Taking the Temperature In Georgia's Hot Spring

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Tbilisi is bathing in an early summer glow. Babushkas are hawking bucketfuls of luscious strawberries and kiwi on the sidewalks, the fountains are gushing merry jets of water into the warm air, and the Georgian capital seems to be in a carefree mood. Is this really a country on the brink of war?

After Russia recently moved more peacekeeping forces into Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, Georgian officials warned that armed conflict could be imminent. There's been no shortage of inflammatory rhetoric since the latest conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow erupted when an Georgian spy drone was shot down over the Abkhaz conflict zone in April. But it's sometimes hard to judge how much of the frenzied speculation about surveillance drones, MiG fighter jets and troop movements is just propaganda, bluff and geopolitical gamesmanship.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent calm in Tbilisi, there is an underlying sense of uncertainty. "Will war in Abkhazia begin tomorrow?" worried the headline in one Georgian newspaper recently. When another paper asked its readers whether they thought armed conflict was inevitable, it received some disturbing responses: "It's clear that Georgia doesn't want war, but like most Georgians, I expect fighting. I don't want to think about how it'll end," one said. "If things continue in the same way, war in Abkhazia will be unavoidable," responded another.

Others were less fearful, pointing out that all sides simply have too much to lose. A return to war in Abkhazia would not only damage Georgia's hopes of joining NATO, but also cause serious international diplomatic problems for the Kremlin. "War is not beneficial for anyone," an 18-year-old student noted sagely.

In Abkhazia itself, people have become accustomed to living with a siege mentality, and although tensions have risen, the perceived threat of war is hardly new. "It's the same as always, people believe it's obvious that the Georgians want to invade, because they think it's their land and they want it back," I was told by a colleague who recently returned from the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi. "Everyone in Tbilisi was saying war was coming soon, but in Sukhumi, it just didn't feel like that at all."

With emotions running high, however, fears persist that any random altercation fueled by patriotic fervor, excessive testosterone and strong alcohol could escalate. Everyone says they don't want war, but that doesn't mean they're not ready to fight. "The Abkhaz insist they're ready to defend what they see as their homeland," my colleague cautioned. "They say, 'We'll fight back, and it'll be the worst thing that ever happened -- for the Georgians and for us.'"

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.