Georgia in a New World: Between Russia and the West

When Russia’s special military operation commenced in Ukraine a year ago, not too many countries have surprised Moscow to the upside by their attitudes to the global changes. However, this was the case with Georgia. While the country is obviously harboring ambitions of a Euro-Atlantic integration, with its political forces competing for love of the West, Tbilisi has nevertheless rejected the option of a sanctions war with Russia.

Georgia stunned everyone already on February 25, when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, after calling upon the international community to do whatever it takes to stop the fighting, announced that Tbilisi would not join the West’s financial and economic sanctions against Russia. As the U.S. and EU anti-Russian sanctions packages were approved, Georgia clarified its position: the country complies with all international restrictions to avoid being hammered by the Collective West, but it chooses not to impose any restrictions on its trade with Russia, unlike many other states.

As a result, Georgia lived almost the same way in 2022, as other partners and allies of Russia, struggling not to be hit by secondary sanctions or disclose its help to Russia in circumventing the restrictions. Transport links have not been severed, economic contacts keep expanding, and we could even talk about a heyday in Russian-Georgian relations in the midst of the SMO. Georgia is only different from Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and other states close to Moscow in that Tbilisi formally supports all anti-Russian international documents, taking sides with the U.S. and the EU at every vote in the UN—because the government of Mr. Garibashvili has not yet renounced its European aspirations.

A Pre-February Georgia

In order to understand how Georgia manages to combine a pro-Western course with its defiance of anti-Russian injunctions by the U.S. and the EU (which commands nothing but respect, according to Sergey Lavrov), it is necessary to recall the dynamics transpiring in the Russia-Georgia-West triangle on the eve of February 24, 2022.

The modern Georgian state has existed for little more than 10 years. On October 1, 2012, the “Georgian Dream” party, closely associated with the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, won the parliamentary elections against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), ending Saakashvili’s nine-year rule. Back in 2010, the leader of the “Rose Revolution” introduced amendments to the Georgian constitution that significantly limited the powers of the president, since he planned to rule the country indefinitely as prime minister after his two presidential terms, but—given to the defeat of the UNM in the elections—he lost power overnight.

Mr. Ivanishvili established his “Georgian Dream” with the express purpose of snatching power from Saakashvili and transferring it to less “noxious” and more efficient managers, to transform Georgia in a “nation with human features” – nothing less, nothing more. The “Georgian Dream” political agenda differed from the UNM program by its moderate approach, but not by the strategy: Ivanishvili retained aspiration for the EU and NATO membership in the country’s foreign policy, intensifying full-fledged cooperation with both organizations, and he did not give up claims on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The billionaire only wanted to save Georgia—and probably himself—from Mikheil Saakashvili, so as soon as the embattled president fled the country before his tenure expired, Ivanishvili retreated into the shadow of Georgian politics again, handing over the post of prime minister to the 31-year-old Irakli Garibashvili.

Moderation in the Georgian Dream’s foreign policy choices was primarily reflected in the resumption of trade with Russia, which had been suspended when Saakashvili was in power. Moscow predictably welcomed the arrival of a more sagacious leader in Georgia and responded favorably to Ivanishvili’s initiative to set up a bilateral format for discussing the issues that do not pertain to the political agenda at the Geneva Discussions on Security and Stability in Transcaucasia. As early as December 2012, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Georgian Prime Minister’s special envoy Zurab Abashidze started a multi-year dialogue on bilateral issues in Geneva (the venue was later moved to Prague). In January 2013, Ivanishvili had a brief meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the Economic Forum in Davos, stressing that Tbilisi intended to restore relations with Moscow.

In the same year, Georgian companies returned to Russia, with Russian companies returning to Georgia. Ivanishvili acted as pragmatically as possible: it was necessary to put aside the hard-to-resolve political issues and reconstruct the ties with Russia destroyed by Saakashvili, wherever possible. True, no resumption of diplomatic relations between Tbilisi and Moscow could be expected in the foreseeable future (which is true even now, 10 years later), but Georgia is a small state, lying far away from the centers of power towards which it gravitates, while bordering on such a huge power as Russia. Tbilisi simply cannot afford either to stay in conflict with Moscow or shut itself off from the Russian market. Saakashvili’s anti-Russian games were pure madness, which naturally culminated in the Five-Day War of 2008, so Ivanishvili wanted Georgia to get back to the path of prudence.

