Russia versus Georgia: a new round of tensions

Russia versus Georgia: a new round of tensions

Since June 20, the protests have been raging in Tbilisi, triggered by the appearance in the Georgian Parliament of the Russian Communist MP presiding over the session of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the chair of the Parliament Speaker of Georgia. The very symbolism of the occasion was so powerful that by that evening the public outcry grew in number and strength: the protesters addressed their rage both to the Government of Georgia for perceived selling out of the country to Moscow as well as Russia itself for occupying 20% of the Georgian territory, militarizing the occupied territories and orchestrating kidnapping – and sometimes even killing – of the Georgian citizens living in the proximity. 

Despite the spontaneity of the initial protest wave, certain MPs from the opposition United National Movement (the party of former president Mikheil Saakashvili) opportunistically tried to take advantage of the protest potential rally into an essentially political one. At some point, they tried to inspire the crowd to storm into the Parliament with the activists starting to forcibly taking the equipment from the policemen and even pulling about 30 of them out of the cordon. These acts seemed to have been interpreted by the law enforcement as an attempt to enter the Parliament premises and were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Many believe the use of force was disproportionate, as some protesters were chased in the park hundreds of meters away from the spot, TV cameras filmed the policemen engaged in aimed shooting at people rather than mere dispersal. As a result of the clashes, about 240 people were injured, including dozens of policemen, up to 300 people detained. More dramatically, two protesters and one of the policemen lost one eye and few more still remain hospitalized.

Enter Vladimir Putin, with an Economic “Stick”
The first wave of protests quickly acquired international dimension, as on the following day, June 21, the Russian president Putin announced the suspension of direct flights between Georgia and Russia, effective July 8. The direct pretext was the unceremonious treatment of Gavrilov and the “radical Russophobic character of the rallies”. The former was decidedly the case as the absolute majority of Georgians found utterly outrageous the sight of the Russian MP, who voted for the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 – the territories that Georgia and international law consider occupied. Although the latter accusation was surely far-fetched and was only designed to make Georgia pay a higher price, given the dependence of Tbilisi on Russia for tourism. Tourism has been a booming sector in Georgia over the past 10 years and visitors from Russia make up about 20% of the entire flow.

Putin obviously did overreact, as his decision punished not only the Georgians but hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, who planned to spend their summer holiday in Georgia, with many having already booked the flights and hotels. But his frustration is also understandable. For a number of years Russia opted largely (but not exclusively) for soft power approach in dealing with Georgia. The longer-term bet of the Russian leadership was that along with rebounding economic ties and people-to-people contacts the Georgians will further warm up to their Orthodox brethren to the north. This policy was abundantly flavored by anti-Western propaganda spread by Russia-friendly (officially “patriotic”) news outlets as well as by many representatives of the Georgian clergy. They have been painted the west as decadent and morally decayed, trying to deprive the Georgian of their cultural identity by foisting on them the alien values like same-sex marriage, a notion that is absolutely scandalous to a significant part of the traditional and socially conservative Georgian society. Hence the choice of the event – the Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy – to test the level of preparedness of the Georgian society for a political rapprochement.  Georgia’s reaction to Gavrilov’s visit was a great disappointment for Putin, as she highlighted the fallacy of his calculations.

The Protesters’ “Glass Half-Empty”
The rallies exacted some significant political costs, as the Chair of the Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze resigned on the second day of the protests. Also the ruling Georgian Dream party did make one important concession by agreeing to conduct the 2020 parliamentary election on the proportional system – something the opposition, civil society and international organization had been trying to achieve unsuccessfully since 2016. The proportional system is widely believed to be fairer, allowing smaller parties who represent certain segments of the population to have their voice in the legislature and avoiding the current skewed ‘winner-takes-it-all’ arrangement, whereby the Georgian Dream won a constitutional majority of 76% parliamentary seats by garnering only 49% of votes at the latest parliamentary election. 

But the protersters’ chief demand – resignation of the Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia – remains unfulfilled. In a recent televised interview the Minister admitted his ordering to disperse the demonstrator by firing tear gas and rubber bullets, justifying this action by his and policemen’s duty “to protect the statehood from violence and institutional collapse”. The activists, who pledge to represent no political party, remain dogged in their determination to see Gakharia go and thorough and fair investigation to be conducted.
The New Twist
The already tense relations between Moscow and Tbilisi took another sudden turn for the worse, as the host of the popular opposition-minded Rustavi-2 TV channel launched into a strong foul-language diatribe personally aimed at Putin. Gabunia’s outburst was condemned almost universally, including the leadership of his own TV channel. A rally protesting Gabunia’s distinctly provocative behavior erupted almost immediately near the Rustavi-2 premises; winemakers and people from tourism sector were particularly irate as another row with Russia might signify their going out of business. The prime-minister of Georgia decried the broadcast calling it a “provocation against Georgia and its interests”. The following day, Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of the Parliament, adopted retaliatory recommendations aimed at major economic sanctions against Georgia. If approved, the sanctions would have delivered a serious blow to Georgia’s economy, given the latter dependence on the Russian market: about 60% of Georgia’s wine export and sizeable share of agriculture is purchased by Russia. But the Russian president, in his usual gesture of “magnanimity”, saw no expedience in the proposed sanctions because of “respect for the Georgian people”.

What does it all mean?
As the protests, albeit much less numerous than in the first few days, show no side of abating, it is very difficult to tell how the situation is going to develop. Although, one can draw some conclusions from what has happened so far. The very fact that the protests started in the first place is the evidence of rejection of Russia as a partner, despite some cultural affinity caused by the common Orthodox Christian faith. The majority of Georgians might tolerate the growing number of Russian tourists or intensification, to a degree, of economic ties, but political rapprochement is still a very distant prospect.

Moscow’s reaction also showed that Georgia’s growing economic dependence on Russia as an economic partner was a liability, as Putin’s decision to cancel direct flights and the very prospect of elimination of Georgia’s agricultural produce from Russian market proved unsettling, affecting Georgian currency and many businesses negatively. It proved that over-reliance on tourism – despite the latter’s growing revenues that reach almost 10% of Georgia’s GDP – and resulting complacency that manifests itself in rising nepotism and worsening governance, has not been a wise strategy. One small-scale tension and the prospect of a larger one already caused significant adverse effects.

One may hope that all these developments will serve a lesson for both the government and political opposition and result in improvement of the quality of governance in the former and social responsibility on the part of the latter.