Eastern European students react to conflict

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September 5, 2008

11:15 AM

The eruption of warfare halfway across the globe between Russia and neighboring country Georgia has hit close to home for students from the region here at the College of William and Mary.

In early August, Georgia, a former Soviet republic with 4.6 million people, launched an aerial bombardment and ground attack on its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose citizens have historic and ethnic ties to Russia.

The following day, Russia retaliated, launching raids both in South Ossetia and on targets in the rest of Georgia. Russia said that Georgian troops had attacked Russian citizens and peacekeeping forces in the region and has since recognized the region’s independence from Georgia.
Timur Tsutsuk ’09, a Russian native whose entire family lives in Tbilisi, was in the Georgian capital when the conflict erupted.

“I heard bombs explode six [or] seven miles away from my house, which turned out to be a Russian attack on a Georgian military base,” Tsutsuk said. “Georgians were becoming more and more upset and worried, and they began staging protests on the streets against the Russians.”

Tsutsuk knew that his family and other American citizens would be evacuated from Georgia.

“On Aug. 10, most American families and kids arrived at the U.S. embassy, which was surrounded by 30 [or] 40 soldiers,” he said. “A caravan of 20 cars took my family and me to Armenia. It is normally a seven hour drive, but it took us 12 hours due to congestion.”

Unlike Tsutsuk, the family of Sandro Gvakharia ’12, an ethnic Georgian, was not evacuated from Tbilisi.

“My family was holed away in Tbilisi, hoping for the best,” Gvakharia said, who left Georgia July 7. “This whole ordeal has been very stressful for me because I love my family and have been very worried about them.”
Alarmed by the large-scale, unexpected Russian victory, several Western nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, urged Russia to pull out of Georgian territory. Declaring that “the aggressor [had] been punished,” the Kremlin announced a ceasefire on Aug. 12 and began to withdraw its troops from the
region.

Tsutsuk is confident that his family is now safe but is worried about Georgian citizens acting hostile toward his Russian family.

“My mom is very Russian-looking and scared to go in the streets,” he said. “My grandma will probably move back to Russia.”

Gvakharia still believes that Russia poses a serious threat to eastern Europe and, ultimately, Western security.

“I hope the West takes from this that Russia is still a threat to free people,” Gvakharia said. “If Russia gets away with its actions in Georgia without further international backlash, it might see its military success as an encouragement to invade other European nations.”

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