TBILISI — It is possible to gauge the scale of discontent in Georgian society by how much of Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, is closed to traffic.
The main artery of Georgia’s capital, the avenue passes in front of the towering beige stone building of Georgia’s parliament, in front of which it is customary for Georgians to gather to protest, support, or make demands to their government.
A recent demonstration in support of the pro-democracy protests in Iran gathered a few hundred people, but not enough to disrupt the stream of traffic that speeds along the avenue. A demonstration of Russians protesting against the war in Ukraine drew even fewer people.
Neither protest came close to what Tbilisi saw in the days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. For nearly two weeks, tens of thousands of Georgians gathered nightly in front of parliament, waving Ukrainian and Georgian flags and holding signs, some calling for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin and for the end of the war. The throngs of people closed Rustaveli Avenue to traffic for over 1 kilometer.
Across Europe, the war in Ukraine has upended politics and global security, with many countries’ national concerns changing almost overnight. Few places have felt this disruption more keenly than Georgia, which sits on Russia’s southern Caucasus border. Decisions made by the ruling Georgian Dream party have thrown the party’s political leanings into sharper relief, exposing the country’s deep fault lines.
In the days and weeks after the war began, the ruling party refused to join international sanctions against Russia, causing dismay among many in Georgia who saw this as evidence that party leader, tycoon, and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was beholden to Russia.
Around the same time, the Georgian government also grounded a plane of Georgian volunteers headed to Ukraine to fight against Russia. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy recalled the Ukrainian ambassador to Georgia, slamming both moves as coming from Georgia’s “immoral position” on the war.
“Our diplomats are implementing just and necessary decisions against the states that have betrayed their word and international law,” Zelenskiy said in a video address at the time.
For those who aspire to a Georgia looking toward the European Union rather than Russia, it has been dismaying. Ivanishvili made his fortune in Moscow in the 1990s and now has no formal role in Georgian political life. However, he is widely considered by analysts to be controlling Georgian Dream from the shadows.
“This has more or less been clear for many years,” said Giga Bokeria, leader of the opposition European Georgia party. “But this war has crystallized the fact that we have a Yanukovych government,” he says, referring to the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine who was deposed in 2014.
“While [the government] would sometimes formally appease public opinion and say they are pro-EU, in substance and nature [the government is] a collaborationist regime with Russia that uses Georgians’ fear of war and Russia as leverage,” Bokeria said.
Among Georgians, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine conjures memories of 2008, when a short but bloody war saw the Russian Army crush the Georgian military and take South Ossetia — internationally recognized as Georgian territory — under de facto control. The war ended with Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — another breakaway region — as independent states. Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Moscow.
The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) registered in Georgia from Russia’s wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is almost at 300,000. Fourteen years later and the 2008 war remains a focal point for grievances against Russia. A poll conducted by the Tbilisi-based Analysis and Consulting Team in March revealed that 87 percent of Georgians consider the war in Ukraine to be Georgia’s war, too. Although the particulars of both conflicts differ, the optics of the Russian state laying claim to territory in an ex-Soviet neighbor remains a haunting specter for many Georgians.
“The broader context is the most significant,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think tank and a former RFE/RL contributor. “Firstly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was very much a validation and an affirmation of long-standing Georgian fears of the threat from Russia. The second aspect is the exact opposite: Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine was also a demonstration of the failure to learn the lessons from Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.”
“What this means for the Georgian people is a rather belated, somewhat insulting demonstration of the danger of not listening to Georgia,” Giragosian added. “And neglecting the lesson from Georgia of 2008. What it means for the Georgian government, however, is much less room to maneuver and fewer options for the government in its earlier seeking of some compromise with Putin.”
Many of those in opposition to the Georgian Dream government take umbrage over what they say is the government’s disregard of grievances Georgia sustained as a result of the 2008 Russian invasion.
“It’s not only Ukraine and what Russia is doing to them,” said Elene Khoshtaria, leader of the opposition Droa party. “But the parallels of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and what we have also gone through with Russia over the decades. They [Georgian Dream] have dropped this topic totally.”
“Georgian Dream is totally in line with what Russia is saying,” Khoshtaria added. “They are attacking the West and Ukraine, blaming them for a fictional attempt to drag Georgia into the war. They are doing that to deter support of Ukraine. They realize their position is far from that of the Georgian people, so they’ve tried to manipulate popular opinion. They’re saying: if you resist Russia, look what will happen to you, it’s not worth doing that.”
Look West, Act East
Some analysts say that Georgian Dream’s policy of so-called “normalization” with Russia is part of a push “not to irritate Moscow and somewhat accommodate the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests while trying to cling to power as much as possible,” said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics think tank.
Georgian Dream’s apparent willingness to appease Moscow might come as a surprise to those in the West who still have residual memories of two-term former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and the pro-Western path his administrations took.
Georgia’s botched EU bid goes some way in exemplifying the cynical nature of Georgian Dream’s rule and its policy of playing both sides, in which it superficially courts the West while not breaking with Moscow.
On March 3, only a few days after confirming its plans to apply for EU membership in 2024, according to its original schedule, the government backtracked, and along with Moldova and Ukraine, made its official EU membership bid early. Its subsequent behavior, however, called into question the sincerity of the bid.
A few weeks later, and a month before the European Commission was scheduled to make its recommendations on EU candidate status, the government made an alarming arrest. In May, the director-general of an opposition TV channel, Nika Gvaramia, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for alleged abuse of power. The conviction was deemed so murky that it sparked protests and prompted the U.S. Embassy in Georgia to exclude the judge on the case from a planned, fully funded training program in the United States.
Shortly before the European Commission’s June decision, parliament voted — against the EU’s recommendation — in favor of a controversial surveillance bill that would expand government powers to monitor citizens. When the commission decided against giving Georgia EU candidate status, while giving candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, it sparked the biggest protests in Georgia since the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power.
“Georgia has been waiting for the recognition of its European perspective by the European Union for many years,” Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhize said in a statement shortly after the commission’s decision. “We are pleased that today this perspective has been officially recognized by the European Commission and has offered us this guide to obtaining candidate status,” but acknowledged that “not receiving the [candidate] status at this stage is, to some extent, disappointing for us.”
“Knowing that the majority of Georgians support EU integration, Georgian Dream can’t really ignore it,” Kakachia said. “But when it comes to implementation of the 12 areas the EU identified as needing improvement,” they put partisan interests ahead of national interests, he added.
Instead of candidate status, the EU gave Georgia a list of reforms that must be enacted in order for the country to be considered for candidate status in the future, including a commitment to “de-oligarchization,” a dig at Ivanishvili and his role in Georgian politics.
“They don’t want EU membership,” Khoshtaria said. “The situation they’re in is that 85 percent of the Georgian population are pro-EU, so they’re not willing or able to come out against it. Especially after the massive rally in support of the EU. That’s why they have done everything possible not to receive candidacy. They arrested Gvaramia, they’ve taken steps back in the judiciary; on all points they are regressing.”
Georgian Dream did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
‘Russians Go Home!’
Alongside Georgian Dream’s visible turn away from Europe, another divisive issue among Georgians has been the influx of Russians, which is estimated at around 100,000 since Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine.
Arguments against the Russian influx vary. Some cite the pretext Putin used to invade Ukraine — of “saving” ethnic Russians in the Donbas — as a harbinger of what the Russian contingent in Georgia could now provoke. Others point to a colonial perversion in migration logic, with the citizens of an occupying country looking for refuge in the country their government is occupying.
Most people, however, have voiced a moral and personal complaint: with the war still in its bloody throes, Russians in Georgia should be spending time and resources on helping Ukraine, not wining and dining. “They should be discreet,” said the owner of a Tbilisi gallery and the author of posters urging Russians to spend time protesting the Putin regime instead of partying. “I’m devastated by the war and struggle to go out. If the Russians don’t protest, then at least stay home and mourn.”
There have been calls from citizens and opposition politicians for the Georgian government to introduce a visa regime for Russians, with many fearful that Georgia’s open-door policy for Russians is both in line with Putin’s wishes and will make it easier for Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents and saboteurs to enter the country. “The decision seems to be made under Russian influence,” opposition leader Khoshtaria said. “I think it was in Putin’s interest to get rid of a portion of people, otherwise he wouldn’t have let them out. And since he let them out, Georgian Dream didn’t want to do anything against that.”
The influx of Russians has not been particularly popular with the Georgian public. A recent opinion poll by the International Republican Institute found that 78 percent of Georgians oppose Russian citizens entering Georgia visa-free. Regardless, the new arrivals have injected money into Georgia’s sluggish economy, with Reuters citing international institutions for Georgia’s expected 10 percent growth in economic output in 2022.
“Economically, in the short or midterm, any money will be an uptick in the economy,” European Georgia party leader Bokeria said. “But in the long term, it’s not a cure for our economy.”
Others consider the injection of Russian money to be a threat to Georgia’s stability. “If we are planning to be part of the European civilized world, dependance on Russian money and resources is very dangerous,” Khoshtaria said. “Our goal should be to redirect all our dependence on the European markets.”
For now, with rent prices in Tbilisi skyrocketing on account of the increased demand, an inflated economy, and a steady trickle of Russians into the country, it remains to be seen whether the pressure will ease in 2023.
“We were taken off-track in 1921 by the Soviets,” Bokeria said. “We need to use this historical moment to get back into the European family.”