Who Rules Georgia?  – POLITICS

Arshan Barzani is a student at Yale Law School, where he is editor of the Yale Law Journal. His writing has appeared in magazines such as the Wall Street Journal and Lawfare, and his book Chronicles of Caesar’s Wars is the first translation of Napoleon’s history by Julius Caesar.

It is impossible to go very far in Georgia without seeing a Ukrainian flag.

Blue and yellow adorn email signatures and hotel bills, the menus of chic Tbilisi wine bars, and the walls of country cottages. Rude graffiti urges Russian holidaymakers to pack their bags, while a poster on a restaurant’s door bans fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin – tables inside are full.

Russia captured 1 in 5 hectares of Georgia in a five-day war in 2008 and still holds those lands – long-turbulent Abkhazia and South Ossetia – today, with troops stationed just an hour’s drive from the capital.

That war was only the first in Russia’s revanchist trilogy, followed by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the now-ongoing war in Ukraine, as Moscow encroached on a neighbor’s territory at every turn, all ostensibly to defend ethnic minorities — but really punishing Western ambition.

No wonder, then, that nine out of ten Georgians support Ukraine and see Russia as a major threat. The mystery is why their elected government does not.

The ruling Georgian Dream party currently refuses to sanction Russia or arm Ukraine; it has prevented Georgians from joining the thousand-strong Georgian National Legion in Ukraine, and it has prevented Putin’s critics from re-entering the country. Meanwhile, Georgia itself has become a hub for sanctioned goods that sneak into Russia on the old military highway.

And while government officials insist they enforce Western sanctions even if they don’t impose their own, Washington isn’t so sure. After all, Georgia is not known for its impenetrable borders. In 2021, Mikheil Saakashvili — the former President of Georgia and Governor of Ukraine — snuck back into the country in a sour cream vat. He is now in jail and is said to have been poisoned in a Tbilisi hospital.

But Georgian Dream politicians say their lukewarm support for Ukraine is common sense. Georgia is small, independent for only 32 years, and too toothless to bite the bear that surrounds it to the north and east by land, west by sea, and south from its base in Armenia.

The party’s pride in having steered the only peaceful decade in the country’s post-Soviet history – an achievement it keeps touting – contrasts oh so beautifully with the hotheadedness of Saakashvili, who imposed the European Union on Georgia at the start of the war looked at Russia in 2008. A conclusion the West seems to have forgotten.

Amidst all this, some Georgian Dream members also believe that Russia is winning. “Ukraine is on the way to becoming a rump totalitarian state,” one MP told me on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, noting the country’s ruined economy and casualties on the battlefields. “We have been one country for 30 years. Russia has been a country for hundreds of years and it will be here for hundreds more.”

The logic here is that if Putin prevails in Ukraine, Georgia will be right to have him mollified. And if he loses and needs to save face, what better way to do that than to overrun a puny non-NATO neighbor?

Demonstrators wave the Ukrainian flag during a rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi March 1, 2022 | Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

But take a closer look at Georgian Dream’s argument, and there are holes.

A nod to Russia might have made sense when war broke out, according to Tbilisi think tanker Shota Utiashvili, but not after things got bogged down in Ukraine. Russia has since withdrawn 2,000 troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia as it struggles to find the manpower and firepower to take Bakhmut and is struggling to open a new front.

Other frontline states have taken advantage of this distraction to assert their independence. Moldova, which also occupies, blackmails and infiltrates Russia, has sided with Ukraine and has been rewarded with EU candidate status. Finland exchanged neutrality for NATO membership. Even Armenia – a member of a post-Soviet defense bloc – has canceled military exercises with Russia, inviting a European monitoring mission instead.

Perhaps the biggest question then is why the Georgian government is pursuing such unpopular policies. Is Georgian Dream — a party that has prosecuted political opponents, rigged elections and undermined judicial independence — committed a major act of political courage by holding onto an unpopular foreign policy a year before the election to pose an unlikely long-term threat? appease? ?

Many Georgians doubt that.

Instead, they argue that the ruling party serves not the country but its billionaire overlord, Bidzina Ivanishvili – who acquired Georgia’s largest wallet through deals in Russian banks, pharmaceuticals and agriculture before founding Georgian Dream and serving as prime minister in 2012.

However, as of 2021, Ivanishvili has disappeared, claiming he has quit politics and poured his time and money into a multi-million dollar dendrological park by the Black Sea, where he nurtures his love of trees and animals. But Georgian Dream insiders admit he’s still pulling the strings. Perhaps as easy said as done when some of his former employees are in parliament.

Still, many in Georgia — including a Western diplomat I spoke to on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly — question whether Ivanishvili is accountable to the Kremlin.

Not only is his foreign policy unpopularly pro-Russian, Russian media leaves him and his cronies alone. “I know that Ivanishvili has no problems in Russia,” said the late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 2012. “For me, the correct criterion is always that the businessman plays by the rules of the Russian government.”

For his part, Ivanishvili claims to have sold all of his Russian assets, but he actually owns at least 10 companies in the country, according to Transparency International. “If you come out of Russia with billions of dollars,” one Georgian businessman told me, “they own you.”

Of course, conspiracy theories about politicians reporting to foreign powers are old hat. But in Russia’s “near abroad,” where the Kremlin’s footprint is widespread and enduring, such accusations mean something more.

Last month, however, Georgian Dream finally went too far in its pro-Russian policy, introducing a bill that would have required media organizations and NGOs that received more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence.” and to threaten prison time for the disobedient. A similar law in Russia had silenced civil society.

Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi in protest, waving EU and Georgia flags and dancing to the cacophony of crowd control sirens as major NGOs vowed to flout the law. And over the next three days, the Georgian government did what governments do under intense pressure – insist on standing firm and then back down.

Perhaps Putin’s hand was at work here – after all, pro-Russian governments in Abkhazia, the Republic of Srpska and Kyrgyzstan have introduced similar laws in recent months. Or maybe Georgian Dream reckoned that the law would still tarnish NGOs with the epithet “foreign agent” even if it doesn’t pass. In any case, it would jeopardize – if not destroy – the country’s bid for EU membership and thereby Georgia’s real dreams.

And for a party that dares not openly stray from the West path, perhaps that was the point.