Georgians are welcoming the arrival of American aid shipments, interpreting them as a get-tough message to Moscow, and as a gesture of enduring support.
While American officials have vehemently denied Russian allegations that the aid comes with arms, some Georgians are hoping that the arrival of the supply ships will make Moscow rethink its controversial peacekeeper posts on Georgian territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Over the past several days, two American military ships have docked in the Black Sea port of Batumi, a few dozen kilometers down the coast from Russian peacekeeper posts and Russian military ships anchored off the west coast of Georgia.
The USS McFaul, a navy destroyer, along with the Coast Guard cutter Dallas, brought nearly 100 tons of humanitarian assistance to help feed and clothe an estimated 128,000 people displaced by the fighting between Russia and Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A third American ship is also expected within a few days.
The Kremlin is seeking to recast the high-profile American humanitarian action as a secret arms re-supply mission, designed to rebuild the shattered Georgian armed forces. "We are not controlling it, and are not blockading it," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview with a French television station on August 27.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assailed the US mission as an act of destabilization. "Battleships do not normally deliver aid, and this is gunboat diplomacy -- it does not make the situation more stable," the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.
In response to Moscow's aid-cum-arms accusations, American officials maintain that the ships were carrying several million dollars-worth of humanitarian relief supplies -- diapers, bottled water and pre-packaged meals -- not arms and ammunition.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Tim Callaghan, the US Agency for International Development's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) leader overseeing humanitarian aid deliveries in Georgia, underscored the mission's goal: getting food and other basic necessities to people in need. "Our role is to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian relief supplies that have been identified," he said. "The government of Georgia has made a request for assistance. When they do that, the US government is always prepared to assist."
The aid comes amid US consideration of a $1-billion package to support the Georgian economy. One of the objectives of the Russian military incursion into Georgia was to damage the country's civilian economic infrastructure. The US aid package would help Georgia rebuild housing, bridges, ports and railways destroyed during the fighting. The Georgian government has also asked for extended loan provisions from the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation to help banks weather any economic downturn connected with the conflict.
A September 4 visit to Tbilisi by US Vice President Dick Cheney is meant to further underline that message of support for Georgia.
For many Georgians, the means of delivery of the US aid seems almost as important as the assistance itself. For example, during an August 24 broadcast report covering the arrival of the USS McFaul to Batumi, Rustavi-2 journalists made sure to point out to viewers that the ship possessed a powerful array of weaponry.
In remarks to reporters, Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili commented that the ship made Georgians feel "safer."
Malkhaz Matsaberidze, a political science professor at Tbilisi State University, noted that the Georgian fixation on the ships' military capabilities reflected a sense of helplessness in the face of a Russian military presence in their country. "People will support all efforts to increase security so that sort of attack does not repeat itself," he said.
He termed as "funny" Russia's allegation that the United States was trying to covertly deliver arms under the guise of humanitarian aid. "To hide arms in boxes is an old Russian [fear]," Matsaberidze said. "When Georgia will receive arms, it will receive them openly."
For the tens of thousands of refugees taking shelter in Tbilisi and other cities around the country, the $22 million in American aid have exposed cultural differences between Americans and Georgians. The IDPs are emphatically grateful for the gestures of support, but some of it has not helped in easing hardships.
For the past four days at Public School No.167 in the Tbilisi suburb of Gldani, 200 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have not received any other official food aid except US-supplied pre-packaged meals, known as MREs. The kits contain foods that suit American tastes, including peanut butter, crackers, boiled pasta in tomato sauce and pop-tarts. In a country with a national cuisine accustomed to fresh produce, and where high-fructose packaged goods do not capture a large market share, the processed foods contained in MREs strike many as inedible. Rows of MRE boxes stand unopened in the school's lobby while women wait instead for food donations from neighboring apartment blocks.
"We are thankful for America that they sent some help -- and Europe," commented Davit Turashvili, an IDP from the South Ossetian village of Ergneti. "But we told them that we don't want those boxes [of MREs] any more."
Robin Lodge, spokesperson for the World Food Programme, noted that delivery of staple food items like wheat flour, sugar and salt will resume in Tbilisi on August 29.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.