They want to invade and take everything," he said, rolling his balding head back and forth in pain. "Why are they doing this?"

As a battered country waited Tuesday to see whether a cease-fire would come to fruition, it was clear that Russia had made its point. It took just five days of war to deal a shattering blow to Georgia's collective psyche. People who had begun to divorce themselves from the ominous Soviet-era sense of threat from their massive northern neighbor and who had started to dream of NATO membership and Western-style democracy, have just learned a hard lesson about their own vulnerability.

"We are like an example for the others, that Russia can do the same to anybody," said Nikoloz Kvachatze, a young doctor in Tbilisi's Republic Hospital. "They must be stopped. They won't stop by themselves. They'll start with Georgia and then it will be Poland and Estonia and Ukraine."

Until this week, some Georgians believed that their newly improved armed forces, trained and outfitted with help from the United States, might hold their own against Russia's much larger but aging military. There was a sense that Georgia was moving beyond the reach of Moscow's ire, and would soon find a place among Western states.

Many thought that Georgia's gestures of solidarity, from the troops sent to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq to the street named for President Bush, might induce the United States to back them militarily if they ever found themselves menaced by Russia.

But they were wrong. After Georgia launched a surprise attack to seize control of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, killing hundreds of civilians and some Russian peacekeepers, they found themselves alone -- and facing Moscow's wrath.

"They are invading us, and it's happening in the 21st century, and the whole world is watching," said Teia Tsvertsvadze, a slim paramedic who wore a wooden cross on a string around her neck. "We're frustrated. If we were given more active support, maybe Russia wouldn't dare."

This war has neatly illustrated that Russia has the military might to overcome Georgia in just a few days. Russian troops have at times appeared to be showing off: cutting main roads only to relinquish them; occupying towns in Georgia proper and then leaving; dropping bombs on military and civilian targets at will.

"The morale of the people is destroyed," said Vaso Suramelo, 46, clinging to the door of his parked car and staring at the smoldering hills.

Suramelo was looking for his 79-year-old father, and he was frantic. The elderly man had stayed behind in a village on the edge of South Ossetia when the rest of the family decamped for the capital. Suramelo had tried to call, but the phones weren't working. And so he was driving back.

He came rumbling around the bend in his sedan and stopped short, staring at the hovering helicopters and smoking hills in front of him. Then he climbed out of the car and stood still, as if uncertain what to do next.

"We never could have imagined this," he said, working his jaw. "When you see something like this, it puts ice in your heart."

The remains of a battle littered the country road leading into Gori from the capital. Burned-out tanks and broken-down artillery cannons lay scattered like forgotten toys on the charred roadway. Two hulking personnel carriers had smashed into each other, head-on. Passing cars slowed down and eased around them.

But the soldiers were gone. The road to the capital stretched out, half-deserted and stripped of military protection. Only the soldiers' shattered vehicles testified to their recent vigilance.

A farmer named Gela Kaveli had hot-wired a wheezing, dented relic of a station wagon, and was sputtering as fast as he could toward Tbilisi.

"There are only Russians there now," he yelled, nodding toward the hills behind him. "There are no Georgian soldiers left. Nobody can be there now."

There were signs Tuesday that the war could be drawing to an end, but many Georgians remained skeptical. Russia will continue to fight, they said, until they take over the entire country, or until the Georgian government falls.

"They have no right to do it," said ambulance driver Shalva Gokashvilli. "They want to keep us under control, to keep us from NATO. They never wanted us to be independent."

Gokashvilli leaned against his ambulance, weary after a run to Gori to collect wounded victims. All around him, the paramedics and drivers sucked hungrily on cigarettes and pounded down cans of Diet Coke. They had made it back to Tbilisi after another run. A song by Queen poured from an open ambulance window: "We will, we will rock you."

"The Russians never keep their promises," Gokashvilli spat out.

--

megan.stack@latimes.com

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