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After the Protests, Will Georgia Face West or East?

Plus, more grievances and saber-rattling from Moscow.
March 14, 2023
After the Protests, Will Georgia Face West or East?
TOPSHOT - Georgian opposition supporters rally calling for government to follow 'pro-Western' path, outside the parliament in Tbilisi on March 9, 2023. - Thousands rallied on March 9, 2023 in the pro-Western Caucasus nation of Georgia despite the ruling party's promise to drop a controversial "foreign agent" bill reminiscent of Russian legislation used to silence critics. Waving Georgian, Ukrainian and EU flags, several thousand protesters gathered outside parliament in the capital Tbilisi, mounting pressure on the government accused of derailing the country from its EU membership path, an AFP correspondent saw. Tens of thousands took to the streets this week after lawmakers gave their initial backing to a deeply controversial "foreign agents" bill. On 7 and 8 of March Georgian police fired water cannon and tear gas at the demonstrators. (Photo by Zurab TSERTSVADZE / AFP) (Photo by ZURAB TSERTSVADZE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the year since the start of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, echoes of that senseless war have reverberated in other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union—and not to Russia’s benefit. Tensions have been mounting in Moldova, which now seeks closer ties to NATO in the shadow of Russian aggression. Armenia, which has long relied on Moscow’s protection in its conflicts with Azerbaijan, now clearly doubts the Kremlin’s reliability as an ally and is showing an interest in better relations with the United States. Russia’s position in Central Asia has been indisputably weakened. And in recent weeks, these tensions have erupted in an especially dramatic way in Georgia—the small country at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Asia that, in a way, was the site of the Kremlin’s first trial run for the war of aggression in Ukraine.

Last week, tens of thousands of Georgians marched through the streets of the capital city of Tbilisi and then gathered outside the parliament building to protest a bill that would have required organizations—including media outlets—to register as “foreign agents” if they received more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources. The government insisted that the law was about transparency and fighting corruption, an analogue of American legislation on the registration of foreign agents. The protesters said it was a step toward authoritarian curbs on speech and independent activism, an imitation of Russian laws that Putin has used to cripple and muzzle the opposition—and, in a broader symbolic sense, a move away from Europe and toward Russia. (Both European Union officials and the United States have condemned the proposed law; the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi issued an especially scathing statement describing the legislation as “Kremlin-inspired” and “a dark day for Georgia’s democracy.) As the protests grew, riot police tried to disperse the crowds using water cannons and pepper spray and detained dozens; some of the protesters responded by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

All this may come as a shock to people who are used to thinking of Georgia as Ukraine’s smaller sister in “color revolution” and pro-freedom, pro-Western aspirations. It was Georgia that pioneered the “color revolutions”—rebellions against corrupt, semi-authoritarian regimes that remained in Moscow’s orbit even as Russia embarked on a long slide back to tyranny—with the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, the massive peaceful protests that challenged fraud-infested elections and ultimately swept President Eduard Shevardnadze from power. (It got its name from the roses carried by protesters who disrupted a session of a parliament widely viewed as illegitimate; they were led by Mikheil Saakashvili, a former Shevardnadze ally who succeeded him as president in 2004.) The Putin regime promptly embarked on a campaign to subvert Georgia’s new government, using as its beachheads the ethnic enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia where the Kremlin both encouraged separatism and routinely offered Russian citizenship to residents—thus creating a local population of “Russians” it could claim a legitimate stake in protecting. Russian-Georgian tensions grew worse after Saakashvili expressed an interest in joining NATO and the United States backed this bid.

In August 2008, the conflict turned from a cold war to a “hot” one as Russian troops invaded Georgia. The Russian invasion was technically not unprovoked, since it was preceded by the Georgian military shelling the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. That assault, however, was itself preceded by months of Russia-instigated provocations, from Russian violations of Georgian airspace to South Ossetian attacks on Georgian villages—and, more immediately, by Russian troop movements that may have been a prelude to an invasion. While the EU “both-sidesed” the war in its 2009 fact-finding inquiry, there is little question that ultimately, it was part of Putin’s strategy to resubjugate recalcitrant and Western-facing ex-subjects of the Soviet and Russian empire. It’s hard to say to what extent Putin, then officially prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev but undoubtedly the real decisionmaker, was intent on regime change in Tbilisi; he did, however, famously (allegedly) threaten to hang Saakashvili “by the balls” in a conversation with then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy. (One hopes he was being metaphorical.)

