Thursday, October 2, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia | Refugees still occupy former offices in the defunct printing building at one end of Rustaveli Avenue, the central road through Tbilisi. Drying laundry hangs in the hallway, which reeks of the smell of beef cooking and urine.

“Our village doesn’t exist anymore. Everything is burned. There are no houses,” said Maria Davitashvili, 48. She and her relatives fled from their home in Tamarasheni, near Tskhinvali, the capital of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia, now an “independent” state recognized by Russia.

The situation in Georgia proper has stabilized somewhat as monitors from the European Union arrived Wednesday to patrol the border with South Ossetia. Still, the plight of the Georgian refugees remains acute.

U.S. and Georgian officials are discussing how to dispense the $1 billion in assistance pledged by President Bush at a time when the U.S. financial crisis and ongoing talks of an unprecedented government bailout of the credit industry have some here wondering whether the United States will make good on its promise.

“Headline numbers are made, 1 billion euros or $1 billion for Georgia, and history will show you that those headline figures aren’t really followed through,” said Jonathan Puddifoot, CARE International’s director for Georgia.

Nongovernmental organizations delivering humanitarian assistance to Georgia are largely dependent on foreign-aid money, which makes up 90 percent of CARE’s budget in Georgia, he said.

About $430 million of aid promised by Mr. Bush will not be allocated until next year, if then.

“It’s clearly a decision that the next administration and next Congress will have to implement,” said Richard Greene, the State Department’s deputy director of foreign assistance.

U.S. aid will focus on repairing damaged infrastructure, stabilizing the economy and responding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, Mr. Greene said.

Both major parties’ presidential nominees, Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, support the pledged aid.

However, in committee hearings in early September, Bush administration officials faced criticism of their policies toward Georgia and Russia from members of Congress in both parties, who were unhappy about being asked to bail out a country that many thought had provoked a Russian invasion.

Assured by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried that the U.S. had warned Georgia against attacking South Ossetia, Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, asked, “Then why is Georgia going to get a huge amount of funding from the United States for damage it suffered by ignoring the loudest and most specific warnings from the United States?”

With Georgia’s economy weakened from the war, the state will need assistance to continue caring for its internal refugees next year, said Nikoloz Pruidze, deputy minister of labor, health and social affairs. Now, aid is going in large part to housing the refugees before winter.

U.S. and Georgian officials are discussing the specifics, but have not made any details public.

Their silence has some watchdog groups concerned.

Closed discussions weaken independent oversight of how the money is used, said Tamuna Karosanidze, executive director of Transparency International’s Georgia office.

The petty corruption that flourished under Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime has been cleaned up since Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president in 2004. However, there are already widespread charges of high-level officials prospering from foreign investment and government contracts, according to Transparency International.

It is a systemic problem that the government is not addressing, Miss Karosanidze said. And it is at odds with the image Georgia has promoted in the U.S. as a country dedicated to democratic and market reforms.

Mrs. Davitashvili, the refugee from South Ossetia, is confident the money will come.

“We haven’t got any money yet, but we know the U.S. is helping. They’ve shown it on television,” she said, as she offered a visitor some apples and candy.

She has shared a room with her brother, his wife and their two children since arriving in Tbilisi in early August. Russian troops and South Ossetian militia burned their houses, she said, and she doesn’t know when she will be able to return. They left their village with only what they were wearing, she said.

Like other refugees in the half-gutted printing building, she and her brother’s family are making do with donated goods - a handful of dishes and spare clothes, military cots and blankets and discarded office furniture.

There is no heat in the building, and in some rooms, boards partially cover empty windows to keep out the wind and rain. Upstairs, three men found a door and were discussing the best way to put it on the entry of a room for privacy.

“They destroyed many things, and we need money to put it back together,” said Mrs. Davitashvili’s brother, Dato.

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