Georgian Dream Meets Georgia’s Nightmare

The party tried to improve ties with Russia. Then the public intervened.

Protesters hold signs Georgian flags during a rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi on June 21.
Protesters hold signs Georgian flags during a rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi on June 21. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

For the last several days, Georgia’s capital has been rocked by anti-government rallies. The protesters are infuriated by the ruling Georgian Dream party’s increasingly close relationship with Russia, signaled most recently by its decision to invite a Russian legislator to address the Georgian Parliament. Georgian Dream responded to the protests by directing the police to fire on the 10,000 people who had gathered with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The incident has both tarnished Georgian Dream’s already stained image—in May, only 21 percent of the population supported the party—and revealed the radical aims of the main opposition United National Movement (UNM), which attempted to storm Parliament. (Support for UNM in May was at only 15 percent.)

Perhaps more importantly, however, the standoff has also showcased the limits of Georgian Dream’s ability to normalize relations with Russia. Both for current and future Georgian administrations, the protests serve as a lesson that Georgian society still holds a veto over any accommodation toward Russia.

In 2012, when Georgian Dream was voted into office, the party set about restoring ties between Georgia and Russia, whose relationship had fractured following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. Although Georgian Dream does have some pro-Russian supporters, the move was less ideological than economically motivated. Until Russia imposed an economic embargo on Georgia in 2006, Russia had been the main destination for Georgian exports, and restarting that trade would certainly give a much needed boost to struggling Georgian economy. That’s why the Georgian Dream government happily accepted Russia’s decision to ease its sanctions on Georgia after the 2012 vote.

In turn, over the last few years, Russia became the main export market for Georgian products by a wide margin, especially for wines and agriculture products. Russian tourism to Georgia also skyrocketed. In 2018, for example, 1.4 million Russians visited Georgia, and tourism made up almost 8 percent of Georgia’s GDP. The country likewise depends heavily on remittances from Russia, which is the second-largest source after the European Union.

From Russia’s perspective, the economic relationship was always a precursor for bringing Georgia into Russia’s political orbit. In 2018, on 10th anniversary of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview that improvements in economic relations and tourism would also ultimately lead to normalization of “political ties and resume full-scale dialogue between Moscow and Tbilisi.”

Russia sees its smaller neighbor as part of its larger sphere of influence, especially given their shared Orthodox Christianity. And the Georgian Orthodox Church—the most respected institution in the country—formally supports Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy but also retains close ties to Russia. Georgia’s socially conservative values, meanwhile, put it at odds with Western progressive norms. Georgian Euroskeptic parties (some of which are close to Georgian Dream) have organized large rallies against sexual minorities and immigrants in recent years.

And deliberately or not, by improving economic ties with Russia, Georgian Dream did end up moving Georgia closer to its erstwhile enemy. Among other things, the new government was reluctant to challenge Russia’s regional adventures, including in Ukraine. It also indirectly encouraged and politically legitimized pro-Russian political parties in Georgia.

Although Georgians benefit from better economic ties with Russia, pursuing closer political relations has proved unpopular. Neither shared religion nor hostility to progressive values can trump the public’s anger about Russia’s coercive policies in Georgia. It’s worth noting, for example, that Sergei Gavrilov, the Russian parliamentarian whose visit in Parliament sparked the protest, was visiting in his capacity as president of the general assembly of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, a transnational religious body.

A negative attitude toward Russia is among the few commonalities that unites Georgia’s otherwise polarized society. For instance, according to a 2018 survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research, 85 percent of Georgians consider Russia to be a “political threat.” Even though ordinary Georgians enjoy economic benefits from better trade relations and an increasing number of Russian tourists, those gains do not overtake a strong drive to maintain independence from Russia.

So why did Georgian Dream try to improve relations with its neighbor? A very pragmatic political force, it has successfully positioned itself as the lesser of two evils against a poorly regarded opposition. At the same time, however, in selling itself as the opposite of the UNM, which is hypercritical of Russia, it wound up taking a more accommodationist approach. Perhaps it believed that a friendlier stance would lead to concessions on the Russian side in the territorial conflict. But those concessions never followed, and now the party is paying the price.

The recent protests have made clear the boundaries for rapprochement between Georgia and Russia. Yet they have also increased the security and economic risks the country faces. The Kremlin has now realized that its soft power (including access to the Russian market, interpersonal contacts, and shared Orthodox Christianity) has failed.

If history has taught us anything, Moscow may well respond to that failure with coercion. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cancellation of direct flights by Russian airlines between Georgia and Russia could be the first step. And the Georgian government may soon discover that heightening the country’s economic dependence on Russia was shortsighted.

Kornely Kakachia is the director of the Georgian Institute of Politics.

Bidzina Lebanidze is a senior analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics.

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