While Georgian society wants to be closer to Europe and regain its lost territories, pro-Russian leaders are positioning the Caucasus nation of 3.7 million people as a Kremlin ally.
In a nutshell
- Billionaire politician Bidzina Ivanishvili appears to be doing Russia’s bidding
- If Ukraine defeats Russia, Georgia’s pro-European politicians will gain strength
- The West is watching closely the fate of the imprisoned Mikheil Saakashvili
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there were good reasons to expect that Georgia would be at the forefront of countries rallying to condemn the aggressor and support the victim. The Georgian government did, after all, have previous experience of being invaded by Russia. Georgian society had a long track record of being staunchly pro-European, and Western governments and donor organizations had invested heavily in assisting Georgian integration into European structures. None of this would turn out to matter much.
Georgian society and government are split over Ukraine
Although Georgia did support the initial United Nations vote to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it swiftly transitioned to a pro-Kremlin stance. The government not only refused to join the Western sanctions regime, but its leaders have also rebuffed demands for nonmilitary help, like power generators, and declined to provide military assistance. In the early days of the war, it denied landing rights in Tbilisi for a chartered flight sent from Ukraine to pick up Georgian volunteer fighters, and it has even refused a request from Ukraine to return an air defense system that it was given to help defend itself against Russia in 2008.
These largely predictable outcomes were the consequences of a slow-moving transformation of Georgian politics. Having proceeded under the radar, it is now coming to full fruition. Its main catalyst is the Georgian billionaire politician and ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Over the past decade, his deeply entrenched network of Russian financial interests has been hard at work rolling back the achievements of Western value promotion. By the time of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Georgia was already sliding deep into Moscow’s shadows.
Looking forward, it is important to bear in mind that the transformation is far from complete. A recent poll showed that three out of four Georgians still identify as pro-Western, and claim to support further integration with the West, while only 2 percent identify as pro-Russian. Georgia still features plenty of manifestations of support for Ukraine, and Georgia has contributed more volunteers to fight Russia inside Ukraine than any other nation. Variously estimated to number between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters, the Georgian Legion has distinguished itself in many bloody battles, most recently in the heroic defense of Bakhmut, the embattled city in eastern Donetsk Oblast.
Pulling in one direction is a broad-based societal desire to move toward Europe; pulling in the other is a desire to profit from the economic boom fueled by Russia-friendly trade diversion and sanctions busting.
The rise and fall of Mikheil Saakashvili
Developments will be determined by how these two opposing forces measure up. Pulling in one direction is a broad-based societal desire to move toward Europe; pulling in the other is a desire to profit from the economic boom fueled by Russia-friendly trade diversion and sanctions busting. The shift in relative strengths of the two may be reflected in the rise and fall of Mikheil Saakashvili, a colorful Georgian politician who served two terms as president, from 2004 until 2013.
During his first term, Mr. Saakashvili developed into a poster child for Western values. Having run for office on an American-style grassroots campaign to root out corruption, he did deliver on his promises. Although there are different opinions on how well he managed to overhaul the state bureaucracy, all agree that he was highly successful in cleaning up the notoriously corrupt traffic police.
In foreign policy, he curried favor with the United States by allowing Georgia to be the first to build pipelines that allowed oil and gas from the Caspian basin to be shipped to Europe bypassing Russia. He invited U.S. military training inside Georgia and agreed to send troops to fight alongside the Americans in Afghanistan. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in the spring of 2008, he was hopeful of winning a promise of membership in the Western alliance.
That hope was dashed by Franco-German refusal. Adding injury to insult, when Russian troops invaded Georgia in August 2008, the best-trained units of the Georgian army were fighting with the U.S. in Afghanistan. But Georgia remained bent on moving toward Europe.
During his second term, marked by the illegal Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Mr. Saakashvili found fertile ground for a strongly pro-European agenda that featured inclusion in the Eastern Partnership, along with Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Brussels would invest considerably in civil society development and in the promotion of exchange. Many Georgians were looking at a future in Europe.
A watershed event came with the parliamentary elections in October 2012. Having become ever-deeper involved in scandal and allegations of repression, Mr. Saakashvili was forced to see his ruling coalition defeated. The winning side was a coalition led by Georgian Dream, a party created by Mr. Ivanishvili. Having assumed the post of prime minister, he would be in office only until November 2013, when Mr. Saakashvili’s second term as president expired.
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili rules from the shadows
The following decade would be dominated by Mr. Ivanishvili’s rule of the country from the shadows. Having made a fortune in Russia during the 1990s, he returned to Georgia in 2003 and ventured into politics only in 2011. By far the richest man in the country, he had ample resources to invest in his agenda of improved relations with Russia. Realizing that Georgian society remained strongly pro-European, he cultivated the image of being a patriot ready to assist his native land, while investing in subtle techniques of steering politics in his desired direction. By the time of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he was ready to harvest the proceeds from those investments.
Mr. Saakashvili had meanwhile opted to go into exile, to avoid arrest and incarceration. Stripped of his Georgian citizenship, he accepted a Ukrainian passport and served a brief stint as governor of Odesa Oblast. In October 2021, after eight years in exile, he returned to Georgia, hoping against all odds to rally the opposition and return to power. He was immediately incarcerated, to begin serving a six-year sentence handed down in his absence.
