Since becoming independent in 1991, Georgia has been striving for closer ties with the West and membership in organizations such as the European Union. However, in recent times, particularly in the past eighteen months, the ruling coalition led by oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party has made decisions that seem to push Georgia away from the West and toward Russia’s sphere of influence. The government continues to claim support for integration with the EU and NATO, but it has opted for a policy of non-confrontation with Moscow. This significant change in direction has sparked controversy and debate within the nation.
The Georgian government’s policies have put it at odds with the Georgian population, which prefers closer ties with the West. A 2022 survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research found that 89 percent of Georgians consider Russia a “political threat,” while 79 percent of Georgians want their country to have a “pro-Western” foreign policy. Likewise, 85 percent of Georgians also “fully” (70 percent) or “somewhat” (15 percent) support their country joining the EU, while 70 percent want their country to join NATO. As Georgia navigates its delicate position between Russia and the European Union, Georgian Dream’s actions are understandable. After all, who could forget Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, an act of aggression that former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev later admitted was motivated by a desire to prevent NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territories.
Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the relationship between Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet republics, has significantly deteriorated despite their traditional solidarity. Georgian authorities formally condemned Russia’s “unacceptable“ invasion of Ukraine and provided humanitarian assistance and diplomatic support through organizations such as the United Nations. However, the Georgian government’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia sparked widespread discontent among the population, as demonstrated by the anti-government protests calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
According to a survey conducted by Caucasus Research Resource Centers last spring, 66 percent of Georgians believe that their government should take a stand against Moscow and implement some form of action. In addition, a majority of respondents, 61 percent, stated that the government should show greater support for Ukraine. These views contrast the ruling party’s stance, which has refused to impose any sanctions on Russia.
Much like Ukraine, Georgia has been dealing with its own territorial issues with Russia. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and declared the independence of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For over ten years, Russia has been constructing fences along the line of separation between South Ossetia, which is almost completely surrounded by Georgian-controlled territory, and Georgia, in an effort to turn this line into a fully recognized border between the two countries. This process, known as “borderization,” has been a dire problem for Georgia, as it challenges the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Georgia’s strategic neutrality in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia may be a calculated move to avoid angering Moscow and potentially facing consequences such as economic sanctions and the further “borderization” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Kornely Kakachia, the head of the Georgian Institute of Politics, suggests that Tbilisi is adopting a cautious “wait and see“ approach in dealing with the volatile and unpredictable nature of Russia’s actions.
And despite claims from members of Georgian Dream, it is clear that Ivanishvili still wields significant power in Georgian politics. With a history of business in Russia and close connections to the Kremlin, Ivanishvili has maintained a tight grip on Georgia’s leading institutions for the past decade. Interestingly, there have been no criticisms of Ivanishvili from Moscow, possibly due to his promise to improve relations between the two countries when his Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012. Ivanishvili’s influence and connections continue to shape the political landscape in Georgia.
Since its inception in 2012, Georgia’s ruling party has faced criticism for its handling of democracy, human and minority rights, media freedoms, and the fight against corruption and political polarization. In 2019, thousands of people took to the streets in protest after a Russian lawmaker was allowed to sit in the parliamentary speaker’s chair during a meeting, an event known as “Gavrilov night“ and viewed as a national indignity given Russia’s ongoing occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But the protests go beyond this single incident. They also stem from discontent with Georgian Dream’s overall performance, including a struggling economy, perceptions of rigged elections, restrictions on freedom of the press, and selective justice. The European Parliament even passed a resolution calling for the EU to impose sanctions on Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s founder, for his “destructive role” in Georgia’s politics and economy, including risks posed to free media and journalists’ safety.
The Georgian government’s deviation from Western-backed democratic reforms has jeopardized the country’s relations with the EU and United States. In September 2021, Georgian Dream declined the EU’s macro-financial assistance package, which included requirements for judicial reforms recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. Instead, the government sought funding from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which did not have such conditionality. In June 2022, the European Council further decided to postpone Georgia’s potential EU membership until it implemented reforms and met twelve specific conditions reforms.
As Georgia edges closer to Russia, tensions may escalate if the Georgian people seek to replace their country’s pro-Russian leaders. Russia and President Vladimir Putin have a history of advocating for regime change in Georgia and Ukraine. For example, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov demanded the removal of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, much like when Putin himself called on the Ukrainian military to overthrow their government in 2022 as a precondition for peace negotiations. It’s possible that Moscow could become more aggressive in the face of any attempts by Georgia to loosen its ties with Russia.
The 2013 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine was sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia. However, the underlying factors that fueled the revolution went much deeper and included widespread corruption, economic hardships, undemocratic politics, media censorship, and police brutality that left the Ukrainian people feeling silenced and oppressed. In the face of these challenges, Ukrainians took to the streets to demand change and fight for a better future.
As Georgia struggles with corruption, undemocratic elections, economic challenges, and media censorship, the government’s attempts to move closer to Russia and distance itself from the West have faced strong resistance from the majority of citizens. Ivanishvili’s leadership and actions are reminiscent of those of Yanukovych in Ukraine, which sparked the Euromaidan Revolution. As discontent and frustration among Georgians reach a boiling point, it seems that the country may be headed for a Maidan-style revolution of its own, similar to what Ukraine experienced before it.
David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press. He tweets @DVKirichenko.