Thus, at the end of 2012, the new Georgian state conceptually separated the two tracks in its relations with Russia: political and economic—never to mix them again. Georgia voted for all anti-Russian steps taken by the West after the coup d’état in Ukraine and Crimea’s reunification with Russia in 2014, but it did not impose any economic restrictions on its trade with Russia. On the contrary, during the years of initial Western sanctions pressure on Russia, Russian-Georgian trade turnover kept steadily growing, peaking at $1.355 billion in 2018 during the pre-Covid era. On the European track, Tbilisi successfully signed the Euro-Association agreement in 2014, entering the visa-free travel regime with the EU in 2017, looking forward to the prospect of becoming a candidate for EU membership after the European Commission’s conditions have been met. Prudence allowed Georgia to achieve a win-win outcome as it maintained normal relations with both Russia and the West.

In fact, under the “Georgian Dream”, the Caucasian Republic used any chance to strengthen its positions. As the only open East-West route in South Caucasus amidst the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and given the tense relations between Tehran and Baku, Georgia ensured its participation in global economic projects such as the Southern Gas Corridor, which helps the EU import Azerbaijani gas (11.5 bcm in 2022), and the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railroad (432 thousand tons of cargo carried over it in 2022). The BTK became Georgia’s entry ticket to China’s interregional transport projects (One Belt, One Road and the Middle Corridor) due to the possibility of transporting freights by rail from Baku to both Turkey and Georgian ports. Tbilisi entered the turbulent 2020s as a successful regional state focused on national interests and mutually beneficial cooperation with everyone.

Factor of Saakashvili

The irritating factors that Georgia has had to face in its foreign policy are also worth mentioning. All of them revolve around the figure of the former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Having fled the country in 2013, he has not given up his claim to power in Georgia, even though he has no legitimate tools to regain it. His United National Movement (UNM) lost most of the electorate to become a convenient target for the Georgian Dream, which in its first four years explained all problems faced by Georgia due to failures of the Saakashvili regime. When it became clear to analysts and ordinary citizens that the Dream itself was not working very effectively, the ruling force confronted them with an alternative: “either us or Saakashvili”, which literally meant a call to choose the lesser of two evils.

After taking a vacation, obtaining a Ukrainian passport and getting a job as chairman of the Odessa Region’s Administration, Mikheil Saakashvili set out to create problems for the “Georgian Dream”. It should be noted that the politician’s extravagant behavior created more problems for himself and his party, because people voted less and less for the UNM (65 seats in parliament in 2012, 27 seats in 2016, 36 seats in the coalition with four other parties in 2020). The former president, however, apparently saw some sense in pure sabotage. Moreover, we are not talking about a regular information campaign against the “Georgian Dream” in the media under Saakashvili’s control, but about much more serious actions.

First, the UNM resorted to anti-Russian provocations, using any Russian-Georgian contacts as a pretext to foment protests and unrest. It became commonplace to falsely accuse the Georgian Dream of being pro-Russian and to hold rallies under those banners. The most successful provocation was an aggressive escapade against Russian delegates in the Georgian parliament during the session of Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, held on June 20, 2019. Then UNM members picketed the rostrum and disrupted the work of the General Assembly. The Russian delegates had to be escorted out of the building, and a large-scale rally was organized in the evening, with Saakashvili’s associates instigating the protesters to siege the parliament, demanding resignation for Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, Interior Minister George Gakharia and the government at large.

As a result, the next day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree suspending air communication with Georgia starting on July 8. It could be resumed about two years ago soon after Georgia had lifted Covid restrictions, but on April 1, 2021 the UNM attacked Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner, who arrived in Tbilisi to celebrate his birthday. Because the local authorities cannot guarantee the safety of any Russian citizen (being also aware that Saakashvili’s close associates attack media people and politicians rather than ordinary Russians), Russian carriers abstain from flying to the Republic for the time being, even though a restart of flights is currently negotiated.

Second, Georgia began to receive “unpleasant signals” from the European Union. In the European structures, especially in the EuroParliament, Saakashvili retained quite a strong lobby, which started to put pressure on the Georgian government on all uncomfortable issues—from the fact that the Republic is essentially led by Bidzina Ivanishvili hiding in the shadows, with characterless successive prime ministers George Kvirikashvili, Mamuka Bakhtadze, Georgiy Gakharia and Irakli Garibashvili being just his puppets, to the fact that the majority electoral system allows the “Georgian Dream” to secure most seats in parliament even if defeated in the general elections. Ivanishvili had no such lobby in the EU, so the list of demands placed on Tbilisi by Euro-bureaucrats was steadily expanding.

