Georgia and the Russias

Russia’s impact on Georgia, and Georgian political life, is enormous. Most glaringly, roughly 20% of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia. In recent months and years, Russia has increased its control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Additionally, Russia has made it clear that it will continue to disrupt Georgian efforts to move towards the west and NATO. To not recognize that Russia is a real and present threat to Georgian security is to be willfully ignorant of reality. To view that is the entirety of the role Russia plays in Georgian political life is a failure to recognize the complexity and nuances of Georgia’s challenges.

Russia plays an very significant role, real and sometimes imagined, in Georgian domestic politics. There are Georgian NGOs and political parties that receive support, directly or indirectly from Moscow, and seek to ensure that pro-Russian views are given expression. These organizations have the potential to play a destabilizing role in Georgia, but thus far that potential has not come close to being fully realized. That, however, is not at all the extent of how the idea of Russia has an impact politics in Georgia.

The omnipresent threat represented by Russia, and pro-Russia organizations in Georgia, lends an air of fear to political life in Georgia that is often exploited by political actors there. For example accusing political opponents of being pro-Russia is a tactic employed by virtually all parties and positions in domestic Georgian politics. In a political environment where pluralism and interest based politics are weak, and personal differences are central, accusing a foe of being sympathetic to Moscow is one of the most potent and easy, if often entirely unprovable, charges a politician can make. This was visible in the recent contretemps surrounding the departure of Irakli Alasania, Maia Panjikidize and Aleksi Petriashvili from the government as both the departing ministers and the government accused the other of doing Moscow’s bidding, or at the very least of strengthening Moscow’s hand. The opposition United National Movement's (UNM) penchant for Russia baiting is so strong that sometimes it seems that if you ran into a United UNM official on Rustaveli Avenue and asked him or her where Freedom Square was, it is likely they would respond by calling somebody a Russian stooge.

If those in power are able to dismiss any criticism as being either funded, planted or originated by Moscow, it is very easy to ignore that criticism. Similarly, the threat of Russia can, has been, and is, used to keep the internal state security apparatus extremely strong. These problems were rampant when the UNM was in power, but have occasionally reared their head since the Georgian Dream (GD) came to power in 2012. The idea of exploiting the presence of a foreign threat, real and imagined, to restrict freedoms is not new or limited to Georgia, but it is a trap out from which from which Georgia has only begun to climb.

This phenomenon also contributes to how Georgian politics are understood outside of Georgia. The easiest way for a Georgian politician to win support in Washington or Brussels is to trumpet their anti-Russian credentials while tarring their opponent with a pro-Russian brush. This is particularly effective in the US where views on Russia have become part of a highly polarized domestic political environment, as many conservative politicians, not least the dozen or more that are preparing to run for President in 2016, seek to burnish their foreign police credentials through tough talk about Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin.

Russia is also the thing that any Georgian politician or party can blame for whatever goes wrong in Georgia. Clearly, due to its size, military power and economy, Russia can have a big impact on Georgia, but it has also become something of a crutch used by many Georgians to explain away Georgia’s problems. Russia clearly has a detrimental impact on much of what occurs in Georgia, but to continue to blame everything from a poor economy to the slow pace of democratic reform or the missteps of government officials, on Russia, relieves those in positions of power in Georgia from the responsibility of solving these problems. This behavior is by no means limited to the current government, and was probably more pronounced in the previous one.

Russia’s impact on Georgia’s economy is complex. The threat of further Russian aggression in Georgia undoubtedly is a source of concern for potential foreign investors, just as the need for a large defense budget because of Russia means the government has less money to invest in Georgia’s economic development or social services. Nonetheless, the role that Russia plays in Georgia’s economic life is considerably more ambiguous than many anti-Russia hawks in Tbilisi, Washington or elsewhere, probably would like to recognize.

For Georgia, Russia represents not only a huge potential export market, but also a source of remittances that help make economic survival possible for many Georgian families. Although this number is declining, the amount of remittances flowing from Russia to Georgia in 2014, will approach or exceed one billion US dollars. Additionally, one of the more underreported stories regarding Georgia in the 2004-2012 period of reforms is that many of the buyers of Georgian businesses and resources were, in fact, Russian.  The Russian and Georgian economies while not quite interdependent, are much more closely tied than many in Tbilisi would like to recognize, making a complete separation from Russia an appealing political talking point but a much more difficult economic policy. This is why discussions of sanctions against Russia, like those that recently occurred in the Georgian parliament, are clearly good politics, but a more mixed economic prescription.

For Georgia, crafting an effective Russia policy, one that not only makes it possible to resist the Russian threat, but that also allows the country to move forward without being defined by Russia is extremely difficult. Seeking international assistance in the form of, for example, defensive weapons, security guarantees or eventual membership in NATO, to combat this threat is an appropriate, even necessary, policy, but a continuing to allow Russia to play an even bigger role in domestic politics that it seeks to do already is a mistake that will dog Georgia’s political development. 

Too many Georgian politicians, and too many western kibitzers with their own hawkish views on Russia have allowed Moscow to get too deep inside their heads. Ultimately, this is very bad for Georgia. As long as Georgian politicians find it easier to accuse each other of being Russian spies or stooges than to wrestle with different policy ideas, or to blame Russia rather than to craft innovative policies for enduring social and economic problems, Russia will be winning in Georgia without needing to fire another shot. 

Russia continues to be used by Georgian politicians for various domestic political purposes because it is easy and because it works. Some, usually minor, political figures apparently have ties to Moscow, making it easier to raise that specter about others. While not all economic problems are caused by Russia, Russian boycotts of Georgian goods, for example, have been detrimental to Georgia’s economy. Even politicians who are the most rhetorically anti-Russian often support policies that are helpful to Russia. It was, after all, under the government of anti-Russia hawk Mikheil Saakashvili that Russia continued to gain control of several strategic Georgian assets.

Georgia is beset by difficult relations with two Russias. One Russia is very real and takes the form of Russian troops and broader presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, threats regarding Georgia’s potential membership in NATO, and Russian action in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region. The other Russia is less concrete and exists more as a sometimes elusive domestic political specter. That Russia might be manipulating a Georgian political figure or undermining the Georgian economy, or it might not be doing that. However, as long as the fear of Russia permeates Georgian political culture, than that Russia is real enough to be very damaging for Georgia. 

Success for any Georgian government is largely defined by handling the real problems and threats represented by Russia, but meaningfully moving the Georgian state and Georgian democracy forward requires addressing the need to change the space Russia occupies in the Georgian political psyche. This is extremely difficult because Russia is both a real threat and sometimes imagined bogeyman for Georgian politicians. Nonetheless, as long as the Russia that is the tool used to delegitimize political opponents, curry favor in the west or blame government failings upon still looms as a major factor in the minds of Georgian politicians, Georgia will be mired in many of the same problems that have plagued the country during at least last decade.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research and analysis for your business, government or other organization, please email