The Russians Are Coming...Or Going?

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time

The Russian wait for orders in Georgia.

Ambassador Lasha Zhvania is a senior Georgian official. One morning this week, he was pacing back and forth at a Russian military checkpoint just outside the war torn city of Gori, talking angrily on his mobile telephone . For more than two hours he had been attempting to escort a delegation of European officials to Gori from the capital Tbilisi. A journey that ordinarily should take 40 minutes was already into its third hour. "I am the foreign relations committee chairman in the Georgian Parliament and it just took us 40 minutes to go a few meters," he told me on the outskirts of the deserted, Russian-occupied town as a colleague attempted to persuade a Russian civilian official in a T-shirt about his legal obligation to allow the delegation through. Zhvania would not speculate on whether the Russian troops that have occupied his country would be pulling back as promised any time soon. "They should," he said curtly. "They should."

Russian officials have said that they will remove the bulk of the troops that have occupied Georgia by the end of Friday. But there is still little evidence that the promised pull-out will be completed on or near schedule Friday morning. Russian soldiers controlled a major checkpoint just 35 km (21.7 miles) from Tbilisi on the road to Gori, checking papers, searching cars and preventing some foreigners, including many journalists, from traveling further. The withdrawal "is taking place but very slowly," says Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security network to which every nation on the continent belongs and which is fielding a 20-man military monitoring mission in Georgia. General John Craddock, commander of U.S. forces in Europe said, "If they are moving, it is at a snail's pace." But Western observers decline to speculate on Russia's long term intentions how many troops Russia may plan to leave in Georgia or even where.

The presence of Moscow's forces in Georgia has started to create a new reality on the ground. One objective of the Russian occupation until now has been to "confuse the enemy" as to their real intentions in the country, says David Smith, director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi. That is certainly the effect of the combined talk of withdrawal and the stationary though not inactive presence of the occupying troops. The Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili estimated that Russian soldiers are nominally in control of 30% of Georgian territory. The troops have used the past week, since a de facto ceasefire came into effect, to methodically destroy "Georgia's strategic infrastructure," says Smith. "They're knocking them back into the stone age." Throughout Georgian territory, Russian troops have been destroying armor and weaponry and occupying military bases. Bridges have been blown up and artillery torched. In Gori on Tuesday, a Russian soldier languidly stood guard at the gate of the main Georgian military compound, a burnt out vehicle blocking the road behind him.

For the past week, along the main road that links eastern and western Georgia, columns of Russian artillery and troop trucks could be seen rumbling first towards the capital, then in the opposite direction, then off the road into the surrounding countryside. Reports of their withdrawal or advance based on such movements are picked up by government spokesmen in Tbilisi and broadcast around the world.

Georgians are increasinly bewildered. Dali Sachaleli, 42, was visiting her ailing mother in the area from her home in Tbilisi and said that all night she listened to Russian armor and tanks clank about the fields and homes around her family home. "People say they are leaving [mines] behind for when they leave," she told me on the road nearby. "We don't know what they are doing." She and other villagers used to picnic by a lake on top of the hill, but have stopped going because of fears of mines. (There are no confirmed reports of mining in the area.) . Rumors of Russian provocations, plans to dress up as Georgian troops and attack their own positions in order to provide Moscow with a pretext to remain on the ground as "peacekeepers" are increasingly common in the capital.

Many observers believe a key long-term goal of the occupation has been to undermine the authority of the Georgian government — and President Saakashvili in particular. Attempts by Georgian security officials to assert authority over the Russian troops have been summarily dealt with. Earlier this week, about 20 Georgian security personnel attempted to stop a small Russian column from entering the port at Poti. The Russians handcuffed them and took them prisoner. When a Georgian police car tried to block a Russian tank from progressing down a country road west of the capital, the tank simply rolled over it (there were no injuries).

So far there is no sign that Russia's attempts to humiliate his government have weakened Saakashvili politically. Indeed, the occupation appears to have united Georgians. But in some areas under Russian control villagers are beginning to wonder whether muddling through in some kind of collaboration with the power on the ground is not preferable to war. In Gori, now largely abandoned after the Russian bombings, farmer Giorgi Chikladze says he hopes he can now sell his peaches to Russia , where he says he would get higher prices than in Tbilisi. In the old days when Georgia was still under Soviet rule, he says, his family sold its harvest of apples and peaches to Russian markets. But since the border was closed to trade following Georgian President Saakashvillis' souring relations with Moscow, that's no longer possible. He can sell his fruit but only at a fraction of the price, he says. "Where are we supposed to sell now? America is too far away. Russia is better for us than America." He says all this while standing under a towering statue of Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin, who was born in Gori, in a town square where most of the windows were recently blown out by Russian bombs. His views are still the exception in most of Georgia but probably music to the ears of Russian soldiers and tank commanders still clanking through the streets of the Georgian city.