Counting on Angels For Peace in Georgia

The angels lined up like sentries outside the Georgian parliament seem to be glowing with symbolic significance. After a year when people here feel that they have been invaded and occupied, it's a striking coincidence that the authorities have stationed celestial defenders outside the building, where 12 months ago jolly inflatable Santas stood as Christmas decorations, in what with hindsight feel like more innocent times.

More than four months on, the international media are still focused on the question of who started the war with Russia, although the answer to that largely depends on how the conflict is framed -- as the culmination of years of political machinations and low-level violence or as a military command to take South Ossetia in early August.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili answered this one directly when giving testimony recently before the parliamentary commission investigating the war. "The Georgian government made the decision to undertake a military operation," he said. But Saakashvili insisted that this was not an "invasion" of South Ossetia because, as he put it, "A country can't invade its own territory." That viewpoint might be unacceptable in Tskhinvali or Moscow, but it's widely held in Tbilisi.

With Russian troops maintaining checkpoints just an hour's drive from the Georgian capital and the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia effectively lost, the war still overshadows everyday life here. But for many people, the question of how the fighting started is less urgent than worries about the precarious economy or whether Moscow will turn off the gas taps this winter. So far, however, discontent has not escalated into public protest.

For the 30,000 internal refugees who are still unable to go back to their homes after the war, the seasonal celebrations will do little to alleviate the uncertainty about what is to come. At an art exhibition by refugee children in Tbilisi this month, 10-year-old Lasha, who fled South Ossetia with his family in August, showed off a painting of his house, which he said was destroyed by a Russian air strike. Next to the house, Lasha depicted an image of St. George, the country's patron saint and heavenly protector.

"I hope that soon it will be possible for me to get back home. That is all I want," the boy told a Georgian newspaper. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that children like Lasha will ever be able to return, and after a traumatic and humiliating 2008 some Georgians may need more than illuminated angels to get them through what could be one of the bleakest winters in recent years.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.