Today, someone I was interviewing here in the Georgian capital mused: "If the Americans bombed Belgrade to stop violence against Albanians in Kosovo, why wouldn't Russia bomb Tbilisi to stop violence against Ossetians?" The question made a bit of sense and, increasingly today, it appeared to be something that weighed on minds here. The reality of war just 50 miles away, heightened by scenes on Georgian television of civilians killed in the Russian bombing of an apartment block in the city of Gori and reports of the evacuation of key government buildings in the capital has sobered the mood here in Tbilisi.
Sure, there are still convoys of honking cars driving along the main drag, Rustaveli, with youths hanging out of the doors and sunroofs hoisting Georgian flags. There are citizens walking around in freshly-minted t-shirts with the words (in English) "Russian Troops out of Georgia" defiantly printed on the front. And there is even the mundane: I saw a work crew painting the median barrier on the road to the airport (named George W Bush street incidentally) as if nothing exceptional was going on!
But at the same time entire rows of restaurants and usually popular nightspots sit completely empty. You pass houses where, through the window, you can see residents crowded around televisions, watching the constant stream of news from the front. On the side streets there seems to be far fewer cars about.
At the international airport, you have the sense of being in a developing word nation the day after a coup with throngs of anxious passengers assaulting the one or two open ticket counters in waves. Most international flights have been canceled. Turkish airlines seemed to be the only show in town this afternoon and all manner of nationalities were clamoring to get seats to Istanbul. I saw Italians, Germans, Romanians, British, Turks (of course) and even a gentle old man from Iran. People were offering to pay double for seats. Fights broke out among passengers each with their own national styles of waiting in line (or cutting line). One Danish man simply walked from counter to counter forlornly asking for a "ticket to anywhere".
So far, the US Embassy has no plans to evacuate its citizens. Poland however, is said to be bringing a plane from Warsaw. The conventional wisdom here is that if things get very bad, head for Armenia. The border is only 35 miles from Tbilisi and Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is about 5 hours drive. The trouble is that no one knows which roads are open and many taxi drivers are reluctant to try their luck. The going rate of $200 has already doubled.