Georgia’s ruling party, if not its populace, wants to appease the Kremlin. Georgia’s president does not.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Georgia has been a house divided. That very day, thousands of Georgians gathered in front of the Parliament in Tbilisi to show support and solidarity for Ukraine. They returned night after night to protest the unprovoked Russian invasion and the deliberate slaughter of Ukrainian civilians; the 2008 Russian invasion of their own country remains fresh in the minds of Georgians.
But the Georgian government, unlike most European countries, has been hesitant to offer much support to Ukraine, drawing the ire of protesters. When Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili refused to join in sanctions against Russia, the Ukraine solidarity rallies became anti-government protests calling for his resignation. When he blocked a plane transporting 60 Georgian volunteer soldiers to Ukraine and claimed that sanctions against Russia would be ineffective, condemnation of the Georgian government became almost synonymous with solidarity with Ukraine.
If the Georgian government has sought a policy of appeasement with the Kremlin, the Georgian people have not. “Indeed, there are times when citizens are not the Government, but better [than] the Government,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted on Feb. 25. But it wasn’t just the Georgian people: Their president would soon follow.
On Feb. 28, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili said in a video address, “No one expects us to take measures that would endanger the country, but everyone expects solidarity from us. … This is why I am in Paris today and will be visiting Brussels tomorrow—to express Georgian solidarity to Ukraine.”
On March 4, as anti-war and anti-government protests continued in Tbilisi, Zelensky gave a direct video address to crowds gathered in cities across Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Georgia. The Georgian president followed Zelenksy’s address by declaring, “I stand with President Zelensky and with Ukraine. … The dignity of the Georgian people means that we stand with our friends when they fight for freedom, for independence, and for a European future.”
The conflict between the president and the ruling party culminated in her March 14 address to Parliament.
“The public is much more vigilant, conscious, brave, and, most importantly, united than you are,” Zourabichvili told Parliament. In her address, the president took swipes at both the ruling party and the parliamentary opposition. “The [parliamentary] majority, instead of seeking consensus, portrays anyone who disagrees with it as either a traitor or as the party of war.” She then added: “The opposition, instead of seeking consensus, dubs without appeal any statement or decision by the government as pro-Russian.”
The following day, the ruling party announced that it would sue the president in the Constitutional Court, claiming that she made unauthorized trips to Paris and Brussels “without any prior consultations with the government and informed it only after the trips, which confirms the president violated the Constitution with premeditated intent.”
The president has yet to publicly respond to her own government’s threat to sue her. Those around her insist that she has not been silenced, that her point has been made, and that her message of unity with Ukraine has not changed.
For a country that has its own memories of Russian invasion, the war in Ukraine is a tricky one to navigate. Russia already grabbed 20 percent of Georgia’s territory in that brief war, and it periodically nibbles away at more. For Georgia’s political opposition, the government’s overt appeasement of Moscow revealed its true “collaborationist” colors.
“In the last month a cascade of scandalous moves and statements have been made by the Georgian government, starting with the PM’s outrageous silence during Russian buildup, his despicable statements that Ukraine’s government has failed to ‘avert’ the war, and that the security assistance for Ukraine will not do any good,” said Giga Bokeria, a key figure in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. In 2017, Bokeria resigned from the United National Movement party, which had been in power from 2003 to 2012, and started a pro-Western opposition party.
For the government’s supporters, Georgia’s abandonment of Ukraine is a realist attempt to avoid conflict with an increasingly unpredictable Russia. Russian FSB security operatives, under the guise of forces from the breakaway region South Ossetia, are dangerously close to Georgia’s main east-west highway, which connects its capital to its ports. In one area, the administrative boundary line of Russian-occupied South Ossetia is less than 500 yards from the highway. Russian forces have also seized territory through which the Baku-Supsa pipeline passes. In a matter of hours, Russia could sever both the highway and the pipeline, leaving Georgia in a state of strategic paralysis.
“We have witnessed years of cultivating fear of confrontation with Russia coupled with the implied message that the only way to avoid it and survive is to accept [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin’s dominance, allowing Russian infiltration in the security apparatus and political system,” Bokeria said. “For nine years there has not been a single case of exposing Russian espionage or any subversive action. Meanwhile, openly pro-Putin groups have flourished, enjoying zero scrutiny and complete impunity for their violence against civil rights groups, media, minorities, and pro-Western political groups.”
A rift had been quietly growing between the Georgian president and the Georgian Dream government that put in her power in 2018 by funding her campaign. Though it publicly claimed that the presidency was an independent office, the Georgian Dream government expected complete loyalty. Her seemingly benign statements of solidarity with Ukraine put the Georgian presidency on a collision course with its own government, resulting in a campaign to silence her that has both highlighted and distracted from the Georgian government’s refusal to support Ukraine.
“The president has been outspoken in supporting Ukraine and urging all political parties to demonstrate unity around Georgia’s application for EU membership,” said Tamar Chugoshvili, a former first deputy speaker of Parliament and a high-profile defector from Georgia Dream. “She was courageous enough to address Parliament with the claim that all parties fail to prioritize national interests over their partisan agendas.” If Georgia Dream isn’t impeaching Zourabichvili, that’s only because it lacks the parliamentary votes to pull it off, she said.
On Thursday, bombastic former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had been charged and convicted in absentia for corruption and who was recently was arrested for illegally entering the country ahead of 2021 local elections, appeared in court in a bright blue and yellow shirt. (Disclosure: I acted as a media advisor to Saakashvili from 2009 to 2011.) “I am being tried here today for crossing the border [into Georgia],” the former president said. “She is being attacked for crossing the border [out of Georgia].” Saakashvili then invited Zourabichvili to go on hunger strike with him if she is jailed in the same prison.
The Georgian government has said that it is in fact supportive of Ukraine, despite its apparent stance. The Georgian Embassy in Washington issued a press release stating that Georgia “has used all available international forums to vocalize its support for the embattled country.”
Yet Georgia’s relationship with Putin is a cautionary tale. For a decade, Georgia’s ruling party has positioned itself as the sole party able to avoid the consequences that the Kremlin threatens. The larger the threat from Russia, the more powerful the government that avoids its wrath; the lack of conflict confirms the success of its leadership.
“Pro-government media has doubled down on the West’s failure to support Ukraine, and they have done so in the context that there is no other way but to accept Putin’s dominance in the region,” Bokeria said.
The unlikely emergence of a figure like Zelensky disrupts that dynamic. A viable alternative to quiet capitulation threatens the Georgian government even more than the enemy to which it has grown accustomed. If resistance is not futile, then why not resist?
“Ukraine’s war is Georgia’s war too,” Chugoshvili said. “This is what the vast majority of Georgians think. Ukraine deserves unambiguous support from us, which the Georgian government failed to provide, fueling public demonstrations.”