Recent unrest in the country reflects the competing forces which have been exerted on it for centuries. Should it look to Moscow or to Europe? Andrew North reports from Tbilisi
A narrow street in the centre of Tbilisi lined by distinguishedlooking 19th century houses leads to a brutalist, yellow-brown Soviet-era office block that houses the offices of the Georgian prime minister.
It’s a short walk through a long history, as it is a monk called Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani who lived in this Black Sea nation around 300 years ago who gives the street its name.
The reason Orbeliani is remembered there – as well as on many other streets and squares nationwide – is because of his role as Georgia’s first emissary to the West.
In the early 18th century, with the big empires of Ottoman Turkey, Persia and Russia pressing in on all sides, Georgia’s king dispatched him to France and the Vatican to seek their help.
On February 23, Sulkhan-Saba Street was full of hundreds of demonstrators heading for the square outside the prime ministerial building. They were there to protest the arrest earlier that day of Nika Melia, leader of the country’s largest opposition party.
It was also the latest manifestation of Georgia’s struggle to preserve its identity and independence, and a belief – symbolised by Orbeliani’s mission – that its best chance of achieving that lies in alliance with the West.
At the root of the protests sparked by Melia’s detention is a conviction that the current government leans towards Russia, and is taking the country on a path towards authoritarianism while allowing Moscow’s influence to grow.
The arrest prompted a sharp warning from the US that Georgia was on a “backward” path away from democracy.
The EU opted for a more lukewarm expression of regret about deepening polarisation in Georgia.
Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, says the arrest was simply about upholding the law. Melia, chair of the United National Movement, is accused of violating bail conditions in relation to charges he incited violence at a 2019 protest against Russian influence, charges he says are politically motivated.
More recently, Melia has been leading a three-month boycott of parliament over the opposition’s claims that elections last October were rigged. Some see him as something of a hothead with a preference for confrontation rather than dialogue.
Though international observers did highlight pre-election pressure on voters, they have not fully endorsed the opposition’s complaints about the voting process.
But with his shaved head, and rugbyplayer build, Melia has become a standout figure even in Georgia’s boisterous politics. And the government’s critics say it is adopting an old authoritarian tactic of trying to silence its most effective opponent with the veneer of judicial process. And they draw parallels with continuing protests in other former Soviet states, including Belarus and Russia, following the arrest of Alexei Navalny.
The danger, they warn, is of the West losing a natural ally in Georgia and the country slipping into effective Russian control.
Since regaining their independence with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Georgians have looked west. Opinion polls show consistent large majorities in favour of EU and Nato membership.
Regardless of what Georgians think, however, the Kremlin sees their country as part of its historical backyard, and the idea of its small but vocal neighbour joining those two core Western alliances is a red line.
In effect, it was to prevent that line being crossed that Russia fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008. And Russia has occupied a fifth of Georgia’s territory ever since – pursuing one of its favourite tactics of creating frozen conflicts and effectively blocking Georgia’s Nato hopes.
That war is also now widely seen as a miscalculation by the man in charge at the time, president Mikheil Saakashvili, the founder of the pro-Western UNM now in exile in Ukraine. The disaster of the war helped pave the way for the Georgian Dream to win elections in 2012, and what the UNM and other pro-Western opposition parties say has been a tilt towards Russia.
What can make all this confusing for any outsider is that in public at least, the Georgian Dream appears to follow majority opinion.
Prime minister Garibashvili highlighted “Georgia’s integration into the European Union and Nato” as one of his goals when he took office. And even without membership, it has continued a Georgian troop to fight alongside Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The government also repudiates Russia’s colonial past in Georgia. Two days after Melia’s detention, Garibashvili ordered the flags on all government buildings to fly at half-mast to mark the 100th anniversary of the day Red Army troops marched into Tbilisi and the start of 70 years of Soviet occupation.
Speaking at a later memorial ceremony for soldiers who died trying to stop the Bolshevik advance, he called it “one of the most tragic dates in the history of our country.” But the pro-Western opposition says this is all window dressing.
“They tell their [Western] friends what they want to hear, but all the time Russian influence is growing,” said opposition MP Giorgi Kandelaki.
He points to several examples. One is what he calls the government’s policy of “creating comfort” for Moscow on the international stage, accusing it of ducking opportunities to press Georgia’s case. He draws a link with Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea – and the failure of the Georgian Dream to press for similar penalties over Moscow’s occupation of Georgian territory since the 2008 war.
“The policy has been explicitly not to do this,” says Kandelaki.
The government has pressed Moscow to implement the deal that ended that war and for it to stop its policy of ‘creeping occupation’, which has seen its troops grabbing extra slices of land along the boundary line separating the two sides.
As a small country, Georgia’s options are limited. But analysts say the opposition does have a point – as the government does little more than issue statements when it comes to dealing with Russia, despite the constant provocations.
And while military cooperation with the West may continue – not least because it brings useful equipment and training support – Kandelaki accuses the government of “giving up on pushing for actual Nato membership.” (While the past year has seen culture war battles in the West over pulling down controversial statues, Georgians are in conflict over monuments going up – to their most infamous compatriot, Stalin. at least nine new statues to the dictator have gone up in Georgian towns in recent years without the government intervening, and Kandelaki argues that this parallels Russian efforts to rehabilitate Stalin.)
There have also been mounting concerns that the government is colluding with Russian disinformation operations. One bizarre recent example led to the arrest of two state cartographers on treason charges over allegations that they had supposedly handed neighbouring Azerbaijan a slice of Georgian territory when the UNM was in power by hiding an old map that favoured Georgia’s claim to the land. The dispute conveniently first erupted just before last year’s elections after a copy of the map mysteriously surfaced in Moscow – and all the signs point to it being an invented controversy aimed at smearing the opposition before the vote.
Another exhibit opposition voices cite in their case against the government is its decision to abandon a project to build a deep-water port on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, which would have created a regional transportation hub, backed by Western and Asian funds.
It would also have bypassed Russia and despite initially agreeing to the plan, the government suddenly changed its mind, badly denting its reputation with Western investors. No clear public explanation has been given, but there have been persistent reports that it was fears of annoying Moscow that sunk the deal.
The opposition place the blame for this perceived pro-Russian tilt at the door of the Georgian Dream’s billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, accusing him of running the country from behind the scenes. His estimated $5bn fortune is equivalent to around a third of the country’s annual GDP, giving him unmatched sway.
With his hillside, space-ship style mansion in Tbilisi – earning him the nickname “the man on the hill” – and another on the Black Sea complete with its own zoo, he has all the trappings of an oligarch. For a while, Ivanishvili was a Russian citizen, after making his money in Russia during the rough and tumble policy started by the UNM when it was in power, there was a power of sending contingents of policy of removing any such tribute. But 1990s, and his critics say he is still Moscow’s man.
The UNM’s Melia had been among the most vocal in making these charges. And with his arrest, all these issues have come to the fore again. Protesters have been gathering outside parliament in central Tbilisi since then, holding placards with slogans like “Down with the Russian oligarch”, and “Stop Putin’s Dream”. Police guarding the prime minister’s office after the UNM leader’s arrest were trolled with shouts calling them “Putin’s slaves”.
Georgian Dream Party insiders reject this opposition narrative. “Integration with the EU and Nato is still our goal. It’s what Georgians want,” said one MP, asking that his name not be used so he could discuss internal deliberations.
They were listening to Western criticisms, he said, and wanted “dialogue with the opposition”. But he insisted that Melia’s arrest had to go ahead because of “his complete disregard for the law”.
But the Dream is clearly having something of a nightmare, based on recent events.
Garibashvili only became prime minister after his predecessor, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned in opposition to the plan to arrest Melia, warning that it would increase tensions. And in a sign it may be wobbling, the government has offered to release the UNM leader if he pays an additional bail fee of about €10,000 – potentially setting things up for a face-saving release.
In the meantime, with Garibashvili back in the prime minister’s office for a second time, Ivanishvili has one of his most loyal lieutenants in the front seat – a man who has worked for him for years.
The tycoon’s former bodyguard chief was already the interior minister, the man who oversaw Melia’s arrest.
This deep-rooted distrust of Russia has a long history – all the way back to what happened after Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani’s 18th century SOS mission to France and the Vatican.
His pitch to the continent’s powerbrokers was that Christian Georgia was a natural ally, as well as a Black Sea gateway to the Silk Road. But the trip was a failure.
Though France’s King Louis XIV was reportedly charmed by his Georgian visitor’s eloquence and erudition, he was consumed by problems closer to home and had no appetite for intervening in the faraway Caucasus.
Roll forward a few more decades, and a subsequent Georgian king decided that the only way he could protect his already diminished territory against further encroachment was to sign a treaty with Catherine the Great of Russia. But when the Persians then invaded, sacking Tbilisi, Russia sat on the sidelines. And then, after pushing the Persians out, Moscow annexed Georgia, in 1801.
Georgia begged the West to come to its aid again after the First World War, when it was briefly independent under British protection. The country still marks that period when it drew up a constitution that was groundbreaking for its time, enshrining paid maternity leave, a minimum wage, minority rights and separation of church and state. The country formally adopted the constitution on February 21, 1921, just four days before the Red Army marched into Tbilisi.
That fear of being abandoned by the West hangs over the recent protests. The opposition has often voiced frustration that its embrace has not been as warmly reciprocated.
And Western governments sometimes send mixed messages in their dealings with Georgia’s power structure.
New ambassadors may hand in their credentials to whoever is prime minister, but the meeting that is most prized is always an audience with “the man on the hill”.
Last month, France gave Ivanishvili – who is also a French citizen – the Légion d’honneur, its highest civilian award, citing his charitable work.
Opposition figures say it is imperative that the West takes sides in Georgia now.
“There is a wave of people fighting for freedom, it’s in Belarus, it’s in Russia and it’s here in Georgia,” opposition MP Elene Khoshtaria told me. “And it is in the strategic interest of the West to support these democratic movements.”
Some opposition figures are also calling for targeted financial sanctions against Ivanishvili himself. That looks unlikely. But so too does any kind of resolution, with the opposition vowing to keep boycotting parliament until Melia is released and the government agrees to new elections. Opposition supporters have now set up a permanent tent encampment outside the parliament building to make the point.
I asked one protester if the story of the 18th century monk and his mission to Europe was still relevant. “Of course,” she said. “That’s still the only way, to continue on the same road as Sulkhan- Saba Orbeliani.”
Andrew North is a journalist based in Georgia. He covered the 2008 Russia-Georgia war for the BBC. Tweet @NorthAndrew
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