Georgia’s risky game with Russia backfires as the country falls into a trap, journalists say

Zaza Abashidze, Akaki Zarkua, Tbel Abuseridze and EuromaidanPress journalist Orysia Hrudka.

03/21/2023 – 21:50 • International

Editor’s note

100,000 Russians fleeing mobilization have settled in Georgia, with economic and, more importantly, political repercussions. Meanwhile, Georgian society supports the integration of Ukraine and the EU. Yet the Georgian government is failing to take action against Russia as society demands because it bet on Russia to win the war.

We sat down with the founder of Georgian outlet Real Politika Come and visit usGeorgian journalist Akaki Zarkuaand Georgian photographer and artist Tbel Abuseridze for an in-depth look at Georgia’s protests against the “Foreign Agents” law and the consequences of Russian resisters to mobilization.

Watch the video:

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100,000 Russians moved to Georgia in 2022 ‘to keep their bourgeois lifestyle’ and ‘don’t want to talk about war’

Over 100,000 Russians came to Georgia in 2022, which is quite a number for a small country, especially since Georgia’s second largest city, Batumi, has a population of just 150,000.

Economic changes in the country became apparent almost immediately. Prices rose, and with too many Russians, the balance of the Georgian economy shifted. For real estate, the rental price increased by more than 25%, which became a burden for many Georgians living in Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, says Zarkua, “there are legitimate concerns that Russians will replace the Georgian population as the new middle class, as there are more high-income migrants and many things are more accessible to them.” Many Russians who moved to Georgia are so-called “digital nomads”. They can work anywhere because they work for companies outside of Russia and Georgia.

Most Georgians say they support some border crossing restrictions for Russians. But the current government of the Georgian Dream party, which has long been building a pro-Russian policy in the country, dares not take such steps.

“The political side of this immigration is also a problem… Many European countries closed their borders to Russian immigrants, so it was a question of Georgian society, why are we opening our borders to Russians?” Abashidze said.

Russians in Georgia create their “parallel society”

“The people or the citizens of the imperialist countries generally do not tend to assimilate at all. So they always create their own pubs, their own kindergartens and everything of their own. They really live in their own bubbles. It’s like they’re a society within a society,” Abuseridze told us about his experience.

Russians left Russia en masse and moved to Georgia because they don’t want to fight, don’t want to die, but also want to preserve their way of life, all speakers agree. During their stay in Georgia, Russians mostly try not to talk about politics and refrain from any political activity.

“What struck me was that while there was no significant anti-war movement in Russia, we did not see any significant anti-war movement organized by Russians outside of Russia,” Zarkua pointed out. When asked about Russian attitudes towards the war, Abashidze added that “they generally don’t feel comfortable talking about the war”.

On the other hand, some Russian citizens are trying to demonstrate their positions and are actively making art or protesting or even burning their passports in front of the Georgian Parliament, Abuseridze pointed out.

Why is the current Georgian government pro-Russian while society in general supports EU integration?

All the speakers told us that Georgian society is very pro-Ukrainian. It can be seen in the streets of Tbilisi, where you can find too many Ukrainian flags and stickers on buildings, cars and bags.

Georgian society also practically supports Ukraine. One of the most recent examples was half a million dollars raised to buy the generators over the winter and it was the Society’s initiative.

On the other hand, the Georgian government is trying to find a compromise, said Abashidze, comparing its policy to Victor Orban’s Hungarian policy.

The Georgian Dream government was elected in 2012 in opposition to the previous Saakashvili government. The new government chose a warmer policy towards Russia.

The most important shift, however, occurred just before the full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine in 2022, as the Georgian Dream government placed bets on Russia’s quick and decisive victory in that war. It turned out that Ukraine successfully resisted, and the pre-war calculations turned out to be against the Georgian dream.

The Georgian Dream government is not changing its pro-Russian policy now because it is a “puppet government”.

In essence, the current Georgian government is controlled by the richest Georgian oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

“Essentially all power in Georgia is now in the hands of a man who is outside of this legal system and he bears no formal responsibility for it,” Zarkua said.

Ivanishvili’s financial support was instrumental in the party’s electoral victory and current influence on the country’s judicial and legal system. Ivanishvili’s media control was also key in containing the opposition.

On the other hand, society has not created an organized opposition party, while most opposition forces are fragmented.

“But the main problem for Georgia right now, I think, is the lack of alternative opposition, because our government has done a pretty ‘good’ job of suppressing alternatives, in terms of suppressing people who disagreed with some policies.” said Abashidze.

Flags of EU and Georgia during the protests in Tbilisi in March 2023 against the law on foreign agents and the general policy of the Georgian government.  Source: RFE/RL~

Flags of EU and Georgia during the protests in Tbilisi in March 2023 against the law on foreign agents and the general policy of the Georgian government. Source: RFE/RL

Former President Saakashvili has implemented many reforms and currently remains the leading opposition figure

Former President of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili enacted major reforms and “basically transformed this failed state into a functioning centralized country.” He cleared the Georgian government and institutions of corruption. However, “there were also human rights violations,” Zarkua said, explaining why he lost the 2012 election.

Saakashvili’s party remains the second largest party in Georgia, while other parties get two or three percent of the vote in the elections. For this reason, Saakashvili’s party remains the main challenging force in the current ruling party.

And that’s a problem, our speakers said, hoping that the current protests against the Georgian government and its “foreign agents” law will produce some new leaders.

Could Georgia use the present moment to retake Russian-occupied Abkhazia and Ossetia?

In 2008, during the Russo-Georgian War, Russia occupied the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia. In 2022, many Ukrainians hoped that Georgia would seize the moment of Ukrainian resistance and retake Abkhazia and Ossetia, but it didn’t happen.

Zarkua explained that the reasons why this did not happen are a lack of capacity, Georgian state propaganda and a lack of public support for such a step.

On the one hand, the propaganda of the ruling party of Georgia over the past year has focused on the message that “the West and Ukraine are all trying to drag us into this war. They want us to open a second front; They want our children to be killed,” Zarkua recalls.

Also, Georgia has signed agreements that it will not use force in this conflict and it does not have the capability to do so.

After all, such a solution is not strongly demanded in Georgian public opinion, Zarkua explained, but there are calls to improve positions at the negotiating table with Russia.

“The main problem for me as a citizen of Georgia is that we are losing this narrow window,” he concluded of the governments’ failure to work towards the return of Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“We must resist. We must defeat the authoritarian ruler. And basically there are lessons from Ukraine. I think this would be useful for Georgian citizens and society right now,” Zarkua concluded, speaking about the current protests in Georgia against the passage of the Foreign Agents Law and the government’s general policy.

To learn more about these protests, listen here:

Protests in Georgia: what’s going on and what’s next?

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Tags: Georgia, Russo-Georgian War 2008, Saakashvili, Ukraine-Georgia relations