A strategically located speck, Georgia engaged Russia in combat in 2008. Tiny Georgia continues with American and European assistance to annoy its powerful neighbor. Borders remain uncertain; trade continues; a new movie captures, continuing, the saga.
In the 1950s movie classic “The Mouse that Roared,” comedian without peer, Peter Sellers, played three roles – queen, prime minister and general – as a fictional, poor, small European country goes to war against the United States of America.
The mouse-theme continues in the 2011 action-thriller, 5 Day War. Released in North America next month, days from now in Britain, the film retells the Georgia-Russia War. Smaller than Florida, Georgia, among the world's smallest nations, takes on Russia, the largest.
I arrived one day after 5 Days of August (temporary title) premiered simultaneously in three theaters in Tbilisi, capital of the once Soviet republic, now free, a sovereign country of about five million.
The film's Finnish director, Renny Harlin (Die Hard and Cliff Hanger), leading actors, Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer, and (while not in the film) Sharon Stone walked the red carpet. Ms Stone was in Tbilisi to raise (and did) a million dollars to aid the war's suffers. 2000 civilians and soldiers approximates those killed.
Where passing soldiers shot out windows as they drove down this main street.
Obvious Results from Conflict Warranting at least the funds raised by Sharon Stone, I saw four quickly-built, characterless, row on row, red or gray roofed refugee villages, each with one water tank, and saw for myself the bullet-defaced buildings in Gori, along Stalin Street where Russian soldiers randomly shot at windows. Joseph Stalin, a home-town boy, is still a hero in Georgia's second largest city.
Over and over during a three-week visit, I heard of 2008's fears when Russian tanks roared south. Fears about the slow response from America and Europe. This fear was prominent still among seven female students I met with at the University of Georgia. I asked, “What do you remember?” In this nation of enduring Christians, Mako spoke without hesitation, answering, “Just as, after communism, the Church returned Georgia to us. We had faith.” I noted six of the seven students had crosses on their necklaces. All agreed.
Still a favorite son in Georgia's second largest city, Gori.
Resourceful Georgians Despite bullet holes and refugees, two positive anomalies stand out in my mind: as Russian forces moved toward the nation's capital from Gori, I saw and photographed where the defense forces, as they prepared to defend Tbilisi, excavated trenches to protect and hide their tanks, thus, uncovering the remains – for archaeologists – of a Bronze-Age settlement near the country's previous capital and now 'spiritual' community, Mtskheta.
The other anomaly to see was how ever-resourceful Georgians recovered the left-behind camouflage netting using it to screen porches and to decorate rural restaurants. At Tsalka, in the highlands west of Tbilisi, enterprising builders laid an entire floor and trails among out-buildings at a roadside BBQ house with loose steel plates once added to tanks for extra protection. Viewers will see these plates in the film.
Military camouflage for tanks becomes useful on a porch.
Annoying the Russians Almost three years since the conflict, two parts of this tiny country are – as the Georgian's say – still “occupied by Russia.” There have been shootings along the disputed borders and – it seems clear to me – Georgia is at least an annoyance to Russia: radio and TV programs broadcast daily beyond the Caucasian Mountains; and, until shot down by a boundary-crossing Mig fighter (in May 2011), Georgia flew an unmanned intelligence-collecting drone along its northern border.
As a further annoyance, multicultural Georgia makes it easier for Russia's disaffected Chechenos and Osetins to move to Georgia without visas, then giving them a 'neutral identify pass' – something like citizenship.
Assistance from the West Just north of Iran and Iraq, bordering on Russia and Turkey, once directly on the 'Silk Road,' this speck of a strategically located country receives significant help from Western Europe and the United States.
Arriving June 9, staying until June 12, watched no doubt by the Russians who maintain a commanding navel presence in the Black Sea, and used it during the five-day war, was the USS Anzio, a guided missile cruiser. According to the US Embassy, reported by Georgia Today, “The ship's officers will meet with officials and Georgian military personnel ... [for] damage control exercises as well as engine and electronic maintenance work.”
Three days before the Anzio's arrival, Gerald Howarth, Britain's Minister for International Security arrived in Tbilisi, “To further (again, reported by Georgia Today) work with the Georgia Ministry of Defense ... to help Georgia meet the ultimate goal of NATO membership.”
Trade Continues Despite disagreements, some trade continues. Since 2008, Russia, claiming falsification, has prohibited Georgian wines from their market. Yet many Russian food products can be seen in Georgian markets and there is a brisk trade in Soviet Era artifacts. Russian – furthering communication – is understood by most Georgians.
Traders in Soviet-Era images are common -- probably from Russia. Note an American flag on a t-shirt.
At the northern portal of the Georgia Military Highway (sic), I observed both Russian and Ukrainian licensed cars coming south, but no Georgian cars entering Russia. As a further provocation, within sight of the border, without a community, a major re-building of a church is underway.
Deep in the mountains, a romote border crossing is little used.
Too Obvious: the American Presence The American presence is perhaps too obvious. There is, for example, an option on all the ATMs of receiving US dollars or GEL (the Georgian Lara) – US dollars listed first.
A Georgian, Gogi, tall and 60ish – admiringly – standing at roadside, told me all the new police cars (many BMWs and Alpha Romeos) where purchased – since the conflict – with American aid; and he added, “America also increased salaries so bribes are less necessary.” Then, as a convoy of Georgian-Army, American-style military trucks (light-brown canvas) pass, he said, “They are going to the secret military base.” He points.
Looking like any American burger-joint, this is the restaurant in Tbilisi's airport.
Iconic American images from Marlene Monroe to Uncle Sam are common and women and men sport t-shirts with slogans and images in English from 'I Love NY' to Micky Mouse. Of course, McDonalds and Starbucks offer options to kebabs and Turkish coffee. At the new Tbilisi airport the only offering of food, written large, is at BURGER CITY.
Despite centuries of oppression, the result of conquering Romans, Turks, and Persians, and suppression under Soviet rule, I found a quiet, individual spirit and a collective pride of culture among Georgians, so much so that I return to Australia optimistic about their eventual self-defining future.
Note: Our Digital Journal reporter, Robert Cope, an American citizen, accompanied his Australian wife, Angela, member of a Georgian-Australian archaeological team. The views expressed are, of course, his own.