'Georgia did not deserve this - Europe closed its eyes'


GEORGIA'S STATELY, tree-lined capital was on an emotional roller coaster last night.

Hope for salvation through diplomacy in the five-day old war in the Caucasus was swept away by unconfirmed reports that Russian troops and armour had reached the outskirts of the city.

President Mikheil Saakashvili went on television to ask his compatriots to remain calm.

"He seemed extremely worried," Gotcha Djavakhichvili, one of the president's advisers, told me when we met at dusk in front of the parliament building. Families and young couples strolled by in the balmy air.

"The Georgian army is retreating to defend the capital. The government is urgently seeking international intervention to prevent the fall of Georgia," said an official statement.

Europeans in my hotel announced they would be evacuated overland to Yerevan first thing this morning.

The presidential adviser believed widespread rumours that Russian troops, who yesterday extended their incursion beyond the pro-Russian separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were only 20km (12 miles) from Tbilisi and would "arrive any moment".

His office would be one of the first buildings occupied. "I fear very much what will happen."

Much of Djavakhichvili's family are behind Russian lines in South Ossetia, and he is unable to communicate with them. "I lost a cousin in the bombing in Gori. They buried him yesterday."

His parents had fled to their village. I don't know if they know he's dead . . ." About 9pm, the level of tension suddenly racheted up, like air pressure changing. Police cars sped by with sirens blaring. The pavements emptied. "I can't imagine living under Russian occupation," Djavakhichvili reflected. "But we are too weak to fight them. If the Russians get to Tbilisi, we are going to have a very hard time."

Many Georgians feel betrayed by the US and EU, in whom they placed such high hopes. "The West have other worries than Georgia," Djavakhichvili said. "From the outside, we may seem like a minor problem. But Europeans and Americans should think about the rest of the world. If the Russians take over Georgia, they will do the same again quickly to the Ukraine, and maybe Poland and the Baltic states.

"The Europeans have seen what little importance Russians attach to diplomatic declarations. All they care about is Russian influence, Russian power."

Djavakhichvili teaches a course on European integration at Tbilisi University. "I lecture on (the Soviet invasion of) Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968. Georgia 2008 is next in the series," he said with sad irony.

The Russians have bombed at least two telecommunications relay stations, and last night it was impossible to receive or make a telephone call in Tbilisi. I tried to flag a taxi, but the few cabs were filled to capacity and speeding.

I resorted to hitchhiking, and was picked up by a metal worker named Yacob. He too believed the Russian arrival to be imminent.

"The Russians are pigs. (Georgian president) Saakashvili is a fool," he muttered. "If America and Europe abandon us like in the past, Georgians will all become partisans; we'll fight a guerrilla war."

A group of Georgian soldiers hovered around two pay phones, desperately trying to place calls.

Yacob refused to take money for bringing me back to my hotel. "Your thanks will be to tell the world what happens," he said. "Georgia didn't deserve this. Europe closed its eyes."