By Arunas Grazulis (Political consultant) and Tamuna Bagratia (Independent expert)
The political turmoil that marked the this winter in Georgia, starting from the questionable elections, peaking in detention of prominent opposition figure, resignation of Prime Minister, and did not ending with the international attempts to mitigate the domestic crisis, naturally raises multiple questions, the common denominator of which is – is Georgia turning away its Western allegiance and, irrespectively of the answer to the earlier one, – where the current developments will lead this Eastern fore post of Western civilization?
Although the latter statement is a very favourable among Georgian opposition, brief look at the recent developments suggests another kind of reality this aspiring country is facing.
Georgian parliamentary elections, which took place on October 31 sparked a major national crisis over “fraud allegations” by the ruling Georgian Dream party. Mass street protests shook the country, already experiencing not the best times due to Covid-19 lockdowns, drastic drop in tourism revenues and as a result – stagnating economy. To make matters worse, the opposition, inspired by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, chose to apply rather drastic method of political retaliation – a refusal to fill in the parliamentary seats, thus rendering national assembly almost handicap, lacking 60 members out of 150.
The heavily irritated ruling party retaliated slow, yet with what initially looked like the surgical accuracy – by ministry of interior announcing intentions and latter arresting Nikanor Melia, key leader of the multiple protests, chairman of the United National movement, a party coalition which could have claimed 36 parliamentary seats at the 2020 elections. The arrest took place on February 23 despite resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia in protest against these plans a week earlier.
Political passions were heated even more on March 9, when usually rather mute Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (better known under Russian abbreviation SVR) made a complaint that “dissatisfaction is growing in Washington D.C. with the ruling Georgian Dream party which is diverging from the path of unquestioned fulfilment of the American demands”. This statement is very strange, to say the least, taking into consideration the usual nature of Georgian-Russian relationships. The fact that intelligence agency of rather hostile country stepped in defence of Georgia’s ruling party, raised quite a few eyebrows on the southern side of Caucasus, with the leaders of the Dreamers explicitly denying any connections, whilst opposition taking this as a clear proof of Russian attempt to defend their agency within the GD from possible American pressures.
Although no prominent Georgian politicians voiced any parallel between the arrest of Mr. Melia and exactly 70-year older beginning of final Soviet offence against Tbilisi, which ended the first Georgian Republic, the general situation in Georgia suggest, as many oppositionists claim, a steep turn towards practices employed by ruling regime of Georgia’s big and aggressive Northern neighbour – Russia. Simple political forecast makes little trouble in guessing that critics from the West and possible personal sanctions could foster the Georgian Dream to further strengthen the pressure on opposition and entire Georgia into the direction of a country which happily welcomes all sorts of dictatorships – the aforementioned Russia.
Does this mean that we may soon be witnessing more autocratic Georgia abolishing its European aspirations and turning eastwards (to be more precise – northwards)? The answer is “almost certainly “No“. And there are at least several arguments behind this conclusion.
First of them lies in geopolitics. Country’s geopolitical orientation is determined by way more complex set of variables, where recent and not-so-recent resentment play at least one of the key roles. Despite the Soviet attack and annexation of Georgia in 1921 in open violation of then half-a-year-old peace treaty, rather insignificantly influences thinking of contemporary Georgians’ decisions, the Russian support for Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatists in 1992 and 2008, does a lot. Ever-recurrent bullying from the northern neighbour, be it in the form of open military threats trade restrictions or promises to personally sanction all Georgians living in Russia add their toll too. With such almost third century-old tradition any attempts to ally with Russia with its current Caucasian policies, would equal to a spectacular domestic political suicide for both the politician and the party he or she represents.
