March 17, 2023

Georgia, the West, and the Kremlin: A Lose-Lose-Lose Triangle

A protester wrapped in a Georgian national flag raises hands while standing in front of law enforcement officers during a rally against the "foreign agents" law in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 7, 2023.
A protester wrapped in a Georgian national flag raises hands while standing in front of law enforcement officers during a rally against the "foreign agents" law in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 7, 2023.

Protests defeat a “Kremlin-inspired” law in Georgia, but Georgia is farther from the West than anytime since the 2008 August War. Since 2008, Russia has worked to sever Georgia from the West. But the West has helped them do it.


Last week, pro-European Georgians rose up against the government’s proposed “foreign agent” law — which in theory would have created a registry of groups receiving foreign funding, but which in intent closely mirrored a similar Russian law used to crack down on civil society and strengthen internal control measures. Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets, calling out the “Russian law” and waving European and Georgian flags as police knocked them back with water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray.

Within days, the government withdrew the law, ultimately using a friendly group of pro-Russian extremists to stage a small anti-European demonstration and cleanse the content of pro-European valor from social media search results. It’s just the latest iteration of the wash-rinse-repeat cycle that the Georgian Dream-led government has used for a decade to distance Georgia from realizing its European aspirations. This is not the first proposed law that would impact European integration or open Georgia to greater Russian influence; not the first set of mass demonstrations in response; not the first government backtrack to let the steam off before a critical tipping point and restart the cycle.

Georgia’s western partners and the country’s pro-European opposition must expend time and focus on each manufactured crisis of the day, peaks and valleys of mobilization and exhaustion that leave the ruling party and its leading oligarch unfettered in their long campaign of state capture.

Georgian Dream – Europe’s Nightmare

The Georgian Dream government repeatedly used Kremlin narrative to talk about the protests. The Georgian prime minister described the “satanic uniforms” of the youthful protestors and slammed Ukrainian politicians for supporting Georgians fighting for the same principles and freedoms. He told the EU to mind its own business. He said protestors were backed by western (American) forces who wanted to drag Georgia into a war with Russia. He called political opponents fascists. All of this is just main-lined Russian narrative.

The proposed foreign agent law, a broader perception of a hard turn from the government since 2021, the very real possibility that former President Mikhail Saakashvili will soon die in detention in Georgia — none of this looks like a serious effort by the Georgian government to earn a place as an EU candidate country (which Ukraine and Moldova received last year and which Georgia will be re-evaluated for this coming summer). But this is, of course, the point: to stage a perverse democratic-seeming kabuki that will show that it is Europe that does not want Georgia, and not that the current Georgian government has not done the work that their people have expected them to.

Georgia’s rejection is a foregone conclusion. There will be no “Yanukovych moment” when a Russian-aligned oligarch won’t sign the deal to bring his nation closer to Europe. No spark for a sustainable uprising. Just a chance to believe today’s crisis has receded, while the real crisis is Russia’s political warfare in Georgia, and the fact that no one wants to have to confront it.

The Breaking Point

In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Russia then set to work making it nearly impossible to say that Russia invaded Georgia, in that way they have perfected of muddling narratives with noise and taking the shine off heroes. In 2011, then-President Medvedev openly admitted that the war was necessary to keep Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO. But already by then, the US was deep in a “reset” with Russia; France had inked a deal to sell the Kremlin four of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships which the Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff noted would have made crushing Georgia much easier; and Germany had begun construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, one of the most embarrassing symbols of Russian geopolitical influence in Europe.

In short: Georgia’s western partners (excepting those who were also former captive nations of Moscow) hadn’t learned anything about Russia in 2008, or why it was that post-Rose Revolution Georgia irked Moscow so very deeply. Policies in western capitals remained Moscow-centric, and these “former”-something states were still the periphery. So, when a party built by a Russian-made oligarch won the parliamentary elections in Georgia in 2012 — after driving Georgia to an internal breaking point with an atmosphere of violence and narratives of coming unrest that mirrored Moscow’s threats if Saakashvili did not lose — most of Georgia’s western partners viewed the moment as a success for the future of Georgian democracy, rather than its capture by malign influence.

In the first months after gaining control of the country, Georgian Dream used violent mobs to forcibly change 85 percent of the country’s elected municipal councils and began jailing dozens of their opponents. No one said much for fear of losing influence with GD to “steer them in a better direction.” Russian influence expanded in Georgia, and the West helped provide cover during this critical phase.

