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The Complex Future of Georgian Politics

Navigating Between East and West

29 May 2024

The ruling party in Georgia, Georgia Dream, has faced significant criticism for its decision to pass a law that mandates NGOs, media outlets, and other organizations receiving at least 20% of their funding from foreign sources to declare themselves as "foreign agents." This controversial move has led to protests, including brawls between Members of Parliament during parliamentary sessions, as well as large demonstrations organized by the opposition.

It appears that this new law is influenced by a similar one in Russia. The Georgian government has often aligned itself with the Russian narrative, adopting measures that reflect Moscow's stance on issues such as the perceived dangers of liberalism or the behavior of NATO.

According to the President of Georgia, Salomé Zourachbivili, who is a binational and former French diplomat, the latest law is likely to "sabotage the European path and the future of the country." Despite her opposition, Zourachbivili's veto is expected to be overridden by parliament. Zurachbivili had hoped to represent a middle ground between the pro-Western camp of Saakashvili and the Georgian Dream of Ivanishvili, but she was unable to establish herself. Lacking influence, the opposition refers to her as an "uncrowned queen held prisoner by the oligarch."

The Prime Minister emphasized that his government is committed to protecting the independence and sovereignty of the country. While some may interpret this as an attempt to appease Moscow, the opposition remains unconvinced and accuses the regime of revealing its true intentions. However, there are other plausible explanations to consider. It is possible that this action is an unprovoked gesture of goodwill towards Moscow, with the expectation of receiving some form of reward. Alternatively, it could be an effort to consolidate power domestically ahead of the upcoming legislative elections, aimed at suppressing any independent or opposition voices. The geopolitical situation may also be used as a justification for these actions.

European officials, including the German chancellor, have expressed concern about the situation. Both the EU and NATO are now considering how to respond with concrete measures. One question being raised is whether the EU will deprive Georgia of its candidate status. Several countries, including France, have demanded a unanimous and strong declaration from the Union, but this proposal was ultimately blocked by Slovakia and Hungary. However, the question of how to respond is still unresolved. Within European elite circles, there is ongoing discussion about the issue, with many people expressing the belief that any eventual sanctions will primarily affect those who are pro-European, rather than those in power.

Press articles often present a contrast between the ruling party seen as "subservient" to Moscow and the public opinion largely in favor of the West. Some may even suggest that this recent episode is a response to Kremlin's wishes or instructions. While it is true that the ruling party's strongman, oligarch and former prime minister Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili, has close ties to certain circles of Russian power, it is also true that the elections in Georgia were marred by irregularities, including a massive buying of votes and the influence of obscure clan politics. Additionally, the exercise of power in Georgia goes against European standards and the aspirations of the country's weak middle class. However, it is important to recognize that the ruling party acknowledges that it did not receive half of the votes. Furthermore, Georgia's geopolitical situation and recent history impose constraints and require caution in the formulation and implementation of general policies. Understanding these complexities is crucial when analyzing the situation.

To rephrase, just because the ruling party's policies are supported by means that common morality disapproves of it does not necessarily mean that these policies are against the interests of the nation and its people. While Mr. Ivanishvili's economic empire is closely tied to Russian interests, the decision to engage and appease Russia can still be justified.

General Considerations

Georgia, a small and impoverished country, is home to 3.7 million inhabitants, with one million Georgians living abroad as expatriates. The population has been deeply affected by the numerous and extremely violent local conflicts that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet empire. These conflicts resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and the country also experienced frequent and prolonged power cuts.

The geographical location of Georgia, situated between Russia, Türkiye, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, has posed challenges for the country. The historical ties with Russia have been numerous and deep, but they can be described as post-colonial, characterized by a heavy hegemony and occupation. Russian domination extends beyond material aspects and also encompasses cultural and epistemic influences. The main Georgian actors, even those who have studied abroad, are not well-versed in the dynamics of Western regimes and international relations. A French scholar has criticized their "lack of maturity." Furthermore, Georgia's state institutions do not produce knowledge comparable to that of the Russian state. The transition from communism and its associated mental framework has been both painful and incomplete.

There are various Russian parties involved in bilateral relations with Georgia, including the deep state, oligarchs, the army central command, local military commands, traffickers, smugglers, and organized crime networks. The Russian approach to Georgia is driven by different logics, including imperial and geopolitical considerations (given Russia's status as both a land and sea power), as well as economic factors.

