Georgian position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, between supporting the Ukrainian people and managing their economic dependence on Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 25 February 2022 is stirring up trauma in Georgia, a Caucasian country that experienced a similar situation to Ukraine in 2008. As a result of this conflict, two northern regions of the country (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are recognised as independent by Russia. While this war is still fresh in people’s minds, the challenge for this small country of 4 million people is to adopt a position on the international stage that is firm towards Russia and supportive of Ukraine, while at the same time managing their economic dependence on Russia, which creates disagreements between the citizens and their government.

Georgia is a democracy in the South Caucasus, bordering Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since its independence from the USSR in 1991, two regions in the north of the territory – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – have sought independence from the Georgian government, supported by the Russians. A war of independence broke out between 1991 and 1992, resulting in a status quo for the two regions, which declared themselves independent. From 2004 to 2013, Mikheil Saakashvili was President of Georgia and implemented a pro-Western policy, notably requesting NATO membership. In addition, he wanted to re-establish control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In doing so, he decides on an assault, to which Russia responds by sending in special forces. The Russian army neutralised the Georgian army and occupied part of the territory until Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France and the European Union, established a ceasefire. Subsequently, the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was recognised by Moscow, which retained control over 20% of Georgian territory. This independence is recognised by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu, Russia, Syria, and Transnistria. Georgia and the vast majority of UN countries do not recognise this independence and consider these regions as Georgian.

The invasion of Ukraine echoing the Georgian situation in 2008

This episode of Russian armed intervention echoes the conflict that is taking place today between Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, in retrospect, all the elements of the crisis that Vladimir Putin has just provoked were present in this episode. Putin came to power in 2000. In 2003 and 2004, the first “colour revolutions” took place in two former Soviet republics: the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, which brought democrats to power. This was a turning point for the Russian leader, who saw these two countries looking to the West. It was following this request for NATO membership that Georgia was invaded by the Russian government, which claimed to put an end to the ‘genocide’ of Russians perpetrated by Georgia. Today, Moscow intends to limit the European influence of Ukraine, claiming to free the Ukrainians from a Nazi government. In both situations, the narrative of justification for Russian intervention is similar.

A common resentment towards Russia

This episode is deeply rooted in the memory of Georgians, which explains their massive support for the Ukrainians. Since 2008, the Russian army has been reinforcing the borders and advancing into Georgian territory about 20 metres a year. Therefore, that villages and properties are cut in two by barbed wire. Along the road from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to the border, prefabricated houses hastily built in 2008 are still housing refugees from Ossetia. A total of 158,600 people were displaced as a result of the conflict. This is why Georgians, feeling bound by their common history of Russian oppression, are supporting the Ukrainians massively through mass demonstrations. Moreover, they are sending volunteers to fight alongside the Ukrainian army. The Georgian Legion was created in 2014 to send volunteers to fight alongside Ukraine in the Donbass, and is committed in 2022.

Dependence on Russia as an obstacle to firm condemnation

Georgia is strongly supporting morally and individually Ukraine. Nevertheless, the regional diplomatic and economic stakes (Russia represents 15% of Georgian exports and 10% of imports) limit the strict stance of the Georgian authorities towards Russia, which is strongly contested by the citizens. Many citizens do not approve the attitude of the government accused of being an accomplice of Moscow. This is explained by the fact that the billionaire founder of the ruling party – Georgian Dream – has built a large part of his fortune in Russia. Moreover, since 25 February 2022, the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, has multiplied the declarations considered soft towards Russia. Indeed, he described, at the end of February, the sanctions against Russia as ‘useless’. The President, Salome Zurabishvili, who had adopted a firmer position in Europe, was even called to order by the parliamentary majority. A survey estimated that nearly 60% of Georgians wanted their elected representatives to take a firmer position on the Ukrainian question.

Georgia’s current security concerns

Georgians see the conflict as a replay of what they experienced with the Russians in 2008. Citizens are very committed to supporting the Ukrainian people on a massive scale. But despite the condemnation of Russian actions by the Georgian government, the actions taken on the executive level seem insufficient for the public opinion. But how can considerable economic and military sanctions be taken against Russia when the country and the regional balance are largely determined by Russia? The general Georgian fear is that if the Russians achieve a victory in Ukraine, they will return to Georgia next. Nevertheless, for the more optimistic, this episode may hold out hope for the end of the era of Russian oppression and the general recognition of war crimes in Ukraine and Georgia, a turning point in international justice.

Image Credits: Vano Shlamov

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