After one week of fighting, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already caused far-reaching geopolitical consequences, most of which point to gross miscalculation from the Kremlin.
Following an arguably hesitant start, the Western world has united to provide Ukraine with lethal and non-lethal aid, as well as economic and humanitarian support. In addition, despite Putin ostensibly launching his war to prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO member and curtail the alliance’s easterly expansion, Kyiv’s relations with the West have ironically become closer. Both Sweden and Finland appear to be closer than ever to considering joining NATO. For its part, the European Union has reaffirmed its desire to have Ukraine included, with President Zelensky signing the official documents to begin the process of acceding to membership.
Yet the most kinetic reaction has been felt south of Russia, in Georgia.
Tbilisi has seen similar scenes to other capitals across the world with people marching to support Ukraine in the tens of thousands — yet unlike elsewhere, the Georgian demonstrators are directing their fury at their own government as well as Vladimir Putin.
The incumbent Georgian Dream party has long been dogged by accusations of covert Russian sentiment. While these allegations have largely bubbled under the political surface, they have occasionally led to demonstrations. In 2019, more than 20,000 protesters gathered following the invitation of a Russian Communist Party lawmaker to the Georgian Parliament. The resulting clashes left several people partially blinded after the police used rubber bullets to disperse them.
More than 100,000 people have protested in Tbilisi over the last week, after the government of Georgia initially refused to explicitly name Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine — and then refused to participate in the international package of sanctions against Moscow. Protesters have called for senior figures in the government — including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili — to resign.
The anger of the Georgian people towards their government is mirrored by the exasperation of the country’s Western allies. In recent years, Georgia has been increasingly criticized by its partners on allegations of democratic backsliding and authoritarian rule. Tbilisi’s flippant dismissals of Western criticism have undoubtedly set Georgia back on its road to integration in the EU and NATO.
Yet Tbilisi and Kyiv have enjoyed largely fraternal relations since the collapse of the USSR, albeit with a minor spat when renegade ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili became a Ukrainian citizen and restarted his political career in his new adopted homeland.
The two countries’ shared ambitions for EU and NATO membership — as well as their parallel conflicts and tensions with Russia — have united them in common cause. Citizens of both nations have a history of volunteering in one another’s wars — Ukrainians formed a sizable independent fighting contingent in Georgia’s 1990s conflicts with its Russian-backed separatist regions, while the Georgian Legion has fought for Ukraine since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution.
But now relations have reached an all-time low. Not only do the people of Georgia and the government of Ukraine believe that the Georgian authorities have not been tough enough on Russia, but a Ukrainian government charter flight dispatched to bring Georgian volunteer fighters was prevented from landing in Tbilisi. The Georgian government’s party chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, declared that allowing Georgian fighters to participate in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia could be considered a declaration of war on Moscow.
Ukraine subsequently recalled its ambassador from Tbilisi, and President Zelensky earlier issued a deliberate snub to the Georgian government on Twitter. Responding to the pro-Ukrainian rallies in the Georgian capital, Zelensky wrote on Twitter, “Incredible Georgian people who understand that friends must be supported… there are times when citizens are not the government, but better than the government.” Zelensky later dubbed the Georgian government’s position as “immoral.”
The Georgian authorities claim they’re acting out of pragmatism. If that’s the case, they can hardly be blamed: with two separatist regions home to Russian troops and another Russian base in Armenia — a Russian ally — to the south, the Kremlin could easily militarily threaten Georgia.
Yet the parliamentary opposition’s claims that the Georgian government are attempting to appease Russia are lent credence in other areas, not only by the incident with Ukraine’s charter plane.
Despite the Georgian authorities’ public statements of support for Kyiv, a pro-Ukrainian activist was arrested in the coastal city of Batumi for swearing about President Putin and the Georgian prime minister at a rally supporting Zelensky and his government. This move is something of a contradiction to the country’s Western-style constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and thought.
The incumbent Georgian Dream government naturally has to be careful in not bringing the Kremlin’s military wrath down on Georgia for the second time in fifteen years — but it must be arguably more cautious in dealing with its own citizens, whose staunch support for Ukraine and the West has put them at dangerous odds with the authorities.
The Georgian Dream party’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies caused the simmering public resentment that has characterized recent years. Tensions could easily reach a boiling point if the Georgian people perceive their government to be quietly aligning their country with the Kremlin. The situation requires deft political handling of which the Georgian government may not be capable. The authorities must remember that while true war with Russia is within living memory in Georgia, so too is pro-Western revolution.
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