From 2008 to 2014 to 2023 – How we got here

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, this influence began to yield fruit. The Georgian government said nothing — 8 years of absolutely nothing. When the full-scale invasion began in February 2022, they refused to join sanctions against Russia for the war, and have since become a channel for the shipment of goods to Russia in evasion of Western sanctions. The former Georgian president returned from Ukraine and is now slowly dying in detention, denied medical release and potentially suffering from poisoning by heavy metals. Every day of this show is a gift for the Kremlin.

Expression of Western “concerns” have become formulaic, although everyone has exhausted the thesaurus looking for new modifiers (deep concerns, profound concerns, very significant and profound concerns, abyssal concerns). Nothing meaningful has been done to show the Georgian people that Georgian Dream has squandered a decade toward the European future they desire. To explain that Georgia has become one bookend of the Kremlin’s new editions of playbooks, sistered by Ukraine — one a hard power extreme, one a case study in deep political warfare. The only real penalty for a Russian-leaning government that masks itself as pro-European has been quietly stalling Georgia’s European integration — so, giving Moscow exactly what it hoped for while blaming it all on the Georgians.

Georgians have had mass demonstrations in support of Ukraine and against the silence of their government on Russian atrocities — and indeed thousands of Georgians have been in Ukraine since 2014, helping that government rebuild and that army to fight the war. Now, more than a hundred thousand Russians fleeing the draft have decamped to Georgia — not integrating smoothly.

And into this tinder box the Georgian government decided to throw the match of a “foreign agent law.” But wash-rinse-repeat. Concerns. Aspirations. Drift.

A case study in missed opportunities

This timeline could be 70 pages long, and there is lots of blame and missed opportunity by every key player. But the simple truth of the matter is that when the West rushed to restore relations with Moscow after the war in August 2008, we became largely blind to the fact that Georgia is the case study of Russia’s modern warfare without tanks.

Since 2009, we’ve been following Moscow’s storytelling on Georgia as if it were reality — saying Georgia “fell into the trap” of Russia’s well-prepared invasion, labeling Saakashvili a madman, not calling out Russia’s decade-long hybrid war in Georgia, not acknowledging the impossibility of wresting political control away from the most dominating oligarch (by wealth vs GDP) in any nation. We talk over the heads of Ukrainians and Georgians to Moscow, tacitly supporting the idea that Russia has some special claim to them that leaves them “formers” and not nations of their own making.

Under Georgian Dream, there have been a steady series of events in Georgia where international observers wondered if this was finally the moment when Ivanishvili turned away from the idea of Georgia’s western integration. This is maddening because we know this is about the perspective and influence of one Russian-aligned oligarch.

A quite slide amid a loud protest

Georgians remain wildly supportive of the EU and NATO, but long lines of Russian influence have helped assure this integration will not succeed — not on its current trajectory. Meanwhile the best the West has mustered for the Georgian people is the oft-repeated slogan that “Georgians must decide” what they want their future to be. Like it’s all some accident, absolutely absent malign intent from the Kremlin, that Georgia is where it is now.

Parallel this lack of clarity about the forces at work in Georgia, we have also not had to confront our own lack of moral courage for putting Georgian (and Ukrainian) aspirations behind our own policy drift.

Right now, for example, all around Russia, there is churn, upheaval — which is to say, there is opportunity. And neither the US nor Europe has done anything to capitalize on these opportunities, to further weaken Russia or its ability to subvert its neighbors, or to further strengthen our own security and geopolitical perspectives. We still prioritize the state of play with Moscow. We let them set the tempo of operations and just try to respond at each crisis point.

In a way, the last months have been a relief in Georgia, because the oligarch pulling the strings of power has finally dropped his mask.

But it is imperative that we act in response to what we see. That we see what Ivanishvili has done, and call it out clearly. That we admit what Russia has gained — and call it out clearly. That we admit our own complicity in allowing Russian-aligned forces the space to act with malign intent across every hybrid domain, mostly just because we thought a quiet Georgia would be easier — and change our course. That we acknowledge in doing so that it isn’t just the Kremlin’s influence that has stifled the real Georgian dream of a home in Europe, but our engagement in the Russian mythmaking as if it were reality that has left Georgia down the well.

We talk about Georgia’s “quiet slide” away from the west. But mostly it’s been quiet because of us, not because of the Georgian people.

Georgians have decided where their future should be. And yes, they should then vote against a ruling party that mutters the right words to the West but executes foreign and domestic policy completely out of step with the stated objectives of the Georgian people. But when most of the West plays along with the Moscow-aligned faux-pro-Europe kabuki in Tbilisi, we help undermine the decision that has been made. It’s time to stop playing this part in Georgia.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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