During a press conference on January 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised the Georgian government for its decision not to join the Western sanctions regime against Russia. However, Tbilisi considered this an embarrassment, as it rejects any formal cooperation with Russia. On this, Lavrov declared, “The fact that a small country and its government has the courage to say that [they] will be guided by [their] interests, the interests of [their] economy … commands respect,” (RIA Novosti, January 18).
On the one hand, the Georgian government touts the unprecedented economic growth it has been enjoying recently, but on the other, it rejects the notion that this has come about through expanded economic ties with an increasingly isolated Russia. However, this conclusion is somewhat dubious; according to the National Bank of Georgia, a record number of money transfers were sent from Russia to Georgia in 2022. In a year, remittances from Russia to Georgia grew by a multiple of five and amounted to more than $2 billion, representing 47.29 percent of total remittances from all countries (JAM-news, January 16). Notably, according to official data, from March to November 2022, 1,274,006 Russian citizens crossed the Georgian border for tourism, transit or other purposes—including to flee Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” order (Netgazeti.ge, January 16).
The implication of Lavrov’s statement is that Georgia owes its current positive economic environment to the effective cooperation between Tbilisi and Moscow. Moreover, he has announced that the Kremlin is ready to resume regular air travel services with Georgia, which was unilaterally terminated by Russia after anti-Russian demonstrations in Georgia in 2019. For a country whose territory has been occupied by Russia since 2008, Lavrov’s praise of Georgian obedience to Russia is especially biting.
In parallel with this, Georgia is coming under increasing criticism from the West. On January 18, in an interview, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed whether Georgia was helping Russia circumvent sanctions (Interpressnews.ge, January 19; Accentnews.ge, January 23). Von der Leyen indirectly hinted that countries helping Russia circumvent sanctions might themselves be considered for secondary sanctions. This came on the heels of accusations that Georgia is helping Russia bypass Western sanctions. Indeed, it was asserted that “with Western sanctions barring many imports, a lot of what Russia needs now travels a slow, crowded truck route through the Caucasus Mountains from Georgia” (YouTube, January 15).
Georgia’s top political leadership did not respond to Lavrov’s comments; only the mayor of Tbilisi—one of the leaders of the ruling party—acknowledged the Russian foreign minister’s words, welcoming the possible resumption of air traffic between Georgia and Russia. In equal measure, the mayor reacted painfully to Von der Leyen’s implied jab that Georgia is helping Russia. Chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, notable for his explicitly anti-Western rhetoric, went on to criticize the assertions of the European Commission leader and others, characterizing the accusations as fake. Kobakhidze also called the allegations an artificial attack on Tbilisi, with the intent of drawing Georgia into a war with Russia (Facebook.com/IrakliKobakhidze, January 18).
Recently, the anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric of the Georgian ruling elite has been intensifying. The country’s authorities do not hide their irritation at the West’s growing criticism, which accuses Tbilisi with charges of democratic backsliding and potential cooperation with Moscow.
For its confrontation with the West, in 2022, the ruling elite created a special tool—the “Power of the People” movement—which allegedly has nothing to do with the ruling party. This movement includes former representatives of the ruling party, who allegedly broke away from it. In reality, this group represents the radical wing of the ruling elite. The movement’s leaders are composed of nine members of the Georgian parliament. It also includes representatives of local authorities, the so-called “expert community,” as well as pro-government journalists, among others. The movement is particularly notable for its attacks on the US ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, who is often accused of trying to involve Georgia in Russia’s war against Ukraine (see EDM, October 14, 2022).
Recently, the movement initiated a draft on regulating the work of Georgian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The movement’s leaders characterize in-country NGO representatives as agents of the West and the United States, arguing that, by limiting their work, Georgia’s sovereignty would be strengthened. The draft law has already been prepared, and parliamentary discussions are planned for the near future. The initiative considers the registration of NGOs, media and even individual activists financed from abroad as foreign agents. The Power of the People grouping also plans to demand that the authorities impose restrictions on the media and legitimize censorship. One leader of the movement, Guram Macharashvil, on January 17, stipulated that NATO and the EU are not Georgia’s end unto themselves and hinted at possible cooperation with Russia (interpressnews.ge, January 18).
Overall, Georgia’s ruling elite are using this movement as their anti-Western mouthpiece that voices those political messages and initiatives that they support but for pragmatic reasons cannot voice themselves. The Power of the People represents the ruling elite’s position that “we stand for Georgia’s relations with the US and the EU, although this should not come at the expense of sovereignty, unrest and war, those who rudely interfere in the affairs of Georgia will receive an answer” (interpressnews.ge, January 18).
For three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia was considered one of the most pro-Western countries in the post-Soviet space. This meant that the South Caucasus country worked to free itself from the negative influence of Moscow and move closer to the West. Therefore, the aggressive anti-Western rhetoric emanating from the Georgian ruling elite is causing serious alarm. If Georgia begins to copy the Russian political system using the Russian-dominated ideology of sovereign democracy, the peculiar perception of NGOs as foreign agents, media censorship, and so forth, this will draw Tbilisi further away from the West and ever closer to the Kremlin’s orbit.