February 25, 2009 / 4:13 PM / 9 years ago

No Russian soap operas as Georgia marks anniversary

<p>Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks with students during a meeting at the Soviet Occupation Museum in Tbilisi February 25, 2009. REUTERS/Natia Papavadze/Pool</p>

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia, still smarting from a brief war with Russia last August, halted broadcasts of Russian soap operas and songs on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of its 1921 occupation by the Soviet Red Army.

Cars drove slowly along the main Rustaveli avenue in the capital, Tbilisi, at 11 a.m. (0700 GMT), horns blaring and red-and-white Georgian flags streaming from windows. Children stood in line outside schools.

Tbilisi city council said it would consider renaming 10 streets that still bear prominent Bolsheviks’ names and instead honor Georgian soldiers killed when Russian forces repelled Georgia’s assault on the rebel South Ossetia region last year.

“We are expressing our protest against the (1921) occupation of Georgia, but we also want to say that the Georgian flag will always fly over Tbilisi and Georgia,” said Tbilisi city council head Zaal Samadashvili.

Georgians are struggling to define their relationship with Russia and Russian society. Their deep historical and cultural ties have been marred by political hostility and war since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Red Army invaded Georgia on February 25, 1921, ending its brief independence and starting 70 years of Soviet rule.

Thousands of Russian troops are now again based in tiny South Ossetia and the lush Black Sea region of Abkhazia, which threw off Tbilisi’s rule in the early 1990s and were recognized by Moscow as independent states after the war last August.

Russia says its troops are there at the request of the separatists to protect them from Georgian aggression, and that it was forced to intervene to protect civilians after months of skirmishes and Georgian accusations of Russian provocation.

In Wednesday’s protest, Georgian cable providers took Russian cable channels and their popular diet of soap operas and films off the air, and radio stations heeded calls to stop playing Russian music.

The protest was due to last one day, although the main Russian news channels have been blocked since the war.

“I read a lot of Russian books and literature, but I now regret it, because of their aggression toward us,” said Nino Shengelia, a 52-year-old teacher who supported the decision.

In a public vote last week, Georgians chose a disco song that takes a thinly-veiled swipe at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the country’s entry in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow.

Led by President Mikheil Saakashvili since the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” the country of 4.5 million people has set its sights on Western integration and NATO membership, angering its former Soviet master.

Georgians say their anger is directed at the Kremlin and its policies toward Georgia, not at Russian people.

Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Timothy Heritage

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