Georgians Continue to Defy Putin, and the West Must Stand with Them

Protesters at a rally against a Russian lawmaker’s visit near the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, June 21, 2019. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)
As protests in the country’s capital enter their second week, America and Europe should take notice.

Tbilisi, Georgia — As the crowd burst into the Georgian national anthem, thousands of smartphone flashlights lit up the parliament building’s facade. Vulgar signs in Russian and polite signs in English targeted Vladimir Putin; demonstrators sported eyepatches, in memory of the two protesters who lost eyes in the violent government crackdown on June 20. Seven days have passed since then, but Georgians are still protesting in Tbilisi — a sign that the underlying discontent remains unresolved.

Originally, the protests were triggered by the image of a deputy of the Russian Duma, Sergei Gavrilov, addressing Georgian lawmakers from the speaker’s chair on the parliament floor. Gavrilov is a member of the Russian Communist party, and has publicly recognized the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, occupied by Russia in 2008, as separate states. On the evening he made his speech, crowds flooded to the parliament steps to express their fury. When a group of protesters broke through the police cordon into the parliament, the demonstration turned violent. Clashes between riot police and protesters ended when the security services began firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd without warning. By morning, 240 people were hospitalized.

The disproportionate use of violence by government forces shocked many, but it isn’t the only reason that Georgians keep coming out on the streets. At a far more basic level, many now fear that their deepest national aspirations — to join the West and become a part of its institutions, to remain a democracy and an open society — are under threat.

For one, the fact that Gavrilov was even invited to Tbilisi is evidence that the current ruling party, Georgian Dream, has been quietly pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Putin’s Russia, despite public promises to maintain the country’s pro-Western course. After Georgian Dream’s ascension to power in 2012, Russia eased sanctions on Georgian imports; since then exports to Russia have skyrocketed, reaching almost $400 million in 2017. Russian tourists now flock to Georgia, where a large chunk of the economy relies on tourism. Though this has largely been positive for Georgians, deepening economic ties with Russia allow the Kremlin to exert economic pressure on the country, and make the Russian threat feel more palpable.

Amid these developments, numerous Russian cultural organizations have sprung up in Georgia to defend “traditional values” — which is to say Putinist, anti-Western values — and promote friendly ties between the two countries. Some of these, such as the Primakov Georgian-Russian Centre, have links to extremist organizations that regularly organize violent protests, targeting everything from nightclubs to Pride events. The Georgian Orthodox Church, though publicly supportive of Western integration, also has many links to Russian organizations; Gavrilov was in town, ostensibly, to address the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. The election of several pro-Russia MPs in 2016 has also led to the perception that Georgian Dream is happy to accommodate Russian interests. Giga Bokeria, the leader of the European Georgia opposition party, told me that Georgian Dream has been “legitimizing ultra-right hate groups” and “demonizing pro-Western opponents.” This creeping Russian influence has frustrated the many Georgians who still remember the 2008 war. One protester told me that he was there to remind the ruling party that “Russia is an aggressor against Georgia.” He held up a sign with a map of Georgia, partly covered by an eyepatch.

A second cause of the unrest is a broader dissatisfaction with the Georgian political system. The system’s mix of proportional representation and majoritarianism has given an overwhelming majority to Georgian Dream, which received 49 percent of the popular vote but 77 percent of parliament seats in the last election. The party itself is a one-man operation, the one man being Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest inhabitant. In true oligarch fashion, Ivanisvhili controls much of the Georgian media and business community in addition to leading the party. Many signs at the protests allude to his dominance of Georgian politics; one sign reads “Bidzinahuj,” which is an insult not suitable for translation in a family-friendly publication. There are reasons to doubt whether he will ever let Georgian Dream give up power, and there is growing unease that he is turning Georgia into a one-party state. So sore is this point that protesters over the past week have been demanding a purely proportional system. On Monday, Georgian Dream agreed, though it was telling that the announcement was made not by Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, but by Ivanishvili himself. Bokeria notes that Georgian Dream has “tried to monopolize the political scene under one informal ruler: Mr. Ivanishvili.”

More generally, there is a sense of economic and political stagnation. Tamara Arveladze is 20 years old and is one of the organizers of the protests. She explained to me that “people are struggling more and more; they don’t see a perspective of prosperity or fairness under this government.” Several other young protesters complained of a lack of opportunities and poor educational resources in Georgia. Many of the brightest Georgians study abroad — and then stay there. One young man who attended a university in the United States told me that he wanted to return to Georgia after graduating, but said the offer he received from a Georgian company was “laughable.” Instead he will work in Washington, D.C., starting in September. A significant portion of the economy is made up of remittances from abroad, particularly Russia; at home, projects keep running aground. One prominent example of government inefficiency is the delay in the construction of a deep-water port in Anaklia, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underlined as a strategically and economically important project for Georgia during Bakhtadze’s recent state visit to Washington. A deep-sea port in Georgia would allow large military vessels to dock, making the country more militarily independent and less economically reliant on Russia. Some have speculated that the delay stems from Russian pressure.

Still, if the protests have created a political crisis for Georgian Dream, they also have shown the resilience of Georgian civil society. Recognizing the threat the protests pose to Russian interests, Putin has responded by banning flights to Georgia beginning July 8 and tightening controls on Georigan exports, especially wine, in order to exert economic pressure. Georgians have in turn started urging foreigners to travel to Georgia through social-media campaigns, to replace the lost Russian tourists. Despite the resignation of the speaker of parliament and the MP responsible for the invitation of Gavrilov, protesters say they will continue so long as Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakharia, the man held responsible for the violence on Thursday, remains in power.

Americans should take notice: This sudden eruption of public anger shows that despite Putin’s decade-long hybrid war, Georgians are still committed to protecting their country’s independence and its path to joining the West. We should do everything we can to help them sustain their efforts. The Trump administration should help clear a path for the country’s entry into NATO, so as to show Putin that he doesn’t have a veto over NATO membership. The EU should intensify its work through the Eastern Partnership to improve trade and political connections between Georgia and Europe. And Americans and Europeans alike should take Georgians up on their offer to visit the country, or even just buy a bottle of Georgian wine. Could there be a more cheerful way to stand up to Russian bullying?