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Georgians fear they could be next as they track the war in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That sound you hear behind me is the beeping of people laying down their Metro cards. They were at the top of a very long escalator down to the Liberty Square Metro station. One of the reasons we're in Georgia is to hear what's on Georgians' minds as they track the war in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRO ENTRANCE CHIME)

KELLY: We tap our cards to pay, too, ride the escalator down to the platform and start talking with people hustling past on their daily commute. I stop Nikoloz Kikvadez - he's a medical student here - and ask if he's following the war in Ukraine closely. He looks at me. Who isn't, he replies, which is fair enough, true around the world at this point, but really true here. Georgia shares a border with Russia and was attacked itself by Russia in 2008. That is very much on people's minds.

NIKOLOZ KIKVADEZ: No one helped us like Ukraine, OK? No one helped us. And no one helped us afterwards the war. So I don't know. I don't have any hope that someone will help us. No one cares about little country that borders with Russia.

KELLY: What you are hearing is a widely shared anxiety here that Russia isn't done attacking Georgia. Here's university student Anano Tsakadze, who's also waiting to catch the train, speaking through our interpreter.

Do you worry that Georgia is at risk?

ANANO TSAKADZE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KELLY: Russia has invaded here already.

TSAKADZE: Yeah. (Through interpreter) Yes, I'm very nervous. This morning when I woke up, I was checking the news and I was wondering what was going to happen because I'm afraid that we will be the next ones. So I'm very worried about the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

KELLY: Now, people here do allow that Vladimir Putin appears to have his hands full in Ukraine, that maybe Georgia is safe for the moment. But bear in mind that after Russia attacked in 2008, it never fully left. Russia currently occupies some 20% of this country, which is not a big country to start with.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT STREET NOISES)

KELLY: Back up the escalators out here on the streets of Tbilisi, thousands of people have been turning out for protests to stand in solidarity with Ukraine. We're headed next to meet the organizers, two founders of the Shame Movement. They welcome us to their office, asking, want anything - water, coffee, anti-Kremlin posters? They're not kidding. There are stacks of posters on a dining table. We walk over to look.

SHOTA DIGHMELASHVILI: So Russia is an occupier. Stand with Ukraine. There's Putin's...

KELLY: We're looking at red boot marks across Putin's face. And then how about this one?

SALOME BARKER: This one is a newer one. Of course we know that Putin is a killer. We know it for long, but it's like, we just printed it.

KELLY: It's a picture of Putin, his face and with the big letters right across his nose that says killer, exclamation point.

That's Salome Nicoleishvili - she goes by Salome Barker - and another co-founder, Shota Dighmelashvili. They are protesting the Kremlin. They're also protesting their own government, which hasn't signed on to sanctions against Russia, which said no when Ukraine's President Zelenskyy asked to address Georgia's Parliament. Salome and Shota say Georgia should do way more to help Ukraine and stand up to Russia. On March 7, protesters started throwing toilet paper at a government building here. More than half of Shame's founding members were arrested, including Shota.

DIGHMELASHVILI: I was arrested and spent, like, five days in the prison cell, which was opened especially for us, and the only people there were activists.

KELLY: Salome says since then, it's been hard to figure out how to organize. She says they're not scared of being arrested, but a lot of people are, so they're staying home. And the government here, while it did just apply this month to join the EU, is mostly going out of its way not to antagonize Russia.

I want to introduce you to one more Georgian, a high-profile one accustomed to representing Georgia on the world stage. Irakli Alasania served as Georgia's defense minister and before that, ambassador to the U.N. He tells me it's great to see the world uniting behind Ukraine. Does it hang heavy, I ask, that the same didn't seem to happen when Russia attacked his country?

IRAKLI ALASANIA: Yes, and of course, in retrospect, you can judge whether world was ready for this kind of reaction. And unfortunately, if you go through the history, a lot of blood has to shed when people are starting realizing that, well, this is happening and we need to react. So in 2008, world was not ready. In 1993, world was not ready because...

KELLY: 1993, we should explain, this was...

ALASANIA: The - oh, I'm sorry, first Russian-Georgian War that started in 1992 in Abkhazia when they occupied it and ethnically cleansed the Georgians from there. And now Putin's overreaching and his appetite to swallow whole post-Soviet space back to resurrecting Soviet Union. He lost it, and it's evident. It's going to take time. Sure as a - with the military background, what I have, it's not going to be easy. It's going to get worse until it get better.

KELLY: You mentioned your military background, and I just want to inject for people listening, I know you fought...

ALASANIA: Yeah.

KELLY: ...In the '90s.

ALASANIA: In 1993.

KELLY: And your father died fighting for Georgia.

ALASANIA: True.

KELLY: Yeah.

ALASANIA: A lot of Georgians died, yeah.

KELLY: But your family has blood in this fight against Russia.

ALASANIA: Yes, that's true. That's true. But honestly, on that, I would say that we don't have this hatred toward Russians as a people. And I think at the end, it will lead the way to really not only working but I think neighborly relationship with Russia. I believe in Georgian-Russian relationship in the future.

KELLY: Really?

ALASANIA: But it's going to be post-Putin period, definitely.

KELLY: Neighborly relationship - that is not something I've heard from anybody else here yet.

ALASANIA: I'm a believer in that. And there's lot of arguments against it, but I do because in my dealings with the diplomats in the U.N. and other businesspeople, I feel that younger generation Russians who are exposed to the West, who are exposed to the dealings with the West, they're going to be easier for us to talk with. And they're going to understand more. And they're going to understand how much they're losing by being the country they have created. So I'm believer in Georgian-Russian future relationship but only after the post-Putin period will begin.

KELLY: That's interesting because it seems like Georgia is caught. If you lean toward the West, apply to join the EU, try to join NATO, you risk antagonizing Russia. But if you lean Russia, then the West questions, are you actually serious about joining?

ALASANIA: Actually, there's no - we don't have options here. The only way is to go westward and be patient.

KELLY: We're speaking to you in Tbilisi. You split your time between Tbilisi and travel often to New York and to Washington. What should Americans understand about Georgia in this moment?

ALASANIA: Oh, first of all, I think they should understand that Ukraine and Georgia now, it's inseparable. What going to go down in Ukraine, it going to matter for Georgia. And Georgia is not only Georgia. If Georgia goes down, then whole Caucasus, I would say, and even hope for Central Asia to be at certain point free and be democratic will go down. And standing up against Putin is actually the only thing at this point that will forge this future for all of us.

KELLY: Irakli Alasania, thank you.

ALASANIA: Thank you very much for having me.

KELLY: Former defense minister Irakli Alasania, one of many Georgians we are meeting here this week as we report from a country watching Russia's war against Ukraine very closely and wondering if they're next.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERPLEXA'S "ORCHESTRAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.