Georgia dreamin’

With the invasion of Ukraine having passed its first anniversary, Russia has increasingly little energy or resources to spare for trying to preserve its influence in other parts of the world. It retains friends here and there, but they know that Vladimir Putin isn’t going to be in a position to help them much if they get into trouble.

We saw this perhaps most dramatically last September, when renewed fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia had brokered the agreement that ended their war in 2020, so this time Armenia sought help from the Russian-controlled security organisation, CSTO. Russia provided sympathetic words, but little else. Its influence in central Asia and even central Africa has been going the same way.

Now it’s Georgia’s turn. The last time we looked at Georgia (the country, not the US state), almost two years ago, the European Union had just brought together government and opposition in an agreement that was supposed to end the opposition’s boycott of parliament. However, the largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), refused to ratify it, leading to the government of prime minister Irakli Garibashvili repudiating the deal as well.

Relations worsened in late 2021 with the return to Georgia of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, the founder of the UNM, who had been convicted in absentia of abuse of power. He was promptly arrested and went on a hunger strike. Saakashvili is a strong supporter of Ukraine, and the UNM accused Garibashvili and his party, Georgian Dream, of acting at the behest of Moscow.

The reality is that both major parties in Georgia are pro-western, as Garibashvili demonstrated last year when he responded to the invasion of Ukraine by denouncing Putin and applying for EU membership. But the UNM is more stridently anti-Russian (Saakashvili was president during the 2008 war with Russia), and such limited pro-Moscow sentiment as there is tended to be found in Georgian Dream.

The EU was cool on the membership idea – partly because that seems to be its default response to all such applications, but also because of the apparent democratic backsliding under Garibashvili. That in turn ignited some anti-western feeling in Georgia, and last August a small group of Golden Dream MPs left the party to set up a new pro-Russian group, the somewhat misnamed People’s Power.

With Garibashvili now dependant on the pro-Russians for his majority, and the opposition (with the support of the EU) still demanding the release of Saakashvili, the prime minister made a false step: he supported People’s Power last month when it introduced a bill for registration of foreign agents. This is the same device that Putin has used to cripple opposition in Russia, and the UNM and others denounced it as a step towards dictatorship.

Massive protests in the streets of Tbilisi were the result, with the opposition backed by Ukraine and the west, as well as by president Salome Zourabichvili – an independent elected originally with the support of Georgian Dream who broke with them in the 2021 crisis. Last Thursday the government gave in, announcing the withdrawal of the bill and the release of those arrested in the protests.

Moscow wasn’t pleased and, while denying any responsibility for the bill, accused the west of fomenting a coup against the Georgian government. That, of course, is exactly the sort of support that Garibashvili doesn’t want. And it may well be that Putin, regarding all Georgians indiscriminately as enemies, is happy just sowing dissension among them.

For the moment, though, it’s a big moral victory for the opposition. With elections not due until October next year, the question now is whether Georgian Dream can re-establish enough public confidence to continue in office at least that long, or whether, like some of its predecessors, it will be ousted in the streets rather than at the ballot box.


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