The UNM acted as an inventor of a false agenda, especially after its defeat at the 2020 parliamentary elections. The party announced that it would not recognize the results of the vote, refused to enter parliament and launched infinite protests. The UNM rallies before and after the elections were never numerous, but the Saakashvili-controlled media presented each of them as yet another outbreak of popular anger against the authorities, while EU lobbyists conveyed the fabricated picture of those events to the very top. Nothing dangerous was really happening in Georgia, but Brussels got the impression that the country had lost stability because of the imperfect political system. As a result, the “Georgian Dream” was forced to sign the Charles Michel plan to resolve the internal political crisis, which did not exist in reality, even though the UNM rejected the document anyway.

Later, the Charles Michel plan had to be revoked due to the apparent unwillingness of Saakashvili’s associates to do anything but imitating the wobbling of the country, and the former president then dealt Georgia his final blow. On October 1, 2021, nine years after his loss of power, he was detained in Tbilisi and placed in prison. Saakashvili was returning to the country, firmly knowing that he would immediately be arrested on account of the criminal cases filed against him, but he did it anyway. For the “Georgian Dream”, his arrest became a new problem. The politician went on hunger strike, and his entourage stuck to their proven pattern, as it did earlier with the UNM rallies, fanning the scandal of their leader’s serious illness and the need to let him out of jail and out of the country. The European officials supporting him became even angrier with Tbilisi.

Georgia in February

So, Georgia met February 24, 2022 in the following situation with regard to its foreign policy: the course towards Euro-Atlantic integration saw both successes (agreement on Euro-Association and visa-free regime with the EU) and problems (the opposition used its lobby in the European institutions to create a false picture of the internal political situation and legality in the Republic), with the country having no prospects of joining NATO because of the claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet, the country is involved in the Alliance’s programs, modernizing the army and infrastructure to the NATO standards.

The course towards economic and humanitarian contacts with Russia continues. Here, too, there are successes (steadily growing turnover) and problems (the opposition used provocations to halt air communication between the two nations). Besides, there are no prospects of restoring diplomatic relations with Russia because of the same claims.

The course for the broadest possible economic interaction as Georgia develops mutually beneficial ties with all neighboring states, as well as with extra-regional states participating in projects that transit the territory of Georgia.

Obviously, Georgia was faced with a difficult choice, unlike many other states, on the day when Russia started its special military operation in Ukraine. On the one hand, the EU dragging its feet with making Tbilisi a candidate for EU membership, preferred to deal with fake Georgian crises, expecting immediate solidarity with all anti-Russian decisions from the Georgian government, offering it the carrot of a “candidate status” as an encouragement. On the other hand, Russia will hardly even notice Georgia’s individual sanctions, whereas Russia’s potential all-out retaliation could be very painful for the small country.

The practice introduced by Bidzina Ivanishvili back in 2012 that entails separating the political and economic tracks in its relations with Russia greatly relieved the stress faced by the Georgian government. Neither Brussels nor Moscow expected it, but when Tbilisi was confronted with picking the right posture in the new stand-off between Russia and the West, it already had an answer: political denunciation of Russia’s invasion should not affect bilateral economic ties with its northern neighbor. The choice was made not in favor of Russia and not in favor of the West, but in favor of Georgia and its national interests. This is the reason behind Moscow’s appreciation of the way Tbilisi answered to the challenge: the Georgian authorities have their national interests in mind, as a sovereign state, which for the Russian leadership is the norm of healthy international relations.

A Post-February Georgia

The West made Georgia pay a price for the country’s refusal to impose individual sanctions against Russia. This is what it does to any country that prefers sovereignty to external control. With Georgia always complying with all European requirements in respect of reforms, Ursula von der Leyen still said on June 17, 2022 that the European Commission would not recommend granting the Republic a candidate status at the forthcoming EU summit, in contrast to Moldova and Ukraine, which will be honored with this status. This is exactly what happened: Moldova and Ukraine became candidates, while Georgia received a list of 12 mandatory points that it should work on. Some of them were clearly added by the same Saakashvili lobby—above all, we are talking about the requirement of weaning oligarchs off power (that is, depriving Bidzina Ivanishvili of unspoken control over the government) and about the mandated aspiration for the “political cohesion of society” (which can never be achieved under the provocative strategy of the UNM).

Perhaps, the bitterest pill to swallow for Tbilisi was that Brussels gave the candidate status to Chisinau, a nation that also refused to impose individual sanctions against Russia. This detail was also the most telling: the EU showed the distinction it makes between countries under its control and states defending their sovereignty. Moldova gained EU candidate status because President Maia Sandu’s regime is informally subservient to Brussels and the Moldovan authorities did not decide on their own what they were going to do in the new world. Instead, they asked European officials for permission—similar to EU member states requesting exemptions from the next sanctions package. Georgia, unlike Moldova, behaved too independently and was punished with a “penalty loop”.