The public attitude of Georgians towards Kremlin’s line was perfectly illustrated on April 1, when Vladimir Pozner, a patriarch of Russian journalism, disembarked a chartered jet in Tbilisi airport looking forward to enrich his 87th birthday with Georgian vine. The visit of Russian journalist elite ended up with harassment by local activists, angry with already a decade old Pozner’s statement in support for Abkhazia as well as with the 2,000 laris (€478) fines for 31 out 41 of his accomplices each for violating lockdown restrictions. This happened despite the attempts of Prime Minister Garibashvili to ease the situation, listing reasons to permit the visit and calling the protests “actions that violated civilized norms and Georgian standards”. The latter argument is indeed a very strong argument for a nation, excessively proud if tis hospitality, however it did not look impressing for neither side.
Of course, strong and long-lasting Georgian orientation towards the West helps to keep Kremlin irritated. On the other hand, the street from Tbilisi airport is still called George W. Bush street, in tribute to a visit by then U.S. president not without a reason. Strong US support for Georgian modernisation, both economic, governance and military has helped both to maintain a status of “European balcony in Asia”, as Georgians like to call their country and a valuable ally for the US in strategically important region.
This formula perfectly explains why Georgia’s neighbour Armenia, despite its rather democratic political regime and significant diaspora living in the West, prefers to have Russia as its ally, rather than aligning itself with the Westers structures, where Turkey, its alleged historical archi-offender plays a key role. The same applies also to Georgia.
This leads to a simple conclusion: the fact that leadership of the country does not restrain itself from methods similar to those employed by current rulers of the Kremlin, does not make the country a pro-Russian one.
Second argument lies with the possibilities of current Russia to propose anything in exchange. Russia indeed holds a strategic card for Georgia, which could be turned into the very desired bait. The puppet quasi-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by international community are recognized as parts of Georgia and few Georgians would take a risk of even voicing the idea to denounce claims to those territories. Both territories heavily depend on Russian support for meeting basically any needs – from social welfare to a defence. Surprisingly Abkhazia is scoring rather well in “Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report – its 40 points suggests it does twice as good as Russia in ensuring its citizens political rights and civil liberties. It also means a four times better performance than the one of South Ossetia. Russia, on its hand is not particularly hesitating and allows to “elect” its citizen, former security officers, into key posts of both breakaway territories. From the first sight it may look like a formula “loyalty, neutrality and energy dependency in exchange for lost territories” could be a winning card for Russia in this Caucasian poker.
This however is not true. Such formula was proposed by earlier president Mikhail Saakashvili back in 2006-2008 and met no support in Moscow. There might be several reasons behind such Kremlin’s stance, with at least three being the most obvious. First of them is the lack of full control over both quasi-states. Abkhazian refusal to allow Russian citizen to purchase land can serve a perfect illustration of this. The second one is general Kremlin’s mistrust in all agreements. The third one is the hard work Russia has done in proving itself to be unreliable ally. Armenia, just across the border, has for long relied on Russia’s support in stance against Azerbaijan and got a heavy lesson in last November that alliance with Russia first of all means full political loyalty to Russia and only then – Russian support.
To further aggravate Kremlin’s position, other than return of territories, it has very little to offer. With Russia being the main hard and soft security threat to Georgia, its military assistance looks of doubtful value. The once so mighty-looking “weaponry of energy” has lost its importance after Georgia started heavily investing into energy diversification. The instrument of trade, with Russian market still very favourable for Georgian imports could offer some benefits. In 2013-2019, Georgian wine exports increased by USD 158 million (244%), of which USD 110 million came from sales in Russia. In 2019, Georgia exported USD 133 million worth of wine to Russia, which was 57% of Georgia’s total wine exports. However, frequent trade embargoes have thought Georgian exporters a hard lesson to look for other markets, with Russia making up only 11.9% of total exports in 2019 and scoring only third among sources of import with 9.5% of the market.
And last but way not least is the reaction of the West. The arrest of Mr. Melia was followed by a
March 23 hearing at the US Senate, which indeed expressed multiple concerns over recent developments in Georgia. Voters’ intimidation during recent elections, diminishing independence of judiciary, encroachment into press freedom, in a form of forcing investigative journalists to reveal their sources, as the recent TV Pirveli case has shown – were just a few discussed examples.
