Mounting Georgian-Ukrainian Tensions Harm Both Sides
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 70
The Russian war of subjugation against Ukraine has complicated Georgian-Ukrainian relations, officially described as a “strategic partnership,” in unexpected ways. While the two threatened Russian neighbors seemingly share the same regional security outlook, ongoing tensions between them have been exacerbated by Kyiv’s discontent over the scope and nature of the Georgian government’s support for Ukraine as it fights for its survival. In turn, the Ukrainian side’s rebukes have ended up pitting Georgian politicians and citizens against one another other, with the opposition and broader population largely praised by Kyiv for its firm support to Ukraine, and the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party openly criticized for what Ukrainian officials have characterized as insufficient backing born out of an overbearing fear of Russia.
“Indeed, there are times when citizens are not the government, but better [than] the government,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted in response to a large-scale pro-Ukraine rally spontaneously held in Tbilisi shortly after the launch of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine (Civil.ge, February 26). Zelenskyy’s assertion was later followed by statements from several senior Ukrainian officials and intelligence bodies, accusing the Georgian authorities of evading the West’s anti-Russian sanctions and panning Georgia for its unwillingness to open a “second front” against Russia on its territory (see EDM, April 21). According to two people close to President Zelenskyy, David Arakhamia (the leader of the parliamentary faction of the ruling Servant of the People party) and presidential advisor Mikhailo Podolyak, was that the Georgian government’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia is driven by the business linkages of GD founder and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in Russia. As a result, Arakhamia called on the leaders of the European Union and the United States to sanction Ivanishvili and his assets in the West. The Ukrainian lawmaker also dismissed the visit of the Georgian multi-party parliamentary delegation Ukraine in mid-April as political theater (Civil.ge, April 24; Georgian Journal, April 26; Jamnews, May 3; see EDM, April 28).
Oleksiy Arestovych, the advisor to the head of Ukraine’s Presidential Office, took a different approach, stating that “Georgia has a historic opportunity to retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” He argued that the current Georgian government would not dare to open such a “second front,” but this would have been possible if former president Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party were still in power in Tbilisi (Voice of America, April 27). One can see a striking similarity between such rhetoric coming from Ukrainian officials and statements made by the Georgian opposition parties and the civil sector: both demand from the GD government a clearer stance toward Russia and the developments in Ukraine. Yet such pressure prompted GD to ascribe Kyiv’s reprimands to the influence of indicted or prosecuted former UNM officials (first and foremost, implying Saakashvili), whom Ukraine has sheltered and granted high positions in its state bodies (Civil.ge, March 2).
Moreover, GD has sought to demonize the domestic opposition factions, collectively labeling them a “party of war” willing to draw Georgia into devastating hostilities with Russia. As a consequence of such rhetoric, the growing fear of war significantly tilted the mood of the majority of the population in favor of GD’s policy, which has come to be widely regarded domestically as pragmatic. Notably, Arestovich’s statement proposing the forcible reintegration of Abkhazia provoked sharp criticism in Abkhazian social and political circles but appreciation for the Georgian government’s refusal to escalate the conflict: “an important step for the entire South Caucasus.” Nevertheless, some Georgian politicians and experts bemoaned the fast-closing “window of opportunity” to retake the secessionist regions. (Ekho Kavkaza, April 30, May 6).
One can observe the increasing divides among Georgians with regard to Ukraine in social media discussions and public opinion polls. According to the latest survey conducted for February–March by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), while 39 percent of respondents think that Georgia should limit economic ties with Russia, 27 percent believe that existing economic links with Russia should be retained. Another line of questioning revealed that 49 percent of the respondents approve of the GD government’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, while 37 percent disapproved and 15 percent were undecided. In any case, 80 percent expect economic decline or hardship due to the war in Ukraine (Ndi.org, April 2022).
The February–March NDI study also found that 98 percent of Georgians overwhelmingly favor the Ukrainian people and 87 percent have positive feelings toward the Ukrainian government, despite the latter’s frictions with GD (Ndi.org, April 2022). However, the latest verbal attacks from Kyiv officials, which irritated many ordinary Georgians, may have altered these figures somewhat. A similar poll commissioned around the same time by the International Republican Institute (IRI) found that 53 percent of respondents consider the GD government’s response in support of Ukraine completely or somewhat sufficient, 44 percent consider it completely or somewhat insufficient, and 4 percent are undecided (Civil.ge, April 24; Iri.org, April 27).
Georgian experts have also been divided over how to respond to the reprimands coming from Kyiv. Some have called for greater human understanding of the anxious rhetoric coming out of Ukraine because that country is at war. At the same time, they have criticized GD for cultivating the fear of war with Russia and demonizing the opposition in order to retain power. This group of commentators has also reproached the Georgian authorities for their excessive caution and vague attitude toward anti-Russian sanctions and the war in Ukraine, including a reluctance to introduce a visa-regime for Russian citizens. More broadly, these experts’ discussions are centered on whether Georgia is with the Western community in defense of Ukraine, or not. (JAM-News, March 16). Specialists on the other side of the split recognize that Ukraine’s demands for opening a “second front” against Russia in the South Caucasus may be part of a larger scheme aimed at accelerating Russia’s defeat. But they call on GD to more openly engage with the public and better explain the government’s restrained decisions regarding Ukraine (Tbiliselebi, May 4; Rezonansi, May 6).
Continuing criticism from Ukrainian officials, which increasingly coincide with the political agenda of the Georgian opposition, might breed public perceptions that Kyiv seeks to facilitate “regime change” in Georgia. Meanwhile, persistently harping on sanctions against Russia only increases misunderstandings amongst Western partners. The US ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, specifically cautioned that the Ukrainian authorities’ accusations leveled at Georgia should proceed through “official channels” (Agenda.ge April 16). Proactive involvement by Western partners could prove crucial to breaking the downward spiral in Georgian-Ukrainian relations. While neither side has been entirely blameless, clearly the harm incurred by the bilateral relationship is damaging to both.