Spontaneous anti-Russia demonstrations in Georgia are evidence of the country’s Western orientation and Russia’s declining soft power in the region.
Thousands of Georgians recently came out onto the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, to denounce the visit of a Russian parliamentary delegation at the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, held at the Georgian Parliament building. It was the presence of the Russian Communist MP, Sergei Gavrilov, that provoked the protest; many ordinary Georgians felt insulted by the presence of a representative of an occupier country in the Georgian Parliament. The fact that the Russian MP addressed participants of the forum from the speaker’s chair sparked a wave of demonstrations which, although initially peaceful, were then followed by an attempt to storm the Parliament building, which was responded to by the police using rubber bullets and tear gas. The incident left at least 240 people injured, including demonstrators and police officers. The mass dissatisfaction resulted in the Russian delegation fleeing the country and the resignation of the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze.
While Russian troops occupy 20% of Georgian territories and are present in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia enclaves, the anger of Georgians is understandable. Although the August war of 2008 lasted just five days, the fighting is far from over. The Kremlin has repeatedly used various military and non-military means to exercise pressure on Tbilisi. Still, the Russians have clearly underestimated the power of Georgian civil society and its resistance to even the deployment of supposed religious affinity arguments. The Kremlin has long been using Orthodox Christianity as its propaganda tool to advance its interests by seeking to persuade vulnerable segments of society to believe that it’s preferable to stick to Orthodox neighbours rather than allow membership in the Euro-Atlantic community to supposedly destroy ‘traditional values’. Yet, the large presence of Georgian youth during the protests has shown that there can be no alternatives regarding Georgia’s foreign policy orientation.
Street rallies also demonstrated the fatigue of traditional party politics, as a large majority of self-mobilised youth expressed their distrust towards both the opposition forces and the ruling party in Georgia. Following the demands of the protesters, the ruling party accepted to switch to a proportional electoral system, which will allow smaller and new political parties to be represented in the Parliament. Consequently, both sides of the political spectrum need to reconsider their policies in order to win the support of young minds. The overwhelming majority of the population has spoken and the message clearly expressed fundamental support for Western values and a desire to burn the bridges that lead to the Kremlin.
Yet, Russia’s strategy towards its Western-oriented neighbour in the aftermath of the Gavrilov case could become more creative and resourceful. It is clear that Kremlin-backed rhetoric is relatively easily identified and no longer scares ordinary Georgians. Having a lengthy experience of dealing with Russian propaganda and asymmetric warfare, Georgian society has become more resilient. The continued attempt to promote the idea of Georgian neutrality in international affairs is a clear example of this failed rhetoric. Time after time, the Kremlin revives the narrative of Georgia’s neutrality by advocating this idea as an only option for the country to become truly independent and find peaceful resolution to ongoing conflicts. Yet despite these efforts, the concept of ‘neutrality’ has almost become a secret word for being ‘pro-Kremlin’ inside Georgia; the vast majority of Georgians realise that a non-aligned Georgia means voluntarily rejecting Western support and becoming subordinated by Russia.
Gavrilov’s eviction from the country was a public humiliation for Putin’s regime, as it clearly showed the limits of Russia’s soft power in Georgia. The Kremlin was quick to denounce the events in Tbilisi as ‘Russophobic hysteria’, claiming that radicals took over Parliament.
Still, Georgians sent a powerful message to the world, demonstrating that it is up to them and not Putin to decide the country’s foreign policy direction. In response to the political turmoil, the Kremlin used its ‘Russophobia’ allegations to exert economic pressure on Georgia, justify a ban on flights and call on Russian tourists to return home immediately. Moscow has also hinted at the prospect of imposing an embargo on Georgian wine purchases; Russia has previously banned the import of Georgian wine between 2006 and 2013. Since the eruption of anti-Kremlin protests in Tbilisi, Russia’s consumer protection agency has already stopped eight Georgian wine companies from importing wine to Russia.
Targeting the tourism industry is a well-known weapon in the Kremlin’s arsenal. Following the downing of the Russian Su-24 in 2015, Moscow banned all charter flights operating between Russia and Turkey. The travel ban hit the Turkish economy hard, with Turkey’s tourism revenue declining from $12.6 billion to $9 billion. The economic pressure led to an apology by the Turkish president followed by restoration of bilateral ties and lifting of sanctions. Russia may expect a similar outcome in Georgia.
Undoubtedly, Georgia faces tough times, as Russia is one of the largest tourist nations visiting Georgia; last year alone, 1.4 million Russian tourists visited the country. Unlike Russia, Georgia has never imposed a visa regime on Russian citizens and has always welcomed tourists. The immediate effect of Russian sanctions will be challenging for Georgia’s economy to overcome, yet, from a long-term perspective, Russia may be doing a favour to Georgia by incentivising it to diversify both its tourism and its wine exports towards Western and Asian markets.
Yet there is no turning back for Georgia. The protests have clearly demonstrated that Georgia has a resilient civil society with strong Western values. Most importantly, no political party willing to flirt with the Kremlin stands a chance to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Georgians.
Natia Seskuria is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Lecturer in Russian Politics at the University of Georgia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Associate Fellow; Founder and Executive Director of RISS