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As Georgia touts its ‘perfect balance’ between Russia and the EU, a small but active pro-Kremlin cohort is making itself heard in Tbilisi.by Maia Edilashvili 15 July 2014
TBILISI | Friday 27 June not only brought Georgia into closer association with the European Union – perhaps even more remarkably, it brought the country’s bitterly divided political factions into harmony. Representatives and supporters of the governing Georgian Dream coalition and the rival United National Movement (UNM) party agreed that the signing of a political and trade accord with Brussels was a hugely significant day for Georgia, maybe the most significant since independence in 1991. Most other political groups took a similarly celebratory line.
Resounding though it was, the sentiment was not unanimous. Archil Chkoidze, leader of the Tbilisi-based coalition Eurasian Choice, is decidedly unimpressed with the EU pact. He chose 27 June to announce a prospective slate of activities by his group starting in September, including “a big anti-Western rally.”
The focal point of protest will be Eurasian Choice's contention that if Georgia hopes to regain the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it had best abjure the EU and NATO – “where we will not be accepted whatsoever,” Chkoidze insisted – and instead join the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and, as of next year, Armenia.
Chkoidze said Eurasian Choice unites 10 nongovernmental organizations with 15,000 members across Georgia, a country of 4.5 million. The group is appealing to the government – so far unsuccessfully – to hold a referendum on joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Union.
His may have been a relatively lonely voice on 27 June, but it was not a lone one. In pockets of Georgian politics, including parties that show signs of establishing themselves as credible alternatives to Georgian Dream and UNM, the route to a better Georgia runs to Moscow, not Brussels.
Six years after the Russia-Georgia war, with Moscow still stationing troops in the separatist regions and recognizing their claims of sovereignty, public opinion remains skeptical of a closer Kremlin embrace. In an April survey of nearly 4,000 Georgians commissioned by the National Democratic Institute, half of the respondents viewed Russia as “a real and existing threat” – a proportion that increased over the preceding months of crisis in Ukraine.
But the same poll showed 16 percent support for joining the Eurasian Union, up from 11 percent in November. Experts say progress in favor of the Moscow line reflects the recent thaw in the trade freeze between the two countries that followed their August 2008 war, and sympathy in overwhelmingly Orthodox Georgia for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s traditional-values rhetoric.
Wresting power in 2012 from UNM, Georgian Dream promised to reset relations with Russia while continuing former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s push to tighten ties with the West. Finding that hard power failed to divert Georgia from that course, Moscow is now testing soft-power opportunities, said Kornely Kakachia, a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University and director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a think tank in the capital.
“Russia will try to play on the hesitant population in an attempt to create a so-called third power” in Georgia, he said, “built on the idea of social conservatism that is typical of Putin’s Russia.”
Specifically, Russia's anti-gay laws could find supporters among the faithful of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which wields implicit but considerable political power. Georgian clergy have railed against tolerance of sexual minorities as an alien, Western value. In April the church called for the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” be struck from a proposed anti-discrimination law that is a prerequisite for Georgia’s visa-liberalization pact with the EU.
Such actions “have prepared the ground for the pro-Russian groups [in Georgia] to become active and get wider support,” said Irakli Vacharadze, the head of Identoba, a human rights group that advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
‘RUSSIA IS NOT AN OCCUPIER’
But the specter of the breakaway territories also looms large in the calculation of Georgians who favor a turn east, or at least a turn away from the West. In an interview late last month with the tabloid Asaval-Dasavali, Valeri Kvaratskhelia, chairman of the Neutral Georgia party, said that with the signing of the EU accord, “the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be formalized for good.”
Three days before the signing ceremony, Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of Georgia’s parliament and the head of a coalition of smaller opposition parties, said at a press briefing that “if the choice is about NATO membership without Abkhazia and Samachablo [South Ossetia], I opt for the unification of the country.” With South Ossetia's de facto government planning a referendum on joining Russia, Burjanadze called on Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibasvhili to “urgently” request a tete-a-tete with Putin to seek guarantees from the Kremlin on its intentions in the breakaway regions.
Burjanadze is viewed in Georgian political circles as something of a loose cannon, but in local elections 15 June her United Opposition group won more than 10 percent support in Tbilisi and nationwide, the third best result after Georgian Dream and UNM.
The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, established just a year and a half ago, finished fourth in the capital, with 6.35 percent of the party-list vote. Like United Opposition, the alliance is not openly anti-Western but pursues a socially conservative platform. It advocated a delay in signing the EU trade agreement and termed Georgia’s NATO aspirations “pointless.” And it has reach: its mayoral candidate in Tbilisi, Irma Inashvili, is a majority shareholder in Obieqtivi, a TV and radio network that serves as a party mouthpiece.
Alongside the growth of more opposition parties voicing anti-Western views, directly pro-Russian voices are making themselves heard, suggesting that the government’s attempt to strike a balance between East and West could face a real challenge. In early spring Tbilisi saw small rallies in support of Russia, punctuated by slogans such as “Crimea is Russia” and “Russia is not an occupier.”
