Russia Baits Georgia With Return of Occupied Territories in Run-Up to Parliamentary Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 42

(Source: New Eastern Europe)

Executive Summary:

  • Fears that Russia will interfere in Georgia’s October 2024 parliamentary election are increasing following the appointment of a new pro-Kremlin special representative of the Georgian prime minister who oversees relations with Russia.
  • In recent years, the ruling elite of Georgia have been using informal channels to maintain contact with the Kremlin, solidifying relations between the two governments and elevating Russian influence.
  • Kremlin propagandists are not opposed to Georgian Dream officials feeding their constituents with false promises and illusions regarding the possible restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity to ensure the ruling party’s victory in October.

On March 11, newly appointed Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze announced the replacement of his special representative in charge of relations with Russia (, March 11). The Georgian opposition suggests that this may signal the intensification of ties between Moscow and Tbilisi ahead of parliamentary elections in October (, March 11). This personnel change coincided with increased fears regarding possible Russian interference (, February 28). Georgian diplomat Giorgi Kajaia is the new special representative and has close contacts with the Russian political elite (, March 11). Grigory Karasin, chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, immediately responded to the appointment and stated that “Russia is interested in mutually beneficial cooperation with Georgia” (TASS, March 11). The position of special representative was created 12 years ago when Georgian Dream came to power. Without formal diplomatic relations with Russia, the special representative was the only official channel between Tbilisi and Moscow. Georgian diplomat Zurab Abashidze, who served in this capacity for 12 years, was repeatedly exposed by the Georgian media for pursuing Russian interests in Georgia (, November 11, 2023). As a result, fears are growing that Kajaia may pursue a similar agenda.

In recent years, the ruling elite of Georgia have been actively using informal channels to contact the Kremlin to solve trade, economic, and political issues. These channels were used to prepare for the restoration of air traffic between the two countries last year (see EDM, May 10, 2023). Officials use Russia’s Georgian diaspora (consisting of influential businessmen) as a quasi-diplomatic channel. The presence of informal backchanneling in Georgia has played a vital role in expanding dialogue between Moscow and Tbilisi.

On March 7, David Khidasheli, a notorious Georgian businessman with close contacts in Russia, and George Volski, first deputy chair of the Georgian Parliament, held an informal meeting that devolved into a political scandal. Khidasheli, for several years (2020 to 2024), worked simultaneously as an advisor to the Georgian minister of defense (, March 14). He and Volski discussed the possible resumption of railway transit between Georgia and Russia through occupied Abkhazia. One of the opposition parties in Georgia got ahold of and publicly released an audio recording of the conversation (, March 7). The recording revealed that Khidasheli and Volski discussed the possibility of creating a confederate republic within Georgia comprised of Abkhazia and so-called “South Ossetia” with Moscow’s assistance.

In 2023, fears began to grow in Georgian political circles that Russia might propose the creation of a confederation consisting of Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia (, May 25, 2023). Georgian experts have long discussed the possibility that the ruling party will try to improve its standing during the pre-election period by offering society an illusion in activating talk on restoring the country’s territorial integrity. The Abkhazians and Ossetians themselves are against the confederation as they seek integration with Russia (especially the Ossetians). Creating a confederation would also be unacceptable for Georgia since it would mean recognizing the sovereignty of the Russian-occupied Georgian territories.

Against the backdrop of Western sanctions, Russia is searching for alternative transit routes, including those that would pass through Georgia’s territory (see EDM, September 15, 2022). The illegal, unrecognized status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia prevents Russia from using these territories for legal transit on a large scale. Effectively, these regions remain in international isolation. Without Tbilisi’s participation, Moscow cannot rely on the separatist governments alone for transit projects. It is difficult for the Kremlin to obtain permission from Tbilisi to organize full-scale transit routes coming from Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the current conditions.

Using informal channels, the Kremlin stands ready to ensure that Georgian Dream achieves the desired result in the 2024 elections. Moscow is highly interested in maintaining the current government in Tbilisi, which is largely pro-Russian. Kremlin propagandists are not opposed to Georgian Dream officials feeding their constituents with false promises and illusions regarding the possible restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

The South Ossetian government in Tskhinvali and the Abkhazian government in Sukhumi are nervous because of the increased contact between Russian and Georgian officials and the activities of the Georgian diaspora in Russia. They fear that Russia’s need for new transit routes and the activation of Georgian lobbyists in Moscow may push the Kremlin to capitulate on the issue of territorial integrity (, December 23, 2023).

As a result, the puppet regimes are doing everything in their power to prove their commitment to Russia. For example, on March 12, in the center of Sukhumi, a demonstration of thousands took place in support of Vladimir Putin (, March 12). On March 13, the “Russian Citizens Living in Abkhazia” party voiced their support for Putin in the Russian presidential elections (, March 13). These actions come from the fear that, based on recent developments, the Kremlin is trying not to irritate Tbilisi by imitating a behind-the-scenes dialogue about the fate of the occupied regions (, January 25). This picture frightens Sukhumi and Tskhinvali but helps Tbilisi in the run-up to the elections. In early March, Moscow decided to deprive three members of the “parliament” of South Ossetia of Russian citizenship for trying to initiate the delimitation of the border between Georgia and South Ossetia (, March  5). The official explanation given by the Kremlin pointed to “actions leading to increased tension near the Russian border.” The Kremlin considered that such actions could become a catalyst for renewed confrontation with Georgia, which would not be beneficial for Russia as the war in Ukraine rages on and Western sanctions tighten. Simultaneously, such a conflict would undermine the position of the pro-Russian ruling elite in Tbilisi.