After pushing back Georgian forces from the disputed areas, bombing civilian population centers in other parts of Georgia, occupying at least two Georgian cities, and committing likely war crimes that included deliberate attacks on refugee convoys, Russia agreed to withdraw its forces under a ceasefire agreement that allowed Moscow to effectively lop off some 20 percent of Georgia’s territory by recognizing the “sovereign republics” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and turning them into de facto Russian protectorates.

Fast-forward to 2023, when Russia is waging a full-scale war in Ukraine (an eventuality that Sarah Palin, of all people, mentioned in 2008, when she was a vice-presidential candidate, as a possible outcome of Putin getting away with the war in Georgia). Today, the Georgian government has one foot back in Russia’s orbit and Saakashvili is in prison. How did this happen?

In 2012, Saakashvili lost a parliamentary election to billionaire and novice politician Bidzina Ivanishvili of the “Georgian Dream” party, a man who had extensive business ties to Russia and campaigned on a promise of normalization between Tbilisi and Moscow. While the war made Georgians more hostile to Russia, a sizable minority still wanted good relations between the two countries; in May 2009, 28 percent (down from 41 percent pre-war) felt that it was important to have good relations with Russia even if it hurt Georgia’s relationship with the United States. In a recent YouTube stream, Russian-Ukrainian journalist Matvey Ganapolsky (who happens to be married to a Georgian journalist) argued that the victory of Russia-friendly political forces in Georgia is due primarily to two factors: fear of another Russian attack and economic dependency on trade with and tourism from Russia.

Saakashvili, it should be noted, was not exactly a perfect liberal hero. Among other things, he responded to turbulent mass protests in November 2007 with a state-of-emergency crackdown that included the dispersal of demonstrations by force, and the temporary shutdown of an opposition television station (ironically, one owned by Rupert Murdoch). But he did seem genuinely committed to making sure that emergency measures did not turn into permanent curbs on liberal democracy. Some eight months before the 2008 war, he may have conducted the first genuinely clean election in any post-Soviet country. Four years later, he accepted an election loss and fully cooperated in a peaceful transfer of power—something that, alas, even well-established democracies cannot always quite take for granted.

Saakashvili’s current imprisonment follows a tangled saga that could make the plot of a Robert Ludlum novel look simple. (It includes a stint in Ukrainian politics; the acquisition, loss, and reinstatement of Ukrainian citizenship; and two apparently illegal border crossings into Georgia.) Whatever the facts behind his criminal conviction on charges of abusing the powers of his office as president, his current treatment looks disturbingly like a political vendetta: Saakashvili appears to be in extremely poor health following a hunger strike and reports of heavy metal poisoning, and the Georgian government has refused and rebuked a plea from the European parliament to release him for treatment in Europe.

“Tangled” is also a pretty accurate description of recent Georgian politics, with the still-ruling Georgian Dream party trying to pull off an intricate balancing act between Russia and the West—an increasingly difficult challenge since the invasion of Ukraine. While the government was quick to condemn Russia’s aggression as “unacceptable” and has offered humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the current prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, has emphatically and publicly refused to participate in economic sanctions against Russia, saying that such a policy “would only damage our country and populace.” Georgia has also denied permission to a Ukrainian plane to land in Tbilisi to pick up volunteer fighters headed to Ukraine. Ex-prime minister Ivanishvili, who remains a powerful presence in the party he founded, has also made vague accusations that the United States and the European Union have “actively tried to drag Georgia into the [Ukraine] war.” Forty-eight members of the Georgian parliament—nearly a third of the entire body—have issued a statement condemning these “war conspiracy” claims and accusing the ruling party of “hindering the integration of Georgia into the EU and NATO” (a goal that is, incidentally, enshrined in Article 78 of the Georgian Constitution).