Way more concerns were expressed by the key lobbyists of Georgia in the West. Several days after the arrest, Žygimantas Pavilionis, a chair of Lithuanian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, landed in Tbilisi with a mission to reconcile conflicting parties. The mission turned out to be less than a success, after Mr. Pavilionis in a televised interview very openly hinted on the possibilities of Western sanctions against Georgian leaders, falling to adhere to democratic principles. This made him at least a hero of the week among the Georgian opposition and so far, this looks like it was all then result of his reconciliatory mission. It is noteworthy that after returning home Mr. Pavilionis claimed that he received multiple support also from the embassy of USA and other Western countries, which were used to more diplomatic ways to express own concerns. The attempts to mediate the crisis on March 31 by Christian Danielsson, the EU mediator turned out to less spectacular, however it looks like his emphasis on the need of civil society reconciliation in the process of EU integration have made impression for both conflicting sides finally coming to a EU and NATO brokered agreement on April 22.
As for the main topic of this article the accusations of Georgian Dream being pro-Russian looks as being not much as a verbal tool of domestic political struggle. The accusations of pro-Russian orientation are following this party since its victory in 2012 elections. The main element of such accusations, however, looks well anchored in the origins of party’s founder and country’s Prime Minister in 2012-2013 – Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili. (Bidzina Ivanishvili made his money in metals and banking in Russia, then cashed out and moved back home in 2003) Whilst the latter being undeniable and irritating for some politicians, the actual political stance of the Georgian Dream-led coalitions did nothing to confirms such claims. However, rulling party did not take any significant steps against the occupation and illegal border demarcation is still taking place in the country. The country is becoming more and more dependent on Russia and has a growing foreign trade turnover, both in terms of exports and imports. (2013 – export – 190 m.. USD (share in total – 6.5%) – 2019 – 497 m USD (13.2%) Import – 2019 – 975 m USD (10.8 %), 2013 – 589 m USD) The main complaints against this party could be the slowdown of economic reforms and subsequent slowdown of economic growth, which, however, still remains among the highest in the region.
However, the unlikeness of rapprochement with Russia does not automatically imply stability of democratic institutions of Georgia. Even vice versa, with the prospects of highly desired EU and NATO membership (82% of Georgians support EU, 74%- NATO membership as of January 2020, what is way more than in most of current EU and NATO members) remaining merely a prospects, the political elites are starting to treat democratic principles – a key condition for EU and NATO entry – to be of a secondary importance when it comes to maintaining of the power.
This is further strengthened by the economic factors: despite a boost to Georgia’s export, provided by signing an Association Agreement and a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (ALECA) with the European Union in 2014, it looks like EU market penetration for Georgian goods and services is far from materializing. The Georgian wine still remains an exotic newcomer on European’s tables and the impact of surge in tourism is visible merely in the Dubai-style developments in Black Sea port town of Batumi. Absence of strict mechanism of conditionality in already faded EU’s ambition of building “ring of friends”, also known as European neighbourhood policy, allows maintenance of favourable trade regime without much commitment on democracy and civic rights.
And this is where the key devil of a wide and diverse universe, for a third decade referred-to as “post-Soviet area” steps in. It could be formulated like a dilemma of importance of allies versus values. The fact that probability of Georgian adherence to Russia in general and current Russian regime in particular is lower than statistical discrepancy, does not automatically imply top scores in Freedom House assessment of political rights and civil liberties neither strong push from the West to adhere back to those values.
Cynthia Jeanne Shaheen, a US senator and the chair of the March 23 US Senate hearings has voiced the problem – the only party, which is winning from disorder and chaos, is Russia. However, it is still not clear how Georgian politicians have heard this message – be it as “the more mess you make at home, the more Russia is likely to harm you” or as “we will support you against Russia no matter what mess you make up at home”? Hearing it the second way looks like harming Georgian democracy way more than menace of entire Russian Southern Military District.
Photo credits: M.Qveliashvili