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Georgia hedges bets on EU – and Russia – POLITICO

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.

TBILISI — Even by the messy standards of Georgian politics, last week’s Independence Day celebration in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square was surprisingly odd, with the country’s president and prime minister giving duel speeches in front of the crowd.

President Salome Zurabishvili – who ran as an independent candidate in 2018, winning with the support of the ruling Georgian Dream Party – renewed her criticism of the government for what she called “anti-Western policy” and focused on the recent restoration of direct flights with Russia, calling them “incomprehensible and insulting”.

For his part, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili insisted that “Georgia’s progress towards European integration is particularly impressive”, reassuring the packed house that he was sparing no effort to persuade the Union European Union that Georgia deserved candidate status. “In today’s most difficult geopolitical situation, we, the Georgian government and the Georgian people, expect Europe to take the only correct and just decision,” he said.

However, his apparent enthusiasm for the EU would have had more force if the government buildings overlooking the square had displayed European flags as they usually do. But for the first time in years, this Independence Day, the Cabinet decided to decorate the city with only Georgian flags. And according to opposition lawmakers and pro-EU activists, the absence is further evidence of a fondness toward Russia — a fondness mostly expressed in winks and nudges.

That was certainly the view of a few hundred pro-EU activists too, as they waved EU flags and chanted ‘Georgia, Europe’, while being barred from approaching celebrations in the square. of Liberty by a police cordon. “They’re just troublemakers,” Georgia’s national police chief told me dismissively after eluding a mob of TV reporters who had come looking for him when scuffles broke out.

Today, Georgia seems hopelessly polarized over everything — its day-to-day politics, its values, and what the government does or doesn’t do. And according to government critics, the country risks being left alone in the neighborhood, as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – all members of Moscow’s Collective Security Treaty Organization – cool down decidedly vis-à-vis vis-à-vis Moscow, while Georgia seems to be becoming friendlier.

The “current authorities want a rapprochement with Russia,” said opposition MP Giorgi Vashadze. But they are doing it surreptitiously because “the people are against it and are going the Euro-Atlantic way”, he added.

And by current authorities, he means not just Garibashvili but, more importantly, Bidzina Ivanishvili – the billionaire businessman who amassed his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and briefly served as Georgia’s prime minister a decade ago. . The secretive and reclusive Ivanishvili founded Georgian Dream and is widely considered the real power of the country.

“He East the government,” said Ghia Nodia, a university professor, former education minister and president of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. “So when it comes to the direction of government, it’s single-handedly defined by one man, and he’s very secretive. So what’s his calculation now? No one knows exactly. Of course, his critics say that he’s just controlled by Moscow, which I think is an exaggeration. I think he may be scared of Moscow for some reason,” Nodia added.

Last week, government critics – including President Zurabishvili – reacted with fury when Ekaterina Vinokurova, daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was allowed to attend a wedding in Georgia despite appearing on the EU sanctions list. Meanwhile, other critics point to Georgia’s decision not to join Western economic sanctions against Russia, its second largest trading partner. Since the invasion of Ukraine, trade between the two countries has soared by more than 20% – 40-kilometre border lines of cargo trucks waiting to enter Russia testify to the boom in trade.

But government supporters say Georgian Dream has no alternative but to tread carefully with Russia. Just 15 years ago, the country fought its own brief war with its vast neighbor over the status of two Moscow-backed breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and it took just five days Russia to take about 20% of the country. He cannot afford another run-in with Moscow.

Nikoloz Samkharadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee and Georgian Dream MP, thinks opposition politicians are telling a fake story. “Their only narrative is that Georgian Dream is a pro-Russian party, and they’ve been saying that for years. I guess when you start saying one thing, you have to keep going, whether it’s right or not,” he said.

“We have not taken any action to signal a tilt towards Russia. And if you look at our policy, it has always been consistent. We are saying clearly that there will be no normalization of relations with the Russian Federation until that our territories will not be unoccupied and until Russia recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia,” he noted.

He also added that the government has always made it clear to Moscow that it should not interfere with the country’s “Euro-Atlantic choice”; it’s a red line for us. And that “since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government has done nothing that it did before the war”.

But that may be only part of the problem. As a country aspiring to EU membership, perhaps more is needed.

In defense of Georgia, its government has condemned the Russian invasion and expressed its full solidarity with Ukraine and, in addition to offering political support, it has sent humanitarian aid and is currently hosting around 25,000 war refugees. Ukrainians. Georgia was also one of 38 countries that asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, which resulted in the issuance of an arrest warrant for the president. Vladimir Poutine.

And joining the sanctions would be deeply damaging to the country’s economy. “We would destroy the Georgian economy, we would harm the interests of our country and we would harm the interests of our people if we imposed some kind of economic sanctions on Russia,” Garibashvili noted at an economic forum in Qatar last week. . And he added that while trade is crucial for his country, cutting it would have little impact on Russia.

Yet there remains the unshakable impression that there is some cover going on – and Garibashvili is only adding to it. On Tuesday, he echoed Moscow’s narrative, blaming the war in Ukraine on NATO enlargement and Ukraine’s determination to join. “Therefore, we see the consequence”, he said at a security conference in Bratislava.

Nodia suspects Ivanishvili of not wanting to “cut ties” either with the West or with Russia. Ultimately, the outcome of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine will determine the final direction of travel, he predicts.

“It will be very important. Ivanishvili is an opportunist. I don’t believe he has a political vision. He is a very weird guy. He basically wants to keep power – which is not unusual for a politician – but he also kind of knows it’s a small, vulnerable country. So he distinctly respects power. And I think he’s come to the conclusion that the West is kind of weak and Putin is asserting himself Russia is on the march and the West is not effectively resisting it,” he said.

But David Darchiashvili, a political scientist at Ilia State University in Tbilisi and a former lawmaker, believes rapprochement with Russia has always been part of Ivanishvili’s preferred plan. “He and his clan followers have always had this mindset from the very beginning when they came to power,” he said.

The reforms they should push forward for EU membership ‘would make their lives more difficult, and that’s why they don’t really want to see much progress on candidacy status – despite what they say “, he argued.


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