For Tbilisi, this was a rather unpleasant but not a shock price to pay for maintaining economic ties with Moscow. The authorities acted prudently once again, and they accepted the 12 additional conditions from Brussels, while sharply intensifying business contacts with the Russian Federation. The Russian-Georgian trade turnover in 2022 increased by 50% year-on-year, reaching USD 2.5 billion, a new record for bilateral trade. This January, Russia topped the list of Georgia’s trading partners for the first time, overtaking Turkey; and its share in Georgian export-import reached 18% (USD 263.6 million).

The message from Brussels was augmented by Kiev that demanded from Tbilisi to show anti-Russian solidarity by opening a “second front” against Russia, restarting hostilities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is unclear how much of this demand was a military calculation and how much was a continuation of Tbilisi’s punishment for waiving the sanctions. The Georgian army only numbers 37,000 men, while the Russian Southern Military District alone has a 70,000-strong contingent on the borders. After the Five-Day War, only Saakashvili’s men allowed for the possibility of new engagements, while that was simply at odds with the national strategy under Ivanishvili and the broader consensus in Georgia. That is why in April, when the idea of the “second front” was first voiced, Irakli Garibashvili immediately rejected it. This repudiation might also have contributed to Georgia’s denial of EU candidate status.

What 2022 meant for Georgia

The most accurate word to describe Georgia’s foreign policy is stability, which is how the Republic tried to get through 2022—in a balanced way, seeking to minimize losses and increase profits. The EU remains discontent about Georgia not imposing individual sanctions against Russia, but ramping up trade volumes with its northern neighbor instead. However, it does not refuse to cooperate with the Georgian authorities, all European and NATO programs are still in force for the country, and Tbilisi is patiently fulfilling the new 12 conditions in pursuance of the EU candidate status. European Commission’s February Report on Georgia is generally positive, but the Saakashvili lobby keeps working. Now, European officials insist on letting him go abroad for treatment, and the EU foreign policy service directly threatens Tbilisi with sanctions for the possible restoration of air links with Russia.

In other words, the carrot and stick policy in relation to Georgia continues. The Georgian authorities are thankful for carrots and endure the stick, but they do not agree to steps against Russia that could harm their country. Irakli Garibashvili summed up the year 2022 for the Republic at the Munich Security Conference on February 18. When the moderator asked him about the impact of the special military operation on Georgia, the politician said nothing about the growing trade turnover with Russia, nor did he mention a potential resumption of air links, much less did he say about Moscow’s gratitude for its independent policy. The Georgian Prime Minister, in fact, avoided answering the question, because it was simply inappropriate for him to say in Munich that the SMO benefited his country more than it did harm to Georgia; he only repeated many times that Tbilisi was in favor of the soonest possible cessation of hostilities. Still, he also noted that during and after the Five-Day War Georgia had never seen the kind of help the West is currently providing for Kiev.

This phrase left hanging in midair. Mr. Garibashvili was then asked about the health of Ukrainian citizen Saakashvili, and Prime Minister had to convince the Europeans that the artistic politician was all right and did not need to go abroad, but he did not refrain from reproaching the EU and the U.S. of their double standards.

What’s next?

For now, Georgia plans to bear up with a further protraction in its European integration, yet the dissatisfaction of the Georgian government about the unfair treatment by the West keeps mounting. After all, Georgia has been the most diligent and loyal participant of the Eastern Partnership program. One should not expect the Caucasian Republic to abandon its Euro-Atlantic course in the foreseeable future, but a further expansion of economic ties with Russia is predictable and rather inevitable.

Georgia’s focus shifting towards regional collaboration is equally predictable. In the new world, where global interaction is in decline, regional interaction is most important, since the neighboring states are always interested in constructive collaboration, even if their governments get involved in enmity at some turn of history. With the development of China’s Middle Corridor and the Turkish gas hub, which will include Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas in addition to the Russian gas, Georgia’s role as a transit state for cargo and energy supplies will be rising. This means that the impossibility of joining the EU will no longer matter for Tbilisi at some point, and a revision of Georgia’s foreign policy strategy will then be quite possible.

Russia, for its part, will welcome any sensible and robust steps taken by Georgia that clearly promote its national interests. Independence in foreign policy is what Moscow is calling for, saluting all nations prioritizing their interests.

From our partner RIAC

Andrey Petrov
Andrey Petrov
Deputy Director General, Vestnik Kavkaza