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Unrest in Georgia

Credit: United Nations Cartographic Section, with amendments by User:ChrisO – United Nations Cartographic Section, Original unmodified map is at http://www.un.org/Depts/Cartographic/map/profile/georgia.pdf.

You may have seen something in the news about riots in Georgia. That’s the country, not the state. Georgia, like Ukraine, was a republic of the USSR. When the USSR broke up, Georgia was just behind the Baltic States in pressing for its independence.

Its location is farther from Europe than Ukraine, but Georgia has been invited to join the EU. Georgia, like Ukraine, is on the Black Sea. Russia is to its north, in particular the part of Russia called the North Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Those areas were at war with Russia from 1999 to 2009 in an attempt to secede. Russia installed Ramzan Kadyrov as the governor of Chechnya, and he has kept the secession talk down. Kadyrov is now rumored to be seriously ill, though.

Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia on the pretext of independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (green and purple on the map) whose agitation for independence had been stoked by Russia. Although open hostilities have ended, Russia continues to have a military presence in both regions. The situation is, of course, analogous to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

For the past couple of months, demonstrations have been taking place against a bill supported by the ruling party, Georgia Dream. This article, in the New York Review of Books blog, is the best explainer I’ve seen.

The legislation isn’t onerous on the face of things; groups that fall into the category have to register with the Ministry of Justice. Georgian Dream, however, is certain to use it to vilify them. This is why the move has met with a wave of defiance: tens of thousands took to the streets across the country in some of the biggest protests in recent memory. On the night of May 11, 50,000 people demonstrated in Tbilisi; the national population is some 3.7 million.

Salome Zourabichvili is Georgia’s president, but real power is widely believed to reside with Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s “Honorary Chairman,” who currently holds no government position. On April 29, in a speech delivered at a party rally, he presented the foreign agents bill as a defense of national security, accusing a shadowy group he called “the global war party” of turning Georgia into a “second front” of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The proposed law was supposed to reveal which Georgians were part of this conspiracy. “The financing of NGOs, which presents itself as help for us, is in reality for strengthening [foreign] intelligence agencies, and for bringing them to power,” Ivanishvili said.

It’s true that Vladimir Putin views Georgia as a threat to his regional hegemony. In 2008 he invaded the country, taking over a fifth of its territory. (Russian forces occupy roughly the same amount in Ukraine.) Yet Ivanishvili is fooling no one with his warnings about Russian aggression. Georgian Dream, which has been in power since 2012, has clear pro-Russian sympathies, however keen its members are to disavow them. (During my March visit I reached out to several party representatives, but none gave me an interview.) Ivanishvili made his fortune in the 1990s in Russia, where he founded and controlled one of its biggest banks. Today his net value outstrips that of all his competitors; his fortune is equivalent to a third of Georgia’s GDP. Salome Samadashvili, an opposition member in parliament, told me that “Ivanishvili is Russia’s Trojan horse in Georgia.”

Indeed, Georgian Dream’s draft law is strikingly reminiscent of legislation that Vladimir Putin pushed through his own tame parliament back in 2012. He subsequently used it to raid and harass NGOs, requiring them to append a label to any publications emphasizing their own status as “foreign agents”—a phrase with dark Soviet-era connotations. Last year Georgian activists forced the government to retract an earlier version of the bill, in part through street demonstrations where it was denounced as “the Russian law.” Just as they did back then, over the past few weeks a dizzying range of activist groups, as well as opposition parties, have organized protests. (Some of these organizations receive funding from foreign donors such as the American National Endowment for Democracy or its German equivalents.) These have met with tear gas, water cannons, and police batons. Dozens have been arrested by anti-riot authorities, often on charges of “hooliganism” or “insulting” police. 

Georgia has a lot at stake. The European Union has offered membership, but only if Tbilisi can meet a set of benchmarks attesting to the health of its democratic institutions. EU officials have criticized both the foreign agents law and the ensuing government crackdown. “The final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path,” an official statement said last month. “This law is not in line with EU core norms and values.” Georgians themselves have made their preferences clear: a 2022 poll showed that 81 percent of them want to join the EU.

The piece gives some of the history of Georgia’s presidents.

Over the years Ivanishvili has used his wealth to capture major media outlets and influential business interests. Along the way he also created a highly effective system of patronage: Georgian Dream now dominates the civil service, a huge source of leverage in a country where 65 percent of the employed population works in the public sector. The ruling party’s defenders dispute that it has a pro-Kremlin tilt, pointing out that Georgian Dream has not restored full relations with Moscow. Yet that can be explained by the deep-seated anti-Russian animus of most of the population, which constrains how far the government can go. (Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Georgian volunteers are presently integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.)

The opposition has not offered much of a challenge. Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) is deeply fragmented and generally dysfunctional. In 2021, having been sentenced in absentia three years earlier, he was imprisoned by the Georgian Dream government for having abused power in office by trying to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition lawmaker; he currently resides in a prison hospital. In his April 29 speech, Ivanishvili vowed to throw many of Saakashvilii’s followers in prison as part of a long-overdue reckoning. Many Georgians are sick with both sides, yearning for an end to domestic conflict.

This applies particularly to the young, who have largely lost faith in the establishment parties. This is why, Dolidze told me in March, her program is focused on pragmatic economics rather than tired ideological battles. Her proposals include revitalizing the agricultural sector, which has essentially collapsed due to cheap imports from neighbors like Turkey, overhauling the neglected health care and welfare systems, and fighting corruption, which was never entirely vanquished. “People are giving up and migrating,” she said, because Georgian Dream did little to fix the economy. “This is what we need to be talking about.”

Zourabichvili vetoed the bill this week. The setup here is too much like Ukraine in January 2022: popular and governmental rejection of a measure Russia wanted, widespread demonstrations, movement toward the EU, and Russian positions in two provinces.

Russia has its hands full with the war in Ukraine, and Georgia is geographically less accessible. Still, ports on the Black Sea could be attractive to Russia for its war on Ukraine. An area to keep an eye on.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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