During the early years of the century, Western countries expressed significant sympathy for Georgia. They provided substantial economic assistance but were unable and unwilling to offer protection. The Caucasus region was still primarily governed by the Yalta rules, which dictated that it was Russia's responsibility. However, it is important to note that offering help and admiration does not necessarily equate to understanding. Georgia's political landscape is complex, with networks and clan dynamics playing a significant and opaque role, along with corruption. These factors make it challenging to provide precise analysis and predictions, as acknowledged by the most reputable Western analysts.

A Binding Situation with Limited Options

The South Caucasus has long been a region plagued by violent clashes between different peoples and communities. Throughout history, only a dominant imperial power could establish order and exert control, often through pacification and manipulation.

Georgia, once a Soviet republic, was home to various ethnic minorities and enjoyed a certain level of autonomy under different statuses. However, the collapse of the Soviet empire led to the independence of Georgia, which in turn reignited conflicts between Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians. Initially, the Chechens supported the Abkhazians and Ossetians, but later, the Russians took over this role. It could be argued that this was a proxy war, with Russia targeting its former colony. Additionally, a civil war among Georgians themselves further escalated the violence. 

These wars were marked by bloodshed and numerous war crimes, including ethnic cleansings. The consequences were devastating, with a quarter of a million Georgians displaced and a death toll of at least 13,000 Georgians and 3,000 Abkhazians.

Russia, eager to maintain influence and a presence in the region, frequently intervened, typically to support or protect the Ossetians and Abkhazians, but also to freeze and manipulate conflicts. The 2003 revolution, which resulted in the downfall of President Shevarnadze, was significantly more peaceful and culminated in a kind of "palace coup" orchestrated by young members of the power elite. However, the smoothness of the transition came at the cost of persisting with the practices of the previous regime. Quoting the current Georgian president, it is evident that Che will leave without facing accountability, as requested by his Western allies – Baker, Genscher. This means no one can demand explanations for what some consider to be governmental crimes, including the war and defeat in Abkhazia, rejoining the CIS, widespread corruption, ruthless destruction of Megrelia, lack of investigation into the assassination of the first Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and failure to condemn the coup d'état that ousted him. These unanswered questions deprive Georgia of the closure it needs to move forward and rebuild.

The first months of the new regime showed great promise, thanks in part to Russia's benevolent neutrality and Western support. However, the situation quickly deteriorated due to changes in Russia's stance. While the details of these processes are beyond the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning that President Saakashvili aimed to consolidate Georgia's independence, combat corruption, develop the economy, and strengthen ties with the West. He also sought to restore the country's territorial integrity by putting an end to various separatist movements. However, he tended to prioritize appearances over substance, disregarding cautious advice and exhibiting excessive behavior. His mishandling of separatist issues led to a series of mistakes. For example, he severed certain links with the provinces in question, inadvertently strengthening their ties and dependence on Moscow.

By the end of 2008, after numerous provocations from Tbilisi's adversaries, Saakashvili made the grave error of attacking Russian forces. This resulted in the loss of part of Georgian territory, Russia's recognition of the independence of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and Ossetia, the occupation and "protection" of these "republics" by Russian forces, the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Georgians, and a constant fear of a possible Russian invasion. As a consequence, Saakashvili lost the trust of his population and the West, and ultimately resigned by the end of 2013.

The "Normalization Dialogue" with Russia

Since then, the "Georgian Dream" party has governed the country. The party's founder and leader, Mr. Ivanishvili, a former Gazprom executive, has strong ties to Russia. His personal wealth, estimated at around $6 billion, has been approximately one-third of the country's GDP for the past decade. A Georgian analyst remarked, "With such economic power, no one can resist him. The Russians no longer need to resort to force to achieve their objectives."

The ruling party and government in Georgia have adopted a foreign policy that aims to foster better relations with Moscow, concurrently pursuing integration into the European Union while maintaining strong ties with NATO. Notably, Georgia's constitution mandates Tbilisi to persist in its efforts towards EU and NATO membership. Despite the pursuit of "normalization" with Russia, Georgia successfully hosted the "agile spirit" NATO exercise in 2023, showcasing its commitment to multiple international alliances.

This dual approach has resulted in significant improvements in both the economy and the daily lives of the population. It has also contributed to the growth of tourism and trade with Russia. However, it has not addressed the issue of separatist regions, although it has made important progress in humanitarian matters. It is possible that this approach has prevented a potential invasion of the country or the annexation of the two separatist republics by Russia.

