Features

Breaking the breakaways

Georgia | Russia's invasion tests the grit of former Soviet satellites

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

Bombs coursing through the air, tens of thousands of stunned Georgians fled north and south earlier this month to escape an unexpected outburst of fighting between Georgia and Russia that left at least 2,000 dead, and 30,000 driven from their homes.

They poured into shelters and public buildings, traveling by foot, car, and bus, and often bringing little more than the clothes they wore. Some were separated from family in the chaos, and many said their homes were destroyed.

For one 11-year-old boy from the village of Ergneti, clothes and homes weren't his first concern. The boy and his family, including his father, mother, and 4-year-old sister, sought safety in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi after enduring -bombing while traveling. The child told World Vision staffers at a local shelter: "I don't need anything but peace."

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Yet peace seemed elusive, even after Russia agreed to a ceasefire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Aug. 13. Hours after the countries agreed to a truce, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian tanks were operating in no-conflict zones and destroying key infrastructure. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev denied violating the agreement, but Russia's foreign minister on Aug. 14 said the world "can forget about" Georgia's territorial integrity.

The fighting began on Aug. 7 after Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia, a breakaway province in the north with strong Russian ties. Russia flooded the province with troops and armor, then moved to bloody attacks and bombing raids in areas outside South Ossetia.

World Vision, a Christian organization with aid projects near South Ossetia, began offering relief and shelter to thousands fleeing the region. Local staffers called the scope of the crisis "heartbreaking and profoundly disturbing."

Meanwhile, the political crisis continued in Georgia, a close ally of the United States. President Bush called on Russia to cease aggression, and he ordered aid sent to devastated parts of Georgia. Others worried that Russia's actions might threaten burgeoning democracies in nearby countries like Ukraine.

The presidents of five former Soviet satellites-Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland-traveled to Georgia to pledge their solidarity. "I am a Georgian," said Toomas Hendrick Ilves, the president of Estonia.

Outcry from its fellow G-8 nations is surely a -feature Russia calculated before it entered Georgia. The French president conferring with the Georgian president is no surprise, and news that President Bush is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came nearly as a footnote. What Russia's President Medvedev and his predecessor Vladimir Putin may not have contemplated was the show of solidarity and determination from the fledgling states that once fell under Moscow's control.

It will be hard for Moscow to ignore the -hostility the invasion has created among Baltic and other Eastern European states. Among them, all are now NATO members except Georgia and Ukraine. They also now command a combined GDP that together puts them in a league with Russia -economically (Russians average $9,728 in GDP per capita while the combined gross domestic product of Georgia and its five -breakaway allies is $9,283 per capita.)

The invasion has illustrated, not only in Eastern Europe but in the Caucasus as well, that separately the breakaway nations are -vulnerable to Russian aggression-and even a short military confrontation will have devastating economic impact, potentially breaking the back of these nations after their hard climb out from Soviet domination.

In shelters for displaced Georgians throughout the region, thousands of refugees are contemplating a hard climb out from war. A young mother from South Ossetia, named Shushanik, told World Vision she fled her home with her 3-year-old son. "I was scared out of my mind," she said. "Bullets were flying -everywhere." The mother mentioned one sliver of comfort: "I hope my son is too young to remember this war."

-with reporting 
by Mindy Belz

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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