Meanwhile, public opinion in Georgia seems to be more pro-Western than ever. A National Democratic Institute poll in April showed 81 percent of Georgians in favor of EU membership and 71 percent in favor of NATO membership; support for the view that NATO membership will increase Georgia’s security went up from 40 percent before the invasion to 54 percent after. Nearly four out of five placed the entire blame for the war on either Russia (67 percent) or Putin (11 percent); 98 percent expressed a favorable view of the Ukrainian people, 87 percent of the Ukrainian government.

It is not surprising that in this situation, the “foreign agents” law was the last straw to many Georgians. Unlike its Russian counterpart, the proposed Georgian law did not impose any restrictions on individuals or organizations other than requiring them to register as foreign agents or risk fines and imprisonment; but a slippery slope to something like the present situation in Russia, where such restrictions abound was easy to foresee. The protesters who came out into the streets were, judging by the photos, a heartening mix of young, middle-aged, and old, men and women, people from different walks of life brought together by a common desire to defend freedom. Many of the signs were pro-EU, but there was also a powerful pro-Ukraine sentiment. The protesters waved Ukrainian flags; in Tbilisi and in another major city, Batumi, they also sang the Ukrainian anthem. And they chanted, “No to Russian government in Georgia.”

And, remarkably, the protesters won. On Friday, the parliament voted down the law (though Georgian Dream still defended it, and the party’s chairman made comments about “LGBT propaganda” that echoed the rhetoric of the Putin regime). In another victory, all of the detained protesters have been released, though some may still face charges.

To Ganapolsky, these events illustrated a key difference between Russia and Georgia: “In Russia, civil society has been successfully crushed. In Georgia, it didn’t work,” he told YouTube host Alexandr Plushev. “It’s a living, dynamic civil society that can whack any authority upside the head.”

There is little doubt that, if Russian dissidents were watching the events in Georgia with bittersweet emotions, the Kremlin and its propagandists were watching them as well and reacting with undisguised bile. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov predictably charged that the protests were being “orchestrated from abroad.” (Much was made of the fact that Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili, who opposes the “foreign agent” laws but has little power under Georgia’s current constitution, was in the United States when the protests began and sent a video message of support for the protesters from New York.) The speaker of the Russian Duma asserted on his Telegram channel that Washington was robbing Georgia of its sovereignty. A talk show on Russia’s main TV channel, Channel One, put on former Ukrainian politician Ilya Kiva—a bizarre character who had gone from far-right Ukrainian nationalist to Kremlin loyalist—to plead with Georgians not to let the Americans lead them down the same ruinous path that had led to “a hundred thousand deaths” in Ukraine. (Kiva’s concern for Ukrainian lives is best illustrated by his call, in the war’s early days, for Russia to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine.)

But no one could top the response from veteran Kremlin mouthpiece Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT (Russia Today), who asserted on her Telegram channel that the protests were an attempt to “open a second front” against Russia. If Georgia tried to reclaim its territories, Simonyan warned, “no one is going to play nice with Georgia—they won’t send troops, they’ll just clobber Tbilisi without a second thought.” The reason, she explained, is that “this is no time for sentiment,” and besides, “Tbilisi doesn’t have a Kiev-Pechersk Lavra” (a famous Russian Orthodox monastery in Kyiv) and “no one in Russia has ever believed that we and the Georgians are one people.”

It’s hard to say what’s more striking here: the naked threats of mass destruction against Tbilisi, or the suggestion that what Russia is doing to Ukraine amounts to “playing nice” with one’s own.

Whether the successful protests in Georgia will push the country’s leadership toward a pro-Western and pro-Ukraine position in anticipation of next year’s elections remains to be seen. Perhaps they could even evolve into a new “color revolution.” But on top of everything else, they have already accomplished one difficult feat: getting Russian propagandists to hit a new low.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.