What If They Held a Pro-Russia Rally and (Almost) Nobody Came?

Last week in Tbilisi a crowd gathered to urge their government to restore diplomatic ties with Russia and to reorient their country away from the west and towards Moscow. According to Civil.ge, participants in the rally carried signs with “slogans like ‘Russia is a force to be reckoned with’ and ‘Russia is our good neighbor.’” The former slogan is reasonably obvious; the latter flies in the face of recent Georgian and Russian history.

This demonstration, occurring just about year before the next parliamentary election is significant for several reasons. In the last months, there has been a growing awareness of the Russian presence in Georgia’s political and civic life. Moscow has influenced the former by supporting political parties that are friendly to Russia and the latter by supporting NGOs of the sort that organized this rally. Similarly, there has been a lot of chatter about the growing pro-Russia sentiment amongst a Georgian populace weary of what has, predictably, proven to be a long difficult slog towards NATO. Many in Georgia also understand that these pro-Russia forces can be very disruptive to Georgia’s political development and efforts to establish a liberal, tolerant society as well.

There is one more reason that this demonstration was very significant-attendance was very low. It turns out that rallying in the middle of Tbilisi in support of Moscow is not something a lot of Georgians want to do. Over the last decade or so, it has not been difficult to mobilize thousands of Georgians for various political causes. Since the Georgian Dream (GD) came to power in 2012, there have been several occasions where the opposition United National Movement (UNM) brought thousands of people to the streets to protest against the government, Russia or both. During the waning days of the UNM’s period in power, the then opposition GD mobilized massive crowds to show their support for the opposition block. Additionally, crowds have assembled to protest issues like prison abuse in 2012, and of course stolen elections in 2003. The latter led to the Rose Revolution. The pro-Russia forces, at least last week, proved unable to bring anything close to the number of people that attended those events to the streets.

There are many possible explanations for why this occurred. It could be that the organizers were not very competent, that people with pro-Russia feelings were too busy that day or potential participants were scared by the possibility of violence or intimidation. There is also another considerably more likely possibility as well. Perhaps, Georgian sympathy for Moscow, particularly in the capital, is not as strong as many think or fear.

Reading too much into poor turnout at one rally would be a mistake, but for the pro-Russia activists in Georgia, and their supporters outside of Georgia, that rally must have still been a disappointment. Additionally, these events highlight that while the 2016 parliamentary elections will be a test of the GD’s leadership, Georgia’s commitment to fair elections and democracy, the resiliency of the embattled UNM, as well as the strength of the pro-west forces represented by several parties in Georgia, it will also be a time for the pro-Russia forces to either demonstrate their strength or recede into Georgia’s political background and decreasing relevance.

Observers of Georgia politics have raised concerns about how the next election could lead to a strong pro-Russia presence in politics. Some western diplomats have privately even raised the possibility to me that one or more of those parties could end up in a winning coalition with the GD after the election. Expectations for the pro-Russian elements in Georgia are thus relatively high going into the 2016 election season.

If these expectations are not met; and if the various political parties with pro-Russia views are drubbed at the polls, with neither the Patriots or the Democratic Movement-United Georgia finishing in the top three, and combining for less than 15-20% of the vote, that too will shakeup Georgia’s political life. Talk of Georgia moving towards Russia will inevitably, if perhaps only temporarily, decrease. Georgia’s NATO aspirations will be bolstered by another resounding show of support by the Georgian people at the ballot.

A poor showing by these parties will have an additional impact on Georgian politics, one that is less easy to measure directly, but that gets at one of the core characteristics, and indeed problems, of political life in Georgia. Almost half a century ago Jesse Unruh, a now all but forgotten, but once extremely powerful, California politician made the oft-quoted remark that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” In Georgia, anti-Russia sentiment plays that role and is, in many ways, the “mother’s milk of politics.” The Georgian people and their leaders, due to the presence of Russian troops on roughly 20% of Georgian territory and Moscow’s ongoing refusal to let Tbilisi chart its own political future have ample reason to be oppose and feel hostile towards Russia. That crucial policy reality, however, only scratches the surface of the role anti-Russia sentiment, rhetoric and accusations play in Georgian politics. 

In Georgia, attacking Moscow is what a politician does when he or she has run out of things to say, or has no good news do deliver; accusing an opponent of being somehow controlled by Russia is de rigueur for most Georgian politicians; raising the specter of nefarious influence from Moscow is a frequently used ploy; and sounding alarms about the growing support for Moscow is a common roundabout way of putting pressure on the west. These tactics are powerful and effective, because there are cases when they are true, but they are also overused, thus frequently limiting debate or muddying issues. 

If Russia’s true influence in Georgia is proven to be less profound than many currently suspect, this framework too will become decreasingly relevant. While Russia itself will, unfortunately continue to threaten Georgia’s territory, sovereignty and independence, the political shortcut of anti-Russia sentiment as a rationale for almost anything will have been severely curtailed. That would undoubtedly be good for Georgia overall, but create a challenge for many politicians accustomed to using that well-worn, and overused paradigm.

The presence in Georgia of organizations sympathetic to Russia seeking to build support for their views among the broader population, and political parties seeking to turn those preferences into a presence in the national legislature is of great value Moscow. This is not surprising and is evidence by Moscow’s work to support those efforts, financially and otherwise. However, it is also possible that the activities and political threats raised by these organizations also are helpful, or perhaps more accurately, comfortable to political elites more generally in Georgia.

Absent the reality of these pro-Russia political forces, Georgian politicians would find it more difficult to tar all, or almost all, opponents with the pro-Russia brush. Similarly, a resounding defeat of the pro-Russia parties at the polls next fall would deprive western opponents of Georgia’s entrance into NATO of their easiest talking point-that of asking how Georgia can get into NATO when there is not even a Georgian domestic question on the question.

Analyzing what might happen if pro-Russia views in Georgia become markedly less popular is, admittedly, at least for now, a bit like designing cages for unicorns, but the exercise sheds some light on the workings, strategies and pitfalls of Georgian politics today. It is equally apparent that a big win for these parties, or a similar rally in the future that is attended by tens of thousands of people in Tbilisi would raise much different and more grave problems for Georgia.

Even in a best case scenario, it is difficult to imagine sympathy for Russia disappearing entirely from the Georgian political context, but as Georgia becomes more democratic, the interests behind that sentiment will be less able to get any traction with the Georgian people. The fate of pro-Russia parties in the next election rests on many things, but one of them is whether Georgia’s pro-west political parties, including both the GD and the UNM, as well as the Free Democrats and others, find a way to resonate with voters and effectively communicate their ideas. If that pro-western vision is indeed superior, it should not be disrupted by the agonizingly slow process around NATO membership or even Moscow spending money and political resources in Georgia.

Georgia’s pro-west and democratic forces cannot be threatened by movements, regardless of their support from Moscow, that can only turn out a few hundred people, or even a couple of thousand, for a demonstration, or that cannot get more than 10-15% of the vote. It will not be easy, but a concerted effort to marginalize those parties and organizations supportive of Moscow is doable. The questions of whether the political elite in Georgia really wants that, and how they would react if the anti-Russia card were taken off the table for everybody, however, remain significant.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.