Calling Georgia: Time For Russia’s Ambivalent Neighbor To Pick A Side
Unlike other neighbors in the region, leading political figures in Georgia have refrained from officially denouncing Russia's invasion. From Joseph Stalin's birthplace, it's a complicated relationship. But winding up on the wrong side of history has its consequences.
Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili declared last week that his nation stands in solidarity with Ukraine in its opposition to Russian aggression, and will not allow its territory to be used to circumvent the sanctions imposed against Russia.
“Unfortunately, we Georgians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians have faced this many times before,” said the 46-year-old member of the ruling Georgian Dream party, recalling Moscow’s assault in 2008 in the disputed regions that wound up annexed by pro-Russian factions. “We saw Russian tanks destroying Georgian villages and Russian planes bombing our hopes for a better future. We witnessed the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their ancestral homes and saw those who fled massacres and ethnic cleansing shelter in cold basements with their children and loved ones for months and years."
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The statement was clear, strong and specific — it was also eight months late.
Since the beginning of the war, unlike other neighbors in the region, leading political figures in Georgia have refrained from officially denouncing Russia's invasion and still offer no military support for Ukraine. Indeed, Georgia, a nation of 3.7 million people, on Russia’s southern border, embodies the ambiguity and contradictions that come with having lived under the shadow (or rule) of its much larger neighbor for centuries.
A bond between 2008 and 2014
Unlike many of their leaders, the Georgian people have been vocal supporters of Ukrainians, not only since February 24 but dating back more than eight years since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russian aggression in Ukraine's eastern region of Donbas.
There was even a private Georgian battalion formed to participate in the fighting in Donbas, which continues to fight today against Russia. Support for refugees from Ukraine remains active.
The friendship between the two peoples can be traced to the shared experience during Soviet times, as well as both having had to face Moscow's territorial claims: Six years before Ukraine suffered the Russian assaults on Crimea and Donbas, Georgia lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia to pro-Russian separatists.
Still, the current ruling party in Tbilisi has been friendlier toward Russia than the population at large. There are factors of the moment, no doubt, but one must begin with history to establish the context.
Are Georgia and Russia allies?
Russia ruled Georgia for more than 200 years, first conquered by the Czarist Russian Empire, later absorbed into the Soviet Union. Over this time, the borders and population of Georgia have been intermittently adjusted, while forced relocations were a regular feature of the Soviet regime.
In Soviet times, Georgia was tightly linked to the Kremlin because of Joseph Stalin, a Georgian native from the industrial city of Gori, who grew to be the bloodiest ruler of the USSR. Stalin took special care of Georgia, the only republic that was allowed to maintain its native tongue as the national language, appoint local leaders rather than Kremlin-appointed officials to run regional politics and largely spared of mass collectivism and the famine and poverty associated with it.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Georgia was quick to declare its independence. Still, it was bound to struggle to hold on to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which every Georgian believes is illegally occupied by Russia.
Leading the Rose Revolution in 2004 was Georgia's most pro-Western politician, Mikheil Saakashvili, who wound up serving nine years as president. But in 2008, Saakashvili also decided to try to put an end to separatist challenges in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian army sided with the unrecognized republics, and the war was lost in days.
Georgia had lost complete control over the territories. Soon after, Saakashvili lost the support of his nation and was replaced by his political rival, an oligarch who had amassed his fortune in Russia, Bidzina Ivanishvili. The bear was back in town.
Kyiv and Tbilisi have lived the parallel experiences of pro-democracy movements and Russian aggression.
Still, as a high-profile opposition leader, Saakashvili also became involved in the political life of Ukraine, with the aim of strengthening the alliance of the two countries against Russian domination in the region. He became a Ukrainian citizen, actively participated in the pro-democracy movements of 2004 and 2014 in Ukraine; and later became an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and head of the Odessa regional administration.
Yet Saakashvili ended up mired in several political scandals and lost his Ukrainian citizenship. He returned to Georgia in 2021, where he was detained and has been in a prison clinic ever since.
