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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Conflict at the Top, Not on Tbilisi's Streets

APSaakashvili offering assurances to businessmen Saturday in his Tbilisi office.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Feeding one of his eight cats in a lane leading up to the Alexander Nevsky Church, Father Rafael Karelin was relatively serene about the political situation in Georgia.

And like many other ordinary Russians and Georgians in Tbilisi, he says he doesn't pay a lot of attention to relations between the two countries.

"We are loyal, law-abiding people," Karelin said.

This attitude is in stark contrast to that of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who charges Russia with stirring recent unrest in his country, or that of the leadership in Moscow, which last year cut transport and economic links between the countries after Georgia arrested and expelled four Russian security officers.

The unrest in Tbilisi, which peaked Wednesday when police and security forces violently broke up protests, has kept political figures from inside Georgia and outside the country busy responding to events over the weekend.

Tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, a major figure backing the protests, has announced that he will run for the presidency in an election Saakashvili has called for Jan. 5. The crackdown on the protesters, meanwhile, has raised complaints from the United States, the European Union and NATO, but the Georgian parliament has approved the state of emergency imposed by the president on Wednesday.

But Karelin, 81, who has spent more than 30 years in Georgia, living for more than a decade in Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, before moving to Tbilisi, doesn't much care. He says that the conflict is a political affair, likening it to a battle between snakes that doesn't involve most people at all.

"Politics is a dirty business," he said

In the latest example of that business, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency after opposition protests -- which he says were being backed by Russia -- were broken up by police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons into the crowd Wednesday.

The Georgian government has published tapes and videos of what it says are opposition leaders with Russian foreign agents, and it says there is more evidence to come. The Russian government has scoffed at the allegations.

The state of emergency remained in effect over the weekend, but unless you were an avid watcher of the news --or rather, an avid watcher of the lack of news --you wouldn't have known it. The police and army personnel patrolling the streets at the end of last week were mostly gone.

But politicians like Giga Bokeria, a member of the Georgian parliament and ally of the president, said Saturday that there was no doubt that the Russians were behind the protesters and that the aim was a coup.

"It was not an attempt at provocation, it was an attempt at regime change," Bokeria told reporters.

"There are other things that directly show Russia's involvement," he said, echoing Kremlin complaints about opposition movements in a number of CIS countries by saying demonstrators were being paid. "They spent a lot of money to keep people there."

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have dismissed the accusations, insisting that most opposition members are more anti-Russian than the government.

"They will say I am speaking to an English spy," said opposition politician leader David Bednzehishvili when speaking to a foreign journalist.

You would think Russia and Georgia could at least find common ground in their dislike of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the Georgian tycoon who made much of his fortune working with the Kremlin's most hated figure -- Boris Berezovsky. But the Georgian government sees even Patarkatsishvili as a Kremlin stooge.

Bokeria accused the oligarch Saturday, a few hours before Patarkatsishvili announced that he would run for president, of plotting a Russian-backed coup. Georgian prosecutors want to question Patarkatsishvili over charges that he was seeking to overthrow the government.

Russian state television, meanwhile, pulled out all the stops in covering Wednesday's clashes, offering extended coverage of Georgian police beating up protesters or firing tear gas and rubber bullets at them, accompanied by commentary that this was the true face of Georgia's Western democracy.

With election season now underway in both countries, there is little likelihood of any relaxation from the mutual feelings of spite between the leadership in Moscow and Tbilisi.

"There will be no improvement while parliamentary and presidential campaigns are underway [in Russia]," said Elene Tevoradze, head of the Georgian parliament's Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee. "They could get worse. The enemy theme is very useful for Russia."

The Georgian side is almost certain to do the same with the presidential elections set for Jan. 5, she added.

But few Georgians seem to take the accusations against Russia that seriously.

"There are no problems" between Russians and Georgians at the personal level, said Gocha Ahalmulusulashvili, 40, a driver "Nobody would ask [a Russian], 'Why did you come here?'"

The Alexander Nevsky church is a reminder of the degree to which the histories of the two nations are intertwined. Like Moscow's Novy Arbat, in Soviet times the street on which the church stands was called Ulitsa Kalinina, after the titular head of state under Stalin.

Father Karelin said more Georgians than Russians attended the church, which was built in the late 19th century, when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. On Saturday night, the occasional Georgian passerby would stop outside the separate open chapel that opens onto the street to cross himself.

"I don't think people really believe" the spying accusations, Tevoradze said. "A hundred thousand people don't go out [onto the streets] because of Russia."

"No one knows what is true," said Ahalmulusulashvili, a Saakashvili supporter who used to travel to Russia to sell cars before links between the countries were cut off.

With tensions high, there is little hope that the situation for the less privileged members of either community is likely to improve soon.

Russians, especially those with no Georgian language skills, earn less than native Georgian speakers. A lack of language skills means that they usually have more menial jobs, and Tevoradze sees many Russians coming to her office for help.

As Russians are less likely to have dachas in the countryside or relatives living outside, they are less likely to have access to cheaper produce from out of town, Tevoradze said. She added that unlike the Azeri community, for example, Russians do not live close together, so they lack the mutual support that compact communities generally provide.

But she says life for Georgians in Moscow is no better. "It is more difficult being a Georgian in Russia than the other way around," said Tevoradze, who was in Moscow last year during a campaign in which hundreds of Georgians were deported.

Late Saturday night, a Russian with her head wrapped in a scarf and flowers in her hands left the Alexander Nevsky Church. When asked how Russians live in Georgia she said only "With God's help," before walking away.