Against the backdrop of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea and the international community’s weak reaction, supporters of Georgia’s integration into the Eurasian Union—a political-economic project dominated by Moscow and championed by Vladimir Putin—have begun raising their voices.
Small, but active groups in Georgia—made up not only of older people nostalgic about the Soviet Union, but also the youth—are openly supporting the Anschluss of Crimea and even attempt to justify the aggression of Putin’s Russia against Georgia in 2008. The participants in these groups’ public demonstrations repeat over and over again the old mantras about “American imperialism” and “the conquest of Kosovo,” which was a part of Serbia until 1999.
The first street demonstration by these pro-Russian activists took place on March 15, near the former Embassy of Russia, on Chavchavadze Boulevard, in the center of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2431652). Now, only a few diplomats associated with the Swiss embassy work there. Switzerland has served as the intermediary between Russia and Georgia since 2008, when then-president Mikheil Saakashvili broke diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation after the latter recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
During the March 15 protest, activists of the little-known organization Eurasian Choice held slogans in support of the “referendum” in Crimea and joining this territory to Russia. “We think that 2 million Russians, living in Crimea, have the right to hold a referendum,” the leader of Eurasian Choice, Archil Chkoidze, told journalists. He emphasized that he did not consider Moscow’s actions annexation. On the contrary, Chkoidze asserted, “Crimea historically always belonged to Russia, and Ukraine has no rights whatsoever to this territory” (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2431652).
Meanwhile, an opposing demonstration was held near the Ukrainian embassy, which is also located on Chavchavadze Boulevard. Young people from the non-governmental organization (NGO) Free Zone came out to the streets to support Ukraine. The participants of two public demonstrations were divided by a space of just 20 meters, and the police had to use force to prevent serious clashes. Nevertheless, several people still sustained injuries, and one of the participants from each of the protest groups were arrested. The arrested individuals, however, were quickly released (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2431652).
A later confrontation at the Tbilisi House of Cinema, on March 24, was also highly emotional. Another pro-Russian organization, Eurasian Institute, decided to show a documentary about events in Kosovo at the end of 20th century. “This film [condemns] NATO’s aggression against Serbia that started exactly 14 years ago,” the Eurasian Institute’s representative, Gulbaat Rtskhiladze, said. According to the activist, “the imperialists destroyed Serbia, took away Kosovo, [and] recognized its independence, thereby creating a precedent that [was used] against Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia” (http://newsgeorgia.ru/society/20140324/216467220.html).
The hall of the House of Cinema was almost full during the screening of the 30-minute film. But a young man who disagreed with this interpretation of the events in Yugoslavia, Aleko Kvakhadze, infiltrated the movie theater and staged a small demonstration, satirically proposing to the gathering “to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died in the war against Georgia in August 2008.” Peculiarly enough, some people in the audience rose to join his mock tribute, but others attacked Kvakhadze and beat him up. At the same time, protesters opposed to the film confronted its organizers outside the House of Cinema, and police had to intervene to prevent the verbal brawls from spiraling into fistfights (http://newsgeorgia.ru/society/20140324/216467220.html).
Following the film screening, the pro-Eurasian participants staged a small procession with anti-American slogans down the central boulevard, which culminated in front of the NATO Informational Center. Traffic along the boulevard was temporarily suspended.
Finally, another landmark protest by pro-Russian activists took place at a park named after Aleksandr Pushkin at Liberty Square in the very center of Tbilisi on March 27. An organization named Earth Is Our Home waved Russian flags and protested against Washington’s decision to impose sanctions on Russia. “We support the 11 citizens of Russia that Barack Obama banned from visiting the US, and call on the US to impose the same sanctions on us,” one of the leaders of the organization, Elguja Khodeli, taunted (http://newsgeorgia.ru/politics/20140327/216473914.html).
Soon, however, another group of young people with Ukrainian and Georgian flags arrived on the same square. Khodeli’s colleague, Maka Nikolashvili, told journalists that the party of former president Saakashili, the United National Movement, was behind this opposing protest. She demanded that authorities “take steps to protect citizens’ rights to freedom of speech.” Nikolashvili also asserted that the Russian military in Crimea was “[defending] peaceful citizens from American imperialism and its henchmen in Kyiv” (http://newsgeorgia.ru/politics/20140327/216473914.html).
An activist of the NGO Free Zone, Mikheil Bochorishvili, said he was perplexed by the “increasing numbers of pro-Russian provocateurs that speak against US and European values” in recent times. “Perhaps, they want Russia to send its troops to Tbilisi under the pretext of protecting its citizens?” Bochorishvili asked rhetorically in his conversations with journalists. “Why do the authorities not take serious steps against [such] anti-state and anti-constitutional forces?” he questioned. “The flag of imperialist Russia should not wave at Liberty Square,” a young woman, Tamar Kutateladze, confirmed (http://www.fmabkhazia.com/news/2984-incidenti-thavisuphlebis-moedanze-akhciaze-elgua-xodeli-rusethis-droshith-mivida.html).
These sudden pro-Russian demonstrations in Georgia are a fairly new phenomenon. Several years ago, not even marginal groups would go out into the streets with Russian flags. And no one organized public rallies in support of integration into the Eurasian Union or condemned “American imperialism” in accordance with the traditions of the Cold War.
The Georgian political opposition believes that this novel development is tied to the weakness and indecisiveness of the current authorities as well as their lack of firm values and of a clear-cut foreign policy orientation. “Pro-Russian groups started to feel comfortably during the rule of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition,” United National Movement parliamentarian David Darchiashvili told Jamestown on March 28. According to Darchiashvili, “Georgian Dream does not present a clear message to society that such actions are unacceptable from the standpoint of long-term interests of Georgia and our values.”
At the same time, the parliament member did not rule out the possibility that these pro-Russian groups “are financed by Russian security services and [that] Moscow is trying to pave the way for aggression [against Georgia], using the same methods as it used in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian provocateurs are dispatched” (Author’s interview, March 28).
Clearly, the protracted uncertainty inherent in the crisis in Ukraine, combined with vacillation in the West’s response to Russian aggression, has opened up political space for such pro-Russian voices in Georgian society. Only a firm commitment from the West to accept Georgia, as well as greater pro-Western resolution from the Georgian government is likely to reverse this new trend.