Still, over the past 15-plus years, Kyiv and Tbilisi have lived the parallel experiences of pro-democracy movements and the risks of Russian aggression. And so, when full-scale war broke out in Ukraine, Georgians supported the Ukrainians, but the country was ruled by a party that was afraid to speak openly against Putin, let alone help with arms.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili campaigning in Odessa in July 2019.
Over the past eight months, Russian-Georgian relations have gradually deteriorated with each passing day, against internal power struggles and attempts to resolve concerns with the unrecognized territories.
For all the complexity of relations between the two countries, there is near full freedom of movement of Russians into Georgia: no visa is required, without need to register for 360 days, and very easy to open a business.
All this became a decisive factor for emigrants and refugees fleeing Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. At first, Georgia was the destination-of-choice for journalists, cultural figures, activists, and business people who disagreed with Vladimir Putin's policies and/or faced arrest.
In February 2022, those who disagreed with the war were the first to leave; after the announcement in September of mobilization, it was draft-age men seeking to avoid military service who were flowing into Georgia.
According to the latest data, more than 70,000 Russians have come to Georgia since the beginning of the war. In Georgia's two largest cities, Batumi and Tbilisi, locals complain about a sharp rise in rent and food prices.
There are regular protests in the major cities and at the land borders: ordinary residents and the opposition are demanding the closure of borders and the introduction of a visa regime. Russians fleeing from the war are called traitors, agents, and collaborators. And it's not even because of the support that the local population gives to refugees from Ukraine (women, children, and the elderly, unlike Russian refugees, where most are healthy, strong men of conscription age). But also because they know how Putin likes to protect the Russian population in other countries' territories.
A too far away Dream?
The current Georgian government fears new escalations from Abkhazia and South Ossetia if it takes too strong a line against Russia. In addition, the country is becoming increasingly dependent on the Kremlin for energy: imports of oil products, electricity, and coal have been increasing since the beginning of 2022. Moreover, with the influx of Russian emigrants, the likelihood of Russia using Georgia to export goods to circumvent sanctions increases.
This is an immoral policy.
Shota Utiashvili, head of the analytical department of the Georgian Interior Ministry, considers the policy of the current Georgian Dream ruling party to be short-sighted.
"Those of us who characterized Putin's regime as a terrorist, we were right. Today's Georgian government is not helping Ukraine at all,” Utiashvili said. “They don't even give small payments to refugees. This is an immoral policy. Okay, you feel in danger; you don't want to offend Russia... But why can't you help refugees?"
Today, Georgia remains in a state of forced neutrality due to Russian external pressure and internal conflicts related to party struggles. Last week, Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili reported that the Georgian ruling party could not support the Council of Europe's resolution recognizing Russia as a terrorist regime because PACE calls former President Mikheil Saakashvili a political prisoner in the resolution. As Papuashvili explains, despite Georgia's full solidarity with Ukraine, the approval of the amendment prevented members of the Georgian delegation from supporting the resolution.
Georgian demonstrators leave supplies for people in Ukraine in front of the Parliament in Tbilisi during a rally in support of Ukrainians.
Mind on Moscow
The poet Fyodor Tyutchev famously said: "you cannot understand Russia with your mind," and it is true — sadly true. For centuries, Russia has sowed pain and created contradictory conditions in every one of its neighboring countries and territories.
Georgian journalist Zurab Bezhanishvili, analyzing the Georgian response to military conflicts in the region, notes that the Russian leadership has adopted the doctrine of "getting back up from its knees," to paint Moscow as a victim seeking justified retribution. The principle of revanchism implies "traitors of the inner circle" working with larger forces outside the country.
Georgia and Ukraine are "inner circle traitors. Having destroyed these states, Russia will have no obstacles to recreating the "red empire."
Bezhanishvili also believes that Georgia, ultimately, has no choice but to pick sides.
"No one trusts someone who abandons his friends in trouble; no one trusts someone who does not clearly state his position on conflicts in which allies are involved,” he wrote. “Otherwise a nation remains a "banana republic" at the mercy of international structures, which, out of the goodness of their hearts, feed those unable to adapt in a volatile world.”
Facing such a blatant and brutal violation of international law as Russia’s invasion, Bezhanishvili writes Georgia must respond with “unequivocal support for Ukraine."
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