Georgia on the U.S.'s mind


Strategic: The former Soviet republic, although rife with corruption and rights violations, is of interest to Washington as a foil for Russia and a conduit for oil.

October 18, 2002|By Alan Friedman | Alan Friedman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TBILISI, Georgia - The Georgia-Russia soccer game isn't scheduled to start for two hours, but the streets around the stadium are a mass confusion of singing, flag-waving fans and honking cars.

The fall evening is clear and warm, and anticipation has been building for months. Around the world, soccer matches like this one between national teams often take on all the attributes of open warfare.

Tonight, open warfare is exactly what's on everyone's mind.

Less than 100 miles away, Russian helicopters are streaking down on Chechen fighters who hide out in impassable terrain. Four times in the past month, Moscow's air force has violated the home team's national airspace in pursuit of the separatists.

The field is swept for mines, and fans sitting in the midfield section near Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, prominent politicians and embassy personnel are frisked as they enter the stadium. Soldiers and police are everywhere.

This is Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a small but beautiful land nestled between the shores of the Black Sea and the 14,000-foot peaks of the Caucasus Mountains that form its border with Russia, whose team has come to town for a symbolic showdown.

In 1991, Georgia was the first of the republics to claim independence, and its stalwart refusal to allow Russia to alter its pro-Western political tilt has been a constant irritation to Moscow.

The land where Josef Stalin was born is now firmly planted in the American sphere of influence, despite its long common border and shared Orthodox Christian roots with Russia.

Slightly smaller than South Carolina, this nation of 5 million people is now the flash point where American efforts to "nation build" and fight terrorism run up hard against Russia's struggle to preserve what's left of its old empire.

Moscow wants to prevent Islamic separatists from creating an independent state in Chechnya, whose fighters try to use the rugged terrain of the Pankisi Gorge along the Georgian border to avoid Russian air and land patrols.

As part of its global terrorism fight, the United States has stepped in with military "train and equip" efforts to help Georgia to seal its border and block Russian claims to the right of "hot pursuit" of the separatists, some of whom are suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.

Inside the stadium Saturday, a few brave souls wave Russian flags, but the rest of the crowd of 30,000 hoot and catcall every time the visitors touch the ball. The scoreless first half is almost over when the lights suddenly go out.

A transformer failure plunges the field into a darkness broken only by fans' cigarette lighters, newspapers set aflame and activated cell phone screens.

What starts out as a comical scene quickly degenerates into frustration as the teams walk off, never to resume play.

"This is our reform," a young Georgian is overheard saying on his way out of the stadium. "Five years ago, we had no light bulbs. Now we have bulbs, but no electricity."

So the soccer game becomes a symbol of another kind - a sign of the rising irritation that the nation's turn to democracy has not led to more tangible economic gain.

Most financial activity occurs in a shadow world of corruption, smuggling and tax evasion. Winter means the power goes off daily.

This is a country where the latest Mercedes E-Class sedan, displaying license plates issued to a government official earning $200 a month, can be found parked outside a United Colors of Benetton store. New restaurants spring up every week.

Bored twenty-somethings, dressed in black and wearing wraparound sunglasses, sit at outdoor cafes and chain-smoke Marlboros smuggled from Turkey. There's MTV on the cable system and the hottest place in town is the SRO disco at 4 in the morning.

But the elderly spend their days hoping that the government has enough money to pay their $6-per-month pension.

Cab drivers offer political opinions in English and Russian as well as Georgian - a language with its own alphabet dating back more than 1,000 years. Tbilisi's maniacal drivers barely notice the power failures: Stopping for traffic lights, functional or not, is optional at best.

They resort to the horn as a viable alternative to applying the brakes, and the richness of their ancient language is evident in the epithets yelled at slow-moving trolley buses.

This summer, U.S. Special Forces arrived in Tbilisi to begin training everyone from the national military leaders to officers and enlisted men. America was showing its support for Georgian sovereignty and sending a message to Moscow.

America's increased military assistance comes after 10 years of technical and financial aid to Georgian civil society. USAID backs causes ranging from promoting a young lawyers' association to financial training for small businesses.

But the political and economic reforms of the mid-1990s have slowed and recent reactionary attempts to influence elections and journalists have brought stinging international criticism.

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