Will Georgia slide irrevocably into Russia’s camp?
Russia’s war in Ukraine may serve as a second watershed, where Georgian politics either resumes its movement toward integration into Europe or slides irrevocably into the Russian camp, which seems increasingly likely.
The prospects of reaching a deal with Brussels were on a downward trajectory already before the Russian full-scale invasion. While the Georgian government has maintained its rhetoric of wanting closer integration, actual negotiations have been sluggish. In September 2021, Tbilisi symptomatically made a point of refusing a proposed 75 million-euro loan from the EU that was conditioned on supporting judicial reform.
A red line was drawn in June 2022, when the European Council decided to offer Ukraine and Moldova status as candidates for EU membership. This offer was clearly conditioned by a perceived need to show support in the war, and the road ahead will be both long and winding. Yet, its main significance was that it left Georgia hanging. Tbilisi was given a list of 12 demands for reforms to be implemented within a year. Given that the main thrust of the package was to restrict the influence of major business figures like Mr. Ivanishvili, the likelihood of progress is slim.
Saakashvili’s imprisonment a gift to Putin?
A particular problem in relations between Georgia and the EU concerns the fate of Mr. Saakashvili, who still chairs the National Reform Council in Ukraine. Following a rapid deterioration in his health, he is presently in a prison hospital. Judging from recent pictures, he is being starved to death. According to a toxicology report provided by his legal team, he may have been poisoned.
Both Ukraine and the European Parliament have pleaded with the Georgian government to have him released for medical attention abroad. A benign interpretation of why such demands have been refused is that if Mr. Saakashvili were to be released, he might indeed succeed in uniting the opposition and proceed to win the upcoming national elections in 2024. A more sinister version is that it is a gift from Mr. Ivanishvili to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who during the invasion in 2008 had vowed that his troops would go to Tbilisi and string Mr. Saakashvili up by his private parts.
Compounding the damage to relations between Georgia and the EU, in May 2022 a court in Tbilisi sentenced the former justice minister Nika Gvaramia to three and a half years in prison. Outside observers view the charge of abuse of power as a trumped-up excuse for incarcerating a major opposition figure.
The massive influx of young Russian men
The alternative to rapprochement with Brussels is a scenario that envisions a triumph for the pro-Russian networks that have profited from the Georgian refusal to join the sanctions regime. Over and above handsome short-term gains from trade diversion and sanctions busting, they are looking at even bigger prizes down the road. The key here lies in managing the massive influx of young Russian men that have fled their homeland.
According to official statistics on border crossings, a total of 112,000 Russians emigrated to Georgia in 2022. About a third came in the early stage of the war, with numbers picking up after the announcement of mobilization in September. This is a large chunk of the estimated total of 700,000 Russian males going into exile. Viewed in relation to the size of the Georgian population, which stands at 3.7 million, it is the equivalent of 2.5 million young Russian men suddenly arriving in Germany.
A stalemate in Ukraine would see the pro-Russian networks in Georgia remaining on top, winning the next election and proceeding to normalize relations with Russia.
The sudden influx of these young men helps explain why the Georgian economy grew by about 10 percent in 2022. They not only brought considerable financial resources, with an estimated $2 billion transferred to Georgian banks during the year. Even more important in the longer term is that they brought considerable human capital, with around half of the new arrivals having been active in the Russian tech sector.
If they decide to remain in Georgia and have their families join them, they will become integrated into Georgian society and make a major contribution to the development of the Georgian economy. It is important to note that while the Russian draft dodgers may have a grudge against President Putin, the absence of any major anti-war activities underscores that they remain Russian patriots. Equally important is that the Georgian government has not extended its welcome to members of the Russian opposition that are in serious need of a safe haven. The combined impact will be the formation of a strong pro-Russian diaspora inside Georgia that will be happy to coordinate with financial networks at home.
The downside from the pro-Russian point of view is that the impact of the new arrivals has already been felt in upward pressure on rents and a general rise in the cost of living. This will drive a wedge into Georgian society, which may enhance the chances of the pro-European forces in the upcoming elections. The outcome of the war will be the deciding factor.
The tense nature of the conflict was brought out in early March when the government tried to introduce Russian-style legislation to label organizations that receive funding from outside of Georgia as “foreign agents.” Mass protests involving tens of thousands of demonstrators met with a tough police response. But the rallies succeeded in getting the ruling Georgian Dream party to withdraw the proposed change.
If Russia suffers a major defeat in Ukraine, it may still be possible for the Georgian opposition to score a win in the parliamentary elections in 2024. This would allow EU assistance to counter Russian influence networks, and for Mr. Saakashvili to be released from prison alive. Above all, it could see Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili be proven right in her recent demand that a peace deal for Ukraine must entail a Russian withdrawal from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The alternative of a stalemate in Ukraine would see the pro-Russian networks in Georgia remaining on top, winning the next election and proceeding to normalize relations with Russia. There would be no more talk about restoring Georgian sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgians who have fought against Russia in Ukraine would find their government ready to realize prior threats of depriving them of their citizenship, and there would be a boost in an already rising trend of plaques and statues honoring Joseph Stalin as a Georgian hero.