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The Devils Gone to Georgia

The Devils Gone to Georgia

In the shadow of Russian influence, Georgian Dream's crackdown threatens to derail the Caucasus country's aspirations for freedom and European integration.

Dalibor Roháč

It does not take much to sympathize with the brave people of Georgia these days. Mass protests against the government’s effort to entrench itself in power and align the country with Russia may have quieted down. Nevertheless, most Georgians understand that what is at stake is Georgia’s candidate status with the European Union (EU) as much as its democratic, free future. Helping the Georgians, however, requires much more than just sympathy—and indeed more than the usual sticks and carrots deployed by Brussels and Washington. 

Helping the Georgians requires serious thinking about Georgia’s security and its place in Western alliances, and about deterring Russian aggression against its neighbors. A Russian crackdown becomes more likely the more successful the Georgian people are in their effort to unseat the current government. Alas, neither the Biden administration nor our European allies are likely to rise up to the occasion, should Georgia see a replay of the war launched by the Kremlin in 2008. 

Speaking of the past, there is another sense of déjà vu. Just like in Ukraine in 2013, a tacitly pro-Russian government in Tbilisi is reneging on key European commitments and driving an overwhelming pro-Western population into the streets. Back then, the controversy was over Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU along with Ukraine’s place in the Moscow-led Eurasian Union. 

Today, the governing Georgian Dream party, bankrolled by the pro-Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, is cracking down on civil society, media, and opposition—while also opening up Georgia to dirty Russian money from offshore jurisdictions. 

Unlike those on Kyiv’s Maidan, Georgians are not yet freezing in the cold. Yet, they are already subject to similar police brutality as Ukrainians were a decade ago. The adopted version of the “foreign agent law,” dubbed the “Russian law” by the opposition, also bodes ill for the fairness of the parliamentary election to be held at the end of October, as it opens avenues toward disqualifying candidates with connections to the West. The law, modeled on similar legislation enacted in Russia in 2012 and Hungary in 2017, imposes draconian requirements on entities receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad, including the label of “agents of foreign influence.” Targets include NGOs, independent media, but also opposition candidates. The “offshore law,” meanwhile, provides a conduit, complete with favorable tax incentives, to help sanctioned Russian actors place more of their money back into the global economy. 

There has been some pushback from the West—including in the form of visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. State Department. In the U.S. Congress, a bipartisan group led by Congressman Joe Wilson has proposed a strategically-minded law that combines sticks and carrots—a threat of sanctions and other measures against Georgian Dream and its cronies, but also a path to deeper military, trade, and other cooperation if Georgia scraps its “Russian law.” As long as the law is in place, the EU is unlikely to open accession negotiations, which may provide an additional rallying cry for the opposition ahead of the election. After all, 80 percent of the people in Georgia currently favor EU membership. 

The October parliamentary election is a make-or-break moment. Georgian Dream is hoping that the protests die off during the summer and that, through a combination of intimidation and possibly outright fraud, it will gain a substantial majority that will place Georgia within Russia’s sphere of influence for another decade, at least. 

Such an outcome would be a tragedy for freedom-loving Georgians and the broader Black Sea region. What is most likely to stop this scenario from materializing are the Georgians themselves. There are no big protests in Tbilisi at the moment, but the opposition is unlikely to resign itself to letting its country drift under Russian control. 

To continue the Ukraine-Maidan analogy, then-Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych’s position became untenable in 2014 because public pressure was unrelenting, especially after Yanukovych allowed Ukrainian and Russian security services to shoot at the protesters on the Maidan. It is unlikely that Georgians will stand idly by if—or rather when—Ivanishvili tries to make this October’s election Georgia’s last free one.  

What makes the present case tragic, however, is that winning the political battle at home is the easy part. The much harder, if not impossible, task is to establish a framework of security for Georgia that would durably prevent Moscow from thwarting the country’s democratization and its further rapprochement with the West. 

What followed Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, after all, was not just a push for economic and anti-corruption reforms or progress with EU accession. Vladimir Putin seized that moment to annex Crimea and the Donbas, setting the stage for a conflict that is now in its tenth—and not its second—year. As the West continues to congratulate itself on the “unprecedented” level of support for Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, we must also remember that Russia’s initial aggression left many in Washington and Brussels quite lethargic. The Obama administration then did not authorize military assistance or even government sales of weapons to Ukraine. From Europeans, Ukraine got the preposterous Minsk agreements, which only helped Russia entrench itself in eastern Ukraine.

Should a new, pro-Western government take over in Tbilisi, the Kremlin will not just acquiesce to new realities. In fact, an important part of Georgian Dream’s appeal is its rhetoric of appeasement: the notion that while Georgia may continue to forge deeper ties with the EU, it must also actively stay on Russia’s good side. That is obviously an impossible balancing act. But neither does that approach make the Russian threat, or the presence of Russian troops on Georgia’s territory, any less real. In that sense, Georgian Dream’s propaganda is not deceptive—it reflects Georgia’s unpleasant geopolitical condition, in the immediate vicinity of Russia, and outside of the West’s security structures. 

The Biden administration wants the upcoming NATO summit to be a celebration of the alliance’s achievements. But that would be a step toward irrelevance. With a war raging in Ukraine and the Russian threat hanging imminently over Georgia and Moldova—not to speak of Armenia—the choice is between simply acquiescing to a new division of Europe, (leaving those countries permanently vulnerable to Russian malevolence), or committing to future security arrangements to keep Russia out of those parts of the former Soviet Union (in much the same way that they are keeping Russia out of the Baltic states). 

With his rejection of Ukraine’s “natoization,” President Biden clearly prefers the former option—and it is not hard to guess why. But the absence of an explicit alliance system to protect those countries does not make them any less of a liability for the United States and for Europe, as it only invites Russian aggression and interference. A dismembered Ukraine, or a Russian-controlled Georgia and Moldova, guarantee a steady flow of refugees into Europe. They also make NATO’s job on its eastern flank harder and more expensive. And furthermore, they cut economic opportunity in the Black Sea region, as well as across countries on the EU’s and NATO’s eastern periphery.

The decision over whether Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova should join NATO or be granted NATO-like guarantees (possibly involving the presence of U.S. and other allied troops or similar tripwires) should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, the Western world needs to be clear-eyed about what our dithering and inaction means. Most importantly, it exposes as hollow the talk of future enlargement of the EU and of our putative support to democratic and anti-corruption reforms. None of those things are remotely sustainable while the countries in question are vulnerable to Russian aggression and interference. 

Letting those countries down, and keeping them outside of our shared system of security and prosperity, hurts ordinary Ukrainians, Georgians, and Moldovans the most. Yet, anyone who has spent a moment engaging with the courageous, admirable people of the three countries will attest that it would only be a loss for the United States, too. 

Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and a contributing editor with American Purpose.

Image: "Yes to Europe, No to Russian Law" [SLR] 28/04/2024 - Massive pro-EU demonstration in Tbilisi from First Republic Square to Parliament; Jelger Groeneveld, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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