Russia’s Clandestine Victory in Georgia

How Putin's Georgian Dream government is destroying democracy in Tbilisi

9 March 2023

The worrying developments in Georgia have revealed that although Russia is losing its military battlefront against Ukraine, it is winning its grey-zone operations against Georgia.

Protests have erupted in Georgia. Despite repeated warnings from democracy watchdogs, international partners and Georgian citizens, Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party passed a Kremlin-style “foreign agents” bill in its first reading on 7 March. The bill requires any organisation receiving more than 20 per cent of its funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence.”

First tested in Putin’s Russia in 2012, the law aims to silence, intimidate and surpass civil society. Immediately after the plenary session on the draft law began, tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi. Although protesters waving EU and Georgia flags were met with water cannons, pepper spray and tear gas, Georgians are not planning to stop protesting and demonstrating, as they always have, that “Georgia’s place is in Europe.”

High Stakes

Given Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, these developments in Georgia may feel like a distant headache for the country’s Western partners. After all, Georgian Dream’s years-long crusade against Georgia’s democracy has cost Georgia EU candidate status and transitioned the country from a front-runner in EU reforms to a problematic partner the EU no longer knows how to deal with.

Still, the political turmoil in Georgia is neither isolated nor unrelated to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Albeit on a different battlefield, the Kremlin is trying to bury Georgia’s democracy to the ground.

Instead of using military force, Putin uses his entrusted Georgian Dream government to do the job. Yet, Georgians continue to resist, and the more Georgia’s Western partners stand by the Georgian people and treat the ongoing developments as Russia’s grey-zone operation that the Kremlin is currently winning, the greater the chances that they can prevent a fatal outcome for the democracy and stability of Georgia and the entire region.

Russia’s Role in Georgia’s Democratic Downfall      

As Georgia was one of the first victims of Russia’s aggression, the Russian threat to Georgia’s democracy is nothing new. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, revealing that Putin would do everything to obstruct democracies from thriving in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood.

The Western world’s passivity following the 2008 war convinced Putin he could repeat the same in 2014 and 2022 in Ukraine.

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However, Russian aggression in Georgia has a different name and form today. In parallel to its creeping occupation of Georgia, the Kremlin is now using its entrusted oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to ensure Georgia is cut-off from its democratic path forever.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party, is a billionaire who has made his fortune in Russia. Coming to office following Georgia’s first peaceful transition of power in 2012, he has repeatedly advocated for restored relations with Russia and blamed Georgia for the 2008 war.