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Dividing Georgia: Putin's ambition to oppose the EU in the Caucasus

Updated: Mar 4

A political fracture is expanding in Georgia as the country contends with increasing Russian influence. The former Soviet state finds itself at a geopolitical crossroad due to its strategic position between Asia and Europe and its access to the Black Sea. Despite the Georgian population displaying a pro-European sentiment in the recent past, there's a notable political shift towards the Kremlin currently underway.

This change has been primarily orchestrated by the oligarch, billionaire and former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became leader of the Georgian Dream party in April 2012. However, his leadership ended on January 11, 2021, when Ivanishvili announced his exit from politics, claiming he had "accomplished his goal" - assuming that goal was to improve Georgia's relationship with Russia.

There have been indications that methods of Russian soft-power politicking have been employed in Georgia for decades. Recently, these efforts have increased, particularly since Russia annexed Crimea. Russian leverage has undoubtedly been present in Tbilisi since they invaded Georgia in 2008, taking South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin’s Russia now controls over 20% of all Georgian land (as recognised in Georgian law).

Upon entering politics, Ivanishvili presented himself as a patriotic Georgian and a successful businessman. Despite quickly selling his Russian assets at market price, questions arose about his potential Kremlin ties, considering his historically trouble-free business operations in Russia. Ivanishvili became Georgia's prime minister from October 2012 to November 2013 and has had considerable control over the country's institutions ever since.

Ivanishvili's domestic control includes the ruling party, key state institutions - especially the judiciary and the security services - and the economic arena. It is believed that practically all key government members and party officials answer to him. For instance, one expert who spoke to the European Council on Foreign Relations and formerly worked with the government stated that since Georgian Dream came to power, every minister, once dismissed, has never taken up another national political role.

While Georgia grapples with this dilemma, Vladimir Putin has continued to use soft power and covert methods in order to influence the former Soviet state. Recent gestures like waiving visas for Georgian nationals and lifting a 2019 ban on direct flights to the country are seemingly benevolent but can be perceived as provocations to undermine Georgia's pursuit of European Union (EU) membership. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has expressed suspicions about Putin's motives and has resolved to stay the course towards European integration.

In the past few years, there has been growing domestic unrest in Georgia, stemming from the alleged pro-Russian stance of the government and the perceived authoritarian shift in policies. Georgian Dream has been accused of implementing laws akin to Russia's, leading to public outcry. These laws, reminiscent of restrictions enforced in Russia, include regulations on international funding of local NGOs - a decision seen to move Georgia further away from the EU and closer to the Kremlin. However, the Georgian government has had to withdraw the controversial NGO financing bill in the face of robust opposition from the public.

Recently, the government in Tbilisi has begun promoting a narrative which claims that America and the EU are attempting to draw Georgia into Russia's war on Ukraine. Television pundits who endorse this viewpoint align closely with the Georgian Dream party but have yet to substantiate their claims with credible evidence.

Throughout the last 18 months, Georgian Dream and government representatives have increasingly begun to make negative statements about their Western counterparts. News organisation OC Media reports that, between February and July 2022, the party’s current chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, made 9 critical comments about Russia whilst totalling 57 negative remarks about the West and 41 about Ukraine.

Adding to the anti-European political narrative, five MPs recently resigned from Georgian Dream to form a specifically anti-Western movement called People Power, seemingly establishing a proxy group to undermine Europe's image in the country. Further instances of the Kremlin's influence involve attempts from several groups to replicate anti-LGBTQ+ tactics used in Russia. Following endeavours to organise a Pride march in Tbilisi, these groups instigated violent counter-protests, attacking journalists and activists. The violence only disrupts Georgia's path towards a progressive political landscape and the people’s desire for European integration.

In May 2022, former justice minister of Georgia, Nika Gvaramia, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for abuse of power - charges seen by many Georgians and international watchdogs as politically motivated due to Gvaramia's role as head of Mtavari Arkhi, the principal Georgian opposition TV station.

This ruling, perceived as an attack on press freedom and contrary to European values, coincided with the then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's visit to Brussels to discuss Georgia's EU membership bid. Five weeks later, the European Council announced that Georgia must meet certain conditions to gain candidate status while granting such status to Ukraine and Moldova. This situation was interpreted as a sign that the ruling coalition in Georgia sought to divert the country from a path toward EU integration.

Under Ivanishvili's rule, Georgia paradoxically participated in EU integration processes and Western military operations while presenting no opposition to Russia's revanchism across the former Soviet Union and allowing in Russian political influence. While maintaining this balancing act, Ivanishvili cultivated relationships with the West - especially with the United States - without aggravating the Kremlin.

However, Russia's most recent manoeuvre against Ukraine has prompted Georgian Dream to adopt more pro-Russian rhetoric and policies, marking a significant departure from Georgia's traditionally pro-Western foreign policy.

This political position could lead Georgia into new crises.

The Georgian people favour EU membership, but the influence of Ivanishvili and his close ties to the Kremlin have had profound implications for Georgian politics. Despite denials from the ruling party, it is evident that Ivanishvili wields substantial power within the country. Over the past decade, he has reshaped Georgia's political landscape without incurring criticism from Moscow. Seemingly aligned with Russia's strategic goal of keeping Georgia out of the EU and NATO, the government under his rule has frequently targeted NGOs, espoused anti-Western rhetoric, and demonised pro-Western figures - such as former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is currently in jail on politically motivated charges.

The challenge for Georgians now is to navigate the potential impacts of this political transformation, where the acts of a Kremlin-affiliated oligarch could result in the nation being unable to join the EU, despite popular attitudes. The Kremlin tolerates Georgia's ostensibly pro-Western policies because the government doesn't then put them into practice, and Putin already has significant influence in the country.

Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream has consistently shown ambiguity in words and actions, suggesting a desire to maintain diplomatic relationships between both Russia and the West. Even so, the two positions are currently incompatible, especially when the polity and the people each want a radically different future for Georgia.

Image: Gavriil Grogorov/Sputnik via Associated Press

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