2019.08.28 09:00

Russia’s influence in Georgia has grown since the 2008 war – opinion

Giorgi Kandelaki 2019.08.28 09:00

At exactly the same time that French President Emmanuel Macron was hosting his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at his summer home in the south of France this week, Russian soldiers were busy building barbed wired fences deep inside Georgian territory.

One of Macron’s predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated on behalf of the European Union and brokered a ceasefire that obliged Moscow to pull its ground forces out of Georgia, but more than a decade later Russia still occupies over 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.

This particularly important fact was nowhere to be found on the agenda of the recent meeting between Macron and Putin. One reason is that Georgia, itself, did not specifically ask for the issue to be included in the talks.

This passivity of a country that is supposedly trying to escape Moscow’s grip looks puzzling.

It is time to recognise that the Kremlin has been able to slowly, but steadily, rebuild its influence in Georgia. It is this erosion – largely below the radars of the West – that has worried Georgians.

Seeing a parliamentarian from Russia’s Communist Party presiding over a meeting in the plenary hall of Georgia’s Parliament merely convinced many Georgians that their concerns were right. This triggered a mass protest that was eventually brutally dispersed by the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s.

The government of the Georgian Dream has also freed all individuals who were convicted of spying for Russia, declaring them “political prisoners” without ever declassifying their cases. Many of the distinguished counterintelligence officers credited for rooting out Russian intelligence networks were instead removed from office and some even prosecuted, while individuals with a background in the Soviet law enforcement apparatus and the KGB were recycled into senior positions.

Most recently, a former KGB officer – Dimitri Lezhava – was appointed as defence and security adviser to French-born President Salome Zurabishvili.

Following the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent invasion of the country, the Georgian Government has consistently continued to distance itself from Kyiv – a traditional ally of Georgia. Not a single Georgian Prime Minister has visited Ukraine since the Georgian Dream came to power in 2012.

With increased global awareness, particularly in the West, of the Kremlin’s goals following its invasion of Ukraine, the situation presented itself as an obvious opportunity for Georgia to draw attention to the continued Russian occupation of whole swathes of Georgian territory and the Kremlin’s blatant disregard for fulfilling the 2008 EU-brokered Cease Fire Agreement.

The agreement which was signed by the presidents of Georgia, Russia, and France – also obliged the Kremlin to grant the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM) access to the areas that are now occupied by Russia. To this day, the EUMM can only monitor Russia’s “borderisation” from government-controlled areas of Georgia.

The Georgian Government has remained passive and shunned proposals to include a demand that the US and EU include in their sanctions against Moscow, that a provision be included which directly states that Russia must honour the 2008 agreement.

Ivanishvili’s government has de facto completely abandoned any serious diplomatic and political effort to obtain a NATO Membership Action Plan, while it has engaged in joint political campaigns with radical anti-Western groups, including during the 2018 presidential election. These groups have gradually moved to the political mainstream and have largely gotten away with using violence to amplify their message.

One of their standard-bearers, Emzar Kvitsiani, a former warlord from the 1990s who led an armed rebellion against the democratically elected Georgian Government in 2006, subsequently fled to Russia and occasionally appears on Russia’s state propaganda with outlandish anti-American conspiracy theories. The Georgian Dream has overturned Kvitsiani of his high-treason conviction and absolved him by invited him back to the country.

The question is, why would a supposedly pro-Western government do any such thing unless it wanted to signal a shift to Russia? Kvitsiani now has a mandate in the Georgian Parliament from an openly pro-Russian party that allies itself with Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream.

Ivanishvili has also tried to undermine the development of the Anaklia deep sea port project on the Black Sea. This project is openly opposed by Russia due to the fact that it is backed by the US and would be a significant boon to the economy and make Georgia a major independent player when it comes to the east-west shipment of goods between Europe and Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently expressed Washington’s frustration with the Russian attempt to influence the Georgian Dream and have the government abandon the project altogether when he told Georgia’s Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, “I expressed the hope that Georgia will complete the implementation of the [Anaklia] project. Its implementation will strengthen Georgia’s ties with free economies and will not allow Georgia to be under the economic influence of Russia or China. These imaginary friends are not driven by good intentions.”

A pragmatic undertaking needs to be enacted to prevent Russia’s free ride in frontline states like Georgia, particularly as Moscow tries to undermine the US-led Euro-Atlantic security architecture in the hope that it weakens Western democracies through disinformation and presents itself as a defender of “traditional values”. The continued “Oligarchisation” of Ivanishvili – what Transparency International calls “state capture” – makes Georgia and other countries in the region more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling and the task of fulfilling its democratic and pro-Western ambitions increasingly difficult.

Compared to some other countries in the former Soviet space, it is hard not to admit that Georgia is in comparatively better shape. And yet, the thousands of Georgians that have demonstrated in the streets of Tbilisi to condemn Russia’s growing influence in the country has shown how superficial this view is.

Giorgi Kandelaki is a Georgian MP from the European Georgia party

"The story was first published by New Europe, an independent Brussels-based media outlet"