Earth Is Our Home, a civic organization that has called for Tbilisi’s Museum of Soviet Occupation to be shut down, staged a 27 March protest of U.S. sanctions against Russia in a downtown square named for Alexander Pushkin. The group’s head, Elguja Khodeli, came clad in a Russian flag. The handful of protesters clashed with more numerous anti-Russian demonstrators, one of whom said the pro-Russia forces “have become so active that we have to organize counter-rallies almost every day.”
Vacharadze and his group decided not to organize any events on 17 May, the international day against homophobia, for fear of inciting a pro-Russia backlash. A small gay-rights rally in Tbilisi on 17 May last year was disrupted by thousands of conservative Georgians mobilized by church leaders.
“Given the scandalous outcome at the local elections for Burjanadze and Inashvili, imagine if we had arranged the anti-homophobia events before the signature of the EU-Georgia deal and local elections,” Vacharadze said. “They would have gotten even more votes.”
While many pro-Western commentators speculate that Russia is funding pro-Moscow forces in Georgia, most pro-Russia groups do not have websites, making it difficult to track their activities, membership, or sources of support.
An exception is the Society of Erekle II. Established in December 2008 and chaired by Eurasian Choice leader Chkoidze, the group is named for the Georgian king who signed the 1783 treaty that made Georgia a protectorate of Russia. According to its homepage, the society’s goals include “propaganda of Russian culture and arts” and promoting dialogue between Russian and Georgian political parties.
The society runs free eight-month courses in the Russian language in partnership with the Kremlin-funded Russkiy Mir Foundation, which allocates $10,000 a year for the program. The course also features lectures in Russian history and theology. Chkoidze said the society annually enrolls 120 people aged 16 to 30 and that “interest is great – 800 people are on the waiting list now.”
Alexander Ebralidze, a Russian businessman of Georgian origin, has also helped fund the courses, according to the society’s website. After the 2008 war, Ebralidze launched the World Congress of the Nations of Georgia, which also seeks closer ties between Tbilisi and Moscow.
The spate of pro-Russia activism, and its possible affect on the government’s ability to maintain a pro-Western public consensus, has set off alarms for some members of UNM.
In April, UNM lawmaker Giorgi Baramidze announced plans on his Facebook page for a bill to criminalize denial of Russian occupation and ethnic cleansing within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders. The measure would also bar Georgians from brandishing official symbols of Russia or promoting its ideology.
“I am curious to get broad feedback on this initiative,” Baramidze said in an interview. “In the fall I’ll sum up the outcome and make a decision whether to formally initiate a draft of amendments.”
Government officials downplay any threat of a pro-Russia surge. Nodar Tangiashvili is the director of international relations at the State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, the agency charged with coordinating government activities with regard to the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts. He does not rule out a Kremlin play to mobilize “a small though pretty active group” of pro-Russia Georgians through economic tools and appeals to traditional values, but he does not expect a major shift in public attitudes.
With Russia maintaining its military presence in the de facto republics and firming their administrative borders with Georgia, neutrality in choosing international partners is “impossible,” and a route to ebbing sovereignty, Tangiashvili said. He said Tbilisi has “a very high level of communication with the EU in terms of possible threats and situations that can be used by Russia.”
The government has touted its ability to both pursue EU aspirations and de-escalate tensions with Russia, which ran high under Saakashvili. In a BBC interview last month, Prime Minister Gharibashvili dismissed talk of Russia annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as it had Crimea and sidestepped a question about Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s warning that Georgia faced “serious consequences” if it signed the association agreement with Brussels. Instead Gharibashvili focused on progress in business relations with Russia and more cordial diplomacy.
“We’ve found a perfect balance” between East and West, he said, describing the situation as “a very interesting precedent in the region.”
But Kakachia, the Tbilisi State University political scientist, said Moscow will only gain leverage and influence as trade returns to prewar normal and key Georgian producers such as winemakers become more dependent on the Russian market.
Through the first five months of 2014, Russia was Georgia’s third-largest export target, after Caucasian neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia, according to preliminary numbers (pdf) from state statistics office GeoStat. That’s up from fourth place last year and sixth in 2012. Sales to Russia quadrupled in 2013 to an all-time high of $190.2 million after Moscow lifted trade barriers on key Georgian exports.
“If this [trend] continues, it may become hazardous,” Kakachia said, meaning that another sudden closure of the Russian market could deal a serious blow to Georgia’s economy. More than that, he said, the situation of Georgia and its separatist regions should be associated with, rather than distanced from, events in Ukraine.
“It’s a futile flirtation, and the wrong formula to successfully achieve East-West balance,” Kakachia said. “It’s in Russia’s interest to make Georgia accustomed to the existing situation. Unless Georgia has a clear response, it will move from the international spotlight to the shadows and fail to benefit from the changing geopolitical context.”