Until 2022, Georgia lacked both incentives and deterrents, and thus had no leverage. Russia was content with the status quo, as it allowed Moscow to maintain troops and military bases in the region, consolidate its access to the Black Sea, and control the vital Sukhumi port. The occupation of Georgian territories by Russia hindered Georgia from joining NATO. Some Russian officials believed that Russia had overreacted in 2008 and should have exercised more restraint to avoid antagonizing the Georgians, but changing course at this point was challenging. The established approach was characterized by "flexibility on economic and humanitarian issues, and intransigence on occupation".

In its early stages, the policy of the GD (Georgian Dream) party enjoyed popularity in Georgia. However, the lack of progress on sovereignty issues and the increasingly pro-Russian official stance have significantly eroded this support. Despite the economic gains, the invasion of Ukraine has made it increasingly challenging to balance the aspirations of the population with the constraints of geopolitics. According to a Stratfor report, the deepening ties with Russia and China "have begun to negatively impact Georgia's relations with the European Union and the United States."

The same Stratfor report explains that Georgia has become a destination for bypassing sanctions by exporting dual-use goods and other sanctioned materials to Russia. Additionally, Georgia has taken over Western exports to Russia in important sectors such as wine products. The country has also provided refuge for tens of thousands of Russians who were fleeing mobilization. These factors have contributed to the remarkable growth of the economy, which reached a rate of 10% in 2022.

This invasion reignited the debate on the attitude to adopt towards Russia, with a large part of the population supporting Ukraine's cause. Despite the economic gains, it is difficult to sell the idea of making more concessions to a weakened and more aggressive Russia. "The government has chosen the Russian side," says an opposition member. "They do not want Georgia to join the European Union. They pretend to be a candidate, but in reality, they do everything to get a refusal from Brussels. They keep emphasizing that geographically, we are far from Europe, and they claim the West wants to open a second front in Georgia against Russia."

The argument is pertinent, and it can even be argued that GD's anti-Western rhetoric aligns, without pretense, with the viewpoints of the Russian regime. This undoubtedly incites the anger of the population, who harbor deep-seated grievances against the Russians and their political maneuvers. Additionally, the criteria for EU admission necessitate reforms that the Georgian ruling party is reluctant to undertake, fearing a potential erosion of its support base. However, it is not solely for unfounded reasons that this stance is taken: the geographical reality dictates Georgia's powerful neighbor will remain Russia, Western countries have yet to demonstrate a reliability that inspires confidence, and aligning with Russia offers various advantages. For example, President Putin's restoration of visa-free access for Georgians to Russia, as highlighted in the Stratfor analysis, exemplifies this.

More importantly, China's influence in the South Caucasus region is on the rise, particularly in its substantial investments towards the development of Georgia's infrastructure. In July 2023, the leaders of both nations declared the elevation of China-Georgia relations to a strategic partnership. This was followed by a statement on October 16 by the Chinese Minister of Commerce, Wang Wentao, underscoring the significance of Georgia as a key partner in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Minister Wang Wentao emphasized China's readiness to collaborate with Georgia in enhancing the China-Georgia Free Trade Agreement, fostering investment cooperation in the digital economy, advancing transport and logistics collaboration, and infusing fresh momentum into bilateral economic cooperation and trade. This commitment reaffirms the dedication to the continuous advancement of economic ties and trade under the framework of the China-Georgia strategic partnership. The monitoring of the adjunction process for the construction of Anaklia port has unveiled that China appears to be the likely winner.


It is worth mentioning that the regime made an attempt to pass this law in March 2023, but had to retreat due to the extensive protest demonstrations. Unless we assume a complete disregard for reality, we can infer that the regime sees the current situation as more favorable and has taken measures to secure its "victory".

Predicting the future in Georgian politics is a challenging task, particularly when nationalist sentiments and personal preferences clash with economic and strategic considerations. Furthermore, the intricacies of Georgian politics often make it difficult to discern the true direction of the country. Some analysts believe that the ruling party, the GD, has already made a decision to align Georgia with Russia and China. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the GD is operating in a complex environment and is attempting to maintain its grip on power while also seeking a delicate balance that allows for cooperation with Russia, China, and Western powers.

It appears evident to me that the current regime has no interest in implementing the necessary reforms to join the EU. It is also counting on the reluctance of Western countries to punish Georgia and sever all ties. 

The situation should become clearer soon. Either the regime will try to balance its recent actions by taking steps that please Western capitals, although it is unclear what actions it can afford to take. Alternatively, it will continue on the same path and move closer to Moscow and Beijing. 

In any case, it remains to be seen if the current government has gone too far with this law. It is possible that significant protests may force them to backtrack, or that they may face disapproval in the next elections. However, these scenarios are not the most likely.