Tbilisi: does Bush avenue lead to a church?

The events in South Ossetia resulted in another dubious achievement of the Bush Administration - unprecedented anti-American prejudice in Russia.

In Soviet times Russians got used to acquiring reliable information by comparing what the local media offered with that of Western radio stations, to whose list CNN was later added. But American television was silent in the morning of August 8, when Georgian artillery, tanks and missiles mercilessly shelled the small town of Tskhinvali. Active coverage started only when Russian tanks came to the rescue after peacekeeper and civilian casualties reached several dozen.

America did not see - or deliberately turned a blind eye to - the tragedy of Russians and Ossetians. It focused all its political and propaganda power on justifying those who started aggression against peaceful civilians under the cover of night, shooting at homes, schools and kindergartens. The Russian elite were more amazed at the American response than the Georgian aggression.

Reforms in the Soviet Union, and later Russia, became possible only because a vast part of the nation shared democratic values and ideals of freedom with America. At different times, I was editor of two of the most liberal national weeklies - Moscow News and Ogonyok, and so I knew the price Russians paid for the changes. A mental U-turn was the hardest and the most essential of them.

Americans, occasionally harsh and occasionally tactful, supported Russia on its thorny path. The 1980s and '90s made it clear that the Soviet and later Russian nation was not infected with anti-American prejudice, despite vigorous Soviet propaganda. Few believed in it, and biting cartoons of Uncle Sam were smirked at. Russians sympathised with America, listened to its radio, learned English and followed American fashions. Relations between Gorbachev and Reagan, and later Yeltsin and Bush Sr. and Clinton were never cloudless - but they found common language on all occasions. An overwhelming majority of Russians thought highly of American democracy.

Now, a few days after US politicians ignored the Ossetian tragedy, a wave of anti-Americanism is sweeping Russia. Washington's bias and political myopia came as a pleasant surprise to Russian "hawks" and "imperialists" - possibly because democracy might be harsh, but can never be heartless.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgian illnesses in need of long and gentle treatment. Instead, Georgia, the country with the greatest military expenditure in the world in proportion to its budget, preferred surgery without anaesthetic. Russians can't see why America supports it without a look back at the drama-laden precedents of Georgian relations with Abkhazians and Ossetians - a gory sequence of clashes and feuds.

Do Americans think that the presence or absence of Bush Avenue is the principal difference between democracy and totalitarianism? At any rate, one of the central streets of Tbilisi was named Bush Avenue several years ago.

The revolution known as perestroika in Russia started in the mid-1980s with a superb Georgian film, Repentance. An old woman asks in its final scene: "Does this street lead to a church?" and, when she is given a negative reply, sighs: "Who would want a street that doesn't lead to a church?" To all appearances, Bush Avenue has not yet led Georgia to a church.

Today, the most difficult job in Russia is that of the U.S. ambassador.

Viktor Loshak - Editor-in-Chief of the weekly Ogonyok

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