I was very excited about the invitation from the Polish Embassy in Tbilisi to attend a special conference in Georgia to mark the tragic anniversary of the new, full-size invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The gathering on 24 February, hosted by the respected Rondeli Foundation (the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies) and supported by the Ukrainian Embassy, turned out to be well-attended event, bringing together diplomats, experts and media. Even Georgian President, Salome Zourabichvili, made a brief appearance. Debates reflected strong unity of views on the international consequences of the war and confrontation started by the Putin regime.
This palpable sense of solidarity with Ukrainians was not only felt in the conference room. It was more than matched by the extraordinary outpouring of support shown by thousands of ordinary Georgians who filled the centre of Tbilisi on the same day, waving Ukrainian and European flags, literally shouting their identification with the Ukrainian cause. Even some Russian refugees from the war (as usually, rather timidly, without clear national identification) joined in. The people in the streets of the Georgian capital seemed confident in their beliefs, bold in expressing them, determined in telling everybody where majority of Georgians stand – on the side of the victim of aggression and against neo-imperialism.
In a way, these scenes reminded me of the enthusiasm for Georgia’s integration, freedom and democracy, one saw on display in the same city twenty-fifteen years ago. The reforms ensuing from the Rose Revolution in 2003 were real, they brought Georgia concrete benefits and seemed to set it firmly on the path for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. There was, after all, a political pledge made at the Bucharest summit in 2008 to see Georgia becoming a member of NATO, and a similar promise of EU membership (recently transformed into a more concrete framework). Successive Georgian governments – with different degrees of intensity and against the background of, as always, turbulent internal politics and personalities – have made strides in changing Georgia for the better. Progress made in the fight against corruption and foreign investments visible in the skylines of Tbilisi and Batumi pointed to the tangible effects of the new policies.
Of course, as was to be expected, Russia saw democratic and prosperous Georgia as a challenge to its kleptocratic regime. It used military force and hybrid methods to de facto annex significant part of Georgia’s territory in 2008, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia (20% of Georgia’s rightful territory) remaining to this day under the control of Russian occupiers. The political star of the Rose revolution leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, has waned. His personal journey has taken him from the post of the president to a political activist in Ukraine and finally to an imprisoned patient in one of Tbilisi’s hospitals – a prisoner of the new authorities, who refuse to let him out of the country even for medical treatment.
Most consequentially, the Georgian Dream party that gained power in 2012, formally under the slogan of continuing country’s reforms, has gradually but steadily set out on the road of dismantling democratic controls and restricting the level playing field rules indispensable for genuine and fair political competition. Capturing of state institutions, media and formatting the written and unwritten limits to opposition have kept it in power since. Opposition is disunited. Private business is afraid to challenge the people in power by e.g. financing alternative political formations. Independent media and NGOs have a tough life. Shady links with the Russian system (or, as a minimum, decisions copying the worst solutions used by the Putin regime) have become an open secret and in recent months started visibly affect foreign and security policy choices of the country.
NATO membership goal has remained a formal objective,[i] but voiced in a rather ritualistic fashion, without conviction and necessary internal follow-up. Authorities have taken a rather cowardly neutral stand on the Russian war against Ukraine, offering perfunctory verbal solidarity, but refusing to go beyond it. Comparison with Moldova, a country even more vulnerable to Russian threats, is very telling. Economic policy has begun to favour ties with Russia (in January 2023 Russia one of the top three largest trading partners of Georgia).[ii] The EU membership – supported by over 80% of the population – continues to be the official objective but political actions of the government undermines this claim. How else can one read a desire to push through the so-called foreign agents law – totally contrary to the EU standards and laws, a legislation copied from Russia, aimed at further clamping down on a civil society? The bill threatens to stigmatise and marginalise journalists and civil society organisations critical of the country’s rulers.[iii]
This latest initiative is what ultimately led to new and massive demonstrations on the street of Tbilisi. At the time of writing the scale and the fury of the protest seems to have made the authorities to announce a retreat on the draft law project.[iv] But force has been used against the protesters, some have been detained. The level of trust in the Georgian Dream politicians is very low, with many distrustful of its pledges. Almost symbolically, while the West has firmly spoken in favour of the demonstrators and against the draft law, Moscow decided to condemn the protesters.
Russian influence in Georgia is stronger than it was a decade ago. On top of political and economic connections there are now thousands of young Russians in Georgia, predominantly escaping from the military mobilisation calls in Russia. The figures are substantial, some talk of 150000 or even more (in a country of just 3,7 million inhabitants). While Georgians can justifiable claim to be proud of their hospitality and generosity, there is scant evidence of much gratitude from the asylum seekers. From what I could observe in situ, they are no longer even bother to change the car plates into local ones, the money sent by parents in Russia is used to drive up prices of accommodation and majority of other products, and behaviour of Russians in public resembles that of rather spoilt tourists. As Tbilisi (and many other cities) is full of refugees from occupied Georgian territories the juxtaposition is surreal, to say the least.
It seems that Georgia, politically, has reached some sort of crossroads. The group holding the reins of power seems determined to carry on perpetuating its rule – by clever PR, but also any other scheme preventing real competition. It still wants to cling to the public goal of European integration (NATO membership too, but is hardly mentioned in public discourse).
But you cannot have your cake and eat it. Various red lines have been crossed. The frustration of international community, including of the diplomatic corps in Tbilisi, is high and rising. Events in Georgia are now back to front pages of world news outlets, special seminars devoted to the latest developments are hastily organised by think-tanks on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] But unfortunately, the main reason for this is international worry about the future of Georgia, not expectation of progress.
As one has heard multiple times – the integration door has been opened. But only Georgia can decide to walk through it. If the government continues to flaunt its promises (on rule of law, democratic principles etc.), if it continues to disregard the wishes of its own population – the same door will be temporarily closed. This will entail huge damage to Georgia. It will be to the detriment of an already fragile stability in the Caucuses. But there are times when pretending that somehow everything is OK – when it is not – does not help anybody. It is up to the Georgians to save their dreams. Now.
Author: Robert Pszczel, Senior Resident Fellow, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations
[i] Parliament Adopts Foreign Policy Resolution, https://civil.ge/archives/389351
[ii] Georgia’s trade gap widens by 48% y/y in February, https://intellinews.com/georgia-s-trade-gap-widens-by-48-y-y-in-february-238074/
[iii] Putin-style ‘foreign agent’ bill in Georgia threatens civil society, https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-vladimir-putin-style-foreign-agent-bill-in-georgia-threatens-civil-society/
[iv] Protests in Georgia, https://jamesjaycarafano.substack.com/p/protests-in-georgia?r=1o7ccy&utm_medium=ios&utm_campaign=post
[v] Unpacking Georgia’s “Foreign Agent” Bill: What Comes Next?, https://cepa.org/events/unpacking-georgias-foreign-agent-bill-what-comes-next/