Devastated Georgia Begins To Rebuild After War Three months after the armies of Russia and Georgia clashed in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgians are beginning to come to terms with their disastrous military defeat. Reconstruction projects are under way, but Georgians remain uneasy.

Devastated Georgia Begins To Rebuild After War

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now we hear about a country that is rebuilding. Russia and Georgia fought a brief war last summer. The Russian army quickly routed the Georgians, who are now facing the consequences of their defeat. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

IVAN WATSON: Columns of Russian tanks no longer rumble up and down Georgia's highways. For the most part, the Russian army has withdrawn to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it's still dangerous for the 30,000 Georgians who were forced to flee the conflict to go back home.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Georgian spoken)

WATSON: I want to see if my shop is still standing, this woman asks a Georgian policeman at a checkpoint. We can't let you through, the policeman answers. They'll kidnap you over there.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WATSON: The all but empty Georgian villages around South Ossetia bore the brunt of the anger of South Ossetian militias. Human rights organizations have accused them of ethnic cleansing when they followed the Russian army as it advanced into Georgia.

This is really eerie. I'm standing in an abandoned Georgian village where the farmhouses have all been looted and torched. And I can hear in the distance, just about two miles away, the sound of construction equipment in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali, which is protected by the Russian military.

(Soundbite of construction work)

WATSON: While Russia pours millions of dollars into rebuilding war-damaged South Ossetia, the Georgian government is building thousands of new houses for refugees. More than 2,000 small houses have sprouted up on a flat plain near Tbilisi. But Gegita Sheresadishvili, a refugee who's doing construction here, is not impressed. He says there's no room for the gardens and orchards many Georgians depend on to feed their families.

Mr. GEGITA SHERESADISHVILI (Georgian Refugee): See, very small. What it is?

WATSON: You don't like this house?

Mr. SHERESADISHVILI: No, no, what is this?

Unidentified Woman #2: (Georgian spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Georgian spoken)

WATSON: On a hilltop cemetery, relatives weep and perform the ritual of pouring wine on the grave of a Georgian official. He was recently killed by remote-detonated landmine. It's one of a series of deadly incidents still taking place along the boundaries of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia accuses the Russians of encouraging separatist militants in the two regions.

Mr. BATU KUTELIA (Georgian Deputy Defense Minister): The situation is quite tense. And what we see is that the Russian side, together with separatists, on a daily basis are provoking escalation on the ground in different parts of Georgia.

WATSON: Peter Semneby, the European Union special representative to the Caucasus, says the Russians are trying to consolidate their presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and weaken Georgia as well.

Ambassador PETER SEMNEBY (EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus): Russia wants to have a say on Georgia's strategic orientation in the future. It's a game that is being played out at various levels.

WATSON: The Europeans were instrumental in negotiating the cease-fire agreement that ended the war, but Semneby says Moscow still hasn't complied with key parts of the agreement. He says Russian forces often refuse to allow European monitors to cross into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Russian soldiers continue to occupy a Georgian town barely 25 miles from the Georgian capital. Some Georgians are starting to blame their fiercely anti-Russian president Mikhail Saakashvili for getting them into this mess.

Mr. LILY LOMIDZE: (Georgian spoken)

WATSON: This pensioner, named Lily Lomidze, was one of thousands of protesters attending this opposition rally earlier this month in downtown Tbilisi.

Mr. LOMIDZE: (Through Translator) Russia, of course, is aggressor. We know it. But you must think. You are president. Georgia is a little one, and it's big, our Russia. And you must be diplomat, yeah? You mustn't say bad things.

WATSON: The crowd assembled in front of a banner that read, "Stop Russia, Stop Misha." Misha is Saakashvili's nickname. The protest was held on the one-year anniversary of a highly criticized government crackdown during which police attacked opposition demonstrators and seized control of one of Georgia's biggest TV channels. The episode hurt Saakashvili's self-proclaimed image as a democratic reformer. Giorgi Gogia is a researcher from Human Rights Watch.

Mr. GIORGI GOGIA (Caucasus Researcher, Human Rights Watch): We have noticed a low level of tolerance against dissenting opinion in the country, whether it's media or opposition or civil society voices.

WATSON: Last month, Western donors pledged to give Georgia more than $4 billion in aid to help rebuild after the war. But Western diplomats say to get the money and the political support the Georgians want, the Saakashvili government will have to work harder to re-establish its democratic credentials. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Tbilisi.

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