From my column in The Moscow Times:
There was a jovial atmosphere last Saturday night in the Stop Russia bar in Tbilisi, after Russian troops started to pull back from their checkpoints deep in Georgian territory. The Stop Russia bar used to be known as USSR, and is still decorated with busts of Stalin and Soviet memorabilia, but was hastily re-branded after last month’s war. “It’s against Russian aggression,” a dark-eyed, pencil-thin barmaid declared urgently. “We want them out of our country!”
The ominous mood which had gripped the city seems to have lightened in recent days, particularly since the huge Stop Russia demonstrations a couple of weeks ago, which according to official estimates brought more than a million people onto the streets. Afterwards, youths partied late into the night in Tbilisi, letting off some steam after enduring some of the darkest times in recent Georgian history.
But reminders of the war are hard to ignore - particularly the thousands of internal refugees who fled the fighting and took refuge in empty state buildings and hastily-constructed tent camps. Ironically, some of them have occupied a dilapidated block which used to be the Russian military command centre for the Caucasus. Once this building housed some of Moscow’s spooks; now its population is dining on emergency aid packages supplied by Washington.
This is a tragedy which has only compounded the last one: Georgia is still struggling to deal with tens of thousands more people who were displaced by the civil wars here in the early 1990s. Many of them still live in suspended animation in temporary accommodation, sustained by dreams of eventually going home. For 15 years, they’ve been a visible symbol of Georgia’s lost territories, and a physical embodiment of the desire to win them back. But now those breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are effectively Russian military protectorates, their chances of returning seem bleaker than ever.
In a tatty high-rise building on a rubbish-strewn hill, high above the capital, I met Mzia, a former teacher who escaped from the war in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in 1993, along with all the other families which live in this wind-lashed block. Since then, she’s shared a cramped one-room apartment with her grown-up son.
Mzia offered coffee and chocolates, while I asked her if - since Russia won last month’s war - she still thought she would someday go home. She smiled, then frowned, then suddenly seemed to be on the verge of tears. “Before, sometimes we lost hope, but hope always returned,” she replied calmly. “But now, we have doubts...”