September 6, 2008
Georgia's Human Chain Stronger than Russian TanksBy David J. Smith
On Monday, Georgia came to a halt or, rather, it came to life. A massive human chain gripped the avenues of Tbilisi, the streets of Russian-besieged Poti, the squares of every city, the lanes of every village and the country roads that connect them. Maybe Russian Czar Vladimir Putin watched on television the human chain that will defeat his tanks. This is no maudlin deviation from this column's traditional realist analysis. It is a sober argument that Georgia's human chain represents the march of history from which Putin has kept his country.
The sky above Tbilisi threatened rain but loosed only a few sprinkles. People in other regions stood drenched. In the Georgian capital, people stood hand-in-hand from one end to the other of a long and narrow city. In some places, people covered the distance with outstretched arms. In others, the lines were five or six people deep. In some of Tbilisi's wider spaces, the crowd surged across the entire space.
Georgia's stirring national anthem, "Freedom" rang out along the route, punctuated by the horns of cars adorned with Georgia's white and red five-cross flag.
There were mothers with babies. A teenage girl sported tall bright green sneakers, a bright pink top proclaiming her as "princess," and an outsized-at least for her-Georgian flag. Older ladies in clothes fashionable twenty years ago joined the line, clasping hands with the kids. Dogs on leashes stood by their owners.
Foreign workers from Africa and Asia joined. Ukrainian and Estonian flags drew big cheers.
The people of Elit Electronics turned up with bright red T-shirts. Restaurant waitresses chanted, "victory." Tamta, Tamuna and Keti-from their nametags-defied Putin's fat generals.
Police, mostly unarmed, roamed the crowd, but there was no trouble.
Priests joined hands with enthusiastic teenagers. More sedate youngsters prayed in Rustaveli Avenue before the Kashueti Church. Catholicos-Patriarch of all Georgia Ilia II blessed the human chain, which wound up the hill to Sameba Cathedral. Inside Sameba, a power greater than any tank was in charge. With the serenity gained inside Sameba, gazing down the marble promenade, across the city, the reason for the hullabaloo was clear: Georgia won; Putin's Russia lost.
One westerner scoffed at this conclusion. "It looks like a football game; too many flags; disgusting, with all these people dead." Sorry. If you do not understand it, then you do not understand it.
The human chain was not a funeral procession; the anthem, "Freedom" is not a funeral dirge. The girl with the green sneakers, the priests, the old ladies did not march like Putin's tin soldiers in a Red Square Mayday parade. They gaggled-proud, defiant and cacophonous. They celebrated Georgia the Georgian way. Under the gaze of Russian invaders-in some places, literally-while effete westerners dithered, they joined hands to say, we are Georgia and we will stop Russia.
The staff and volunteers of Information Center on NATO wore the best T-shirt of the day: "We are from Georgia's future!" Indeed! Georgia's human chain leads to the future; Putin's tanks lead to the past.
The breakup of the Soviet Union, Putin said, was the "greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century." His problem-and his reason for aggression against Georgia-is that few agree. Russia's checkist-in-chief may chortle at western inaction; however, he should not mistake bickering over details-or even dithering-for differences over fundamentals.
The European and American response to Russia's war on Georgia was altogether inadequate-slow and feeble. However, in the sweep of history, the West is winning-and Putin knows it. The European Union and NATO are not drawing new lines on the map of Europe; the people of Russia's erstwhile empire are flocking to join these institutions.
In Georgia, people want to join the EU and NATO because they crave the freedom to be a nation, to preserve their cultures, to develop their economy, to live in dignity and peace-and to celebrate their patriotism as they like. Monday's human chain showed that these values are firmly established in Georgia, however, they preceded institutional membership.
This is the nature of any profound transition, but it means that the eastward spread of freedom and democracy is a bit ragged around the edges. That is what enabled to invade Georgia.
Make no mistake-tanks, bombs and occupation have real consequences. The west must now help Georgia rebuild, recover and join the zone of freedom where war is unacceptable. Success will undercut Putin's war aims. Soon, the only line that matters will be the Russian border.
So Czar Vladimir, get out of Georgia! Take your diesel fuming tanks, your slovenly soldiers, your sneering generals back on your side of the Caucasus Mountains. However-beware-your own people will someday form a human chain around them. The Georgian girl with the green sneakers will smile-she understood it back in 2008!
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.