Georgia’s Troubles Benefit Russia in South Caucasus

Will US Make Room for Russian Dominance in Eurasia?
A member of an election commission helps to a woman to cast her ballot at a polling station during national municipal elections in Tbilisi, Georgia, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Photo Credit: AP
Georgia's former president Mikheil Saakashvili was arrested upon his return to Georgia after spending nine years in exile. Photo credit: Reuters

On October 2, Georgia held the first round of its municipal elections in an exceptionally heated environment. Continued political crises, tensions with western allies, and a raging pandemic served as the backdrop for the election that would not have been a very big deal without the extraordinary circumstances. For weeks, in August and September, Georgia was number one in the world in terms of COVID-related deaths per capita. The raging pandemic and low vaccination rates have kept Georgia on the “do not visit” list for most countries in the west making it difficult for the usual flurry of observation missions to be present at the election. But it was everything that happened before the election that put Georgia in a precarious situation, making its democratic, euroatlantic future anything but guaranteed. 

Alienating Western Allies 

Last month, a major leak from the Georgian State Security Service showed that the government had been eavesdropping on diplomats, journalists, clergymen, and public figures. This included the embassies of the United States, Israel, and various European missions to Georgia. The scandal served as a type of culmination of the Georgian government’s fall from grace with its western allies. 

In spring 2021, after months-long parliamentary crisis where the opposition parties had boycotted the parliament following another hotly contested election, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, brokered a compromise deal between the ruling party and the opposition parliamentarians. 

The agreement obligated the Georgian Dream government to call early parliamentary elections if it did not receive 43% of the vote at the October 2 municipal election. The agreement was signed on October 19th by the Georgian Dream party and most opposition parliamentarians and temporarily ended the opposition boycott. However, in the lead-up to the municipal elections the ruling party publicly walked back on the compromise deal despite Michel’s tireless attempts to save it. 

In the lead-up to the election the Georgian government also chose to turn down 75 million euros in European aid, as it was unwilling to meet the judicial system reform requirements as part of aid conditionality. 

Georgia’s Prime Minister claimed that the country’s economy was doing very well and did not need the funds. However, the EU mission statement regarding this decision spoke directly about the unfulfilled reform requirements: “While we respect the decision of Georgian authorities, at the same time, we note that Georgia failed to sufficiently address the condition for this macro-financial assistance, and notably, to increase the independence, accountability and quality of the judicial system.” 

Poor Timing for Dodgy Deals 

Georgian government officials have been known to snap back at their U.S. and European counterparts’ constructive criticism over the past few months. Moreover, they have not shied away from making questionable foreign policy moves elsewhere. Back in August the Georgian State Security Service began to cooperate officially with Belarus KGB. The two sides signed a cooperation agreement back in 2016, but it only went into effect this year. 

According to Georgian sources the agreement is rather comprehensive: “the agreement foresees the exchange of information on terrorism, extremist and separatist organizations, and specific individuals that are preparing terrorism or other actions posing threat to the state security of either states. In addition, the parties may send security representatives/ attachés to the territory of another signatory state. According to the document, the two security agencies will hold working meetings, study visits, and conferences, and implement joint programs and trainings, and assist one another with technical means and equipment.”

Putting this agreement in the global context makes the decision even more questionable. Belarus remains under western sanctions over its abuse of human rights and persecution of opposition groups. Right before the Belarus-Georgia agreement went into effect, the U.S. applied another round of sanctions on Belarus. Moreover, Russia and Belarus have only deepened their alliance over the past year, and further integration of Belarus’ military and security infrastructures into those of Russia is expected. 

This agreement essentially implies that Georgia will be sharing sensitive information with Russia via Belarus. This is all even more unnerving for Georgia’s western allies in light of the recent illegal wiretapping news. Simply put – Georgian security services spying on you equals Belarussian and Russian security services spying on you. This does not exactly instill trust and confidence among Georgia’s supposed allies in the west, who are supposed to be helping Georgia fulfill its ambition to join NATO and the E.U. 

The Curious Case of Mikheil Saakashvili 

On October 1, the country’s former president, Mikheil (Misha) Saakashvili returned to Georgia after spending nine years in exile. When his party was voted out of power in 2012, the incoming Georgian Dream government, led by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, launched a flurry of investigations ultimately indicting Saakashvili on charges of power abuse and corruption. 

Saakashvili fled Georgia, ended up in Ukraine, took Ukrainian citizenship and founded his own political party. At first, he served as the Governor of Odessa under his former classmate, President Petro Poroshenko. Later the relationship soured, Saakashvili publicly accused Poroshenko of corruption and became his avid critic. 

Later, Saakashvili was detained very publicly for “assisting members of a criminal organization and covering up their criminal activities.” His supporters blocked the police van before he was taken away and helped him get away. The dramatic scenes unfolded on live television. At some point, during the raid of his apartment, Saakashvili made it to the rooftop of the building and claimed he was ready to jump off and die for Ukraine. Saakashvili fled to Poland, having his Ukrainian citizenship stripped by Poroshenko. 

Once Poroshenko was voted out, Saakashvili returned to Ukraine. President Zelensky reinstated Misha’s Ukrainian citizenship and gave him a job on Ukraine’s National Reform Council. Throughout the nine years Saakashvili campaigned on behalf of his United National Movement (UNM) opposition party in back Georgia, from afar. 

Ahead of every Georgian election he made calls for peaceful government overthrow and kept promising he would return to Georgia where he led the Rose Revolution in 2003. Misha’s unfulfilled promises to return to Georgia and his unwillingness to let go of his public role in the UNM ended up hurting the party’s chances to reinvent itself and regain parliamentary majority. His time in Ukraine did not bring Misha the kind of success he hoped – in April 2020 he was up for the job of deputy prime minister of Ukraine but the parliament blocked his appointment.  

It seems Saakashvili decided it was time to shake things up, so he returned to Georgia knowing he would be arrested. Currently Saakashvili is in detention. He believes he is a political prisoner and is on hunger strike. President Zelensky has called for his release and return to Ukraine as Saakashvili is still a citizen of that country. While Misha’s arrest made international headlines, there have not been any significant calls for his release from the international community just yet. 

The election results revealed that the government has lost much of its popularity and the opposition is starting to gather momentum, but Saakashvili’s arrival did not skew the results as significantly as he had hoped. In the days following his arrest his supporters started to gather outside the prison building, demanding his release. The demonstrations are still ongoing and slowly growing. Saakashvili is known for his radical revolutionary approach whether to eradicating corruption in Ukraine or ending the current state capture in Georgia and unsurprisingly he has been calling for a peaceful uprising from jail. But whether the Georgian people are up for another revolution 18 years later, peaceful or otherwise, is yet to be seen. 

The Georgian Dream government officials have not hidden their disdain for Saakashvili and his UNM party. The president of Georgia, Salome Zurabischvili, announced that she does not plan to pardon the jailed ex-president. The prime minister of Georgia, Irakli Gharibashvili, recently posted a long statement on his Facebook page, claiming Saakashvili intended to stage a coup before he was arrested. In an interview he also warned Saakashvili to “behave himself” or the government would bring more charges against him. “Referring to ex-President as ‘crazy,’ ‘sick man’ throughout the interview, the PM alleged Saakashvili planned ‘a dirty provocation’ allegedly involving a murder of several opposition leaders. The scenario, PM Garibashvili said, was averted by the government.”

Still, Not All Is Lost in Georgia

Georgia’s domestic chaos and its government’s souring relations with the west fit well with the overall situation in the South Caucasus region. A year ago, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in a full-out war over their disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States was famously disengaged from the conflict, while Turkey and Russia were able to broker a ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire was a welcome development as it ended weeks-long bloodshed, but it also led to the placement of Russian military peace-keeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Since 20% of Georgia’s territory is already occupied by Russia (the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), at this point Moscow enjoys unparalleled leverage over the three countries including a military presence and thus hard-power advantage in all three South Caucasus countries. 

The Biden administration has been slow to produce a strong, coherent Eurasia strategy for the United States. Yet not all is lost in Georgia as the U.S. still retains plenty of instruments of influence it could use to curb the Georgian Dream government’s unsavory tendencies. As President Biden prepares for his Summit of Democracies this December, many ask whether Georgia should be invited. Will the U.S. see this crisis as a call to action to reengage in the South Caucasus? Or will it further disengage from the region, making room for deepening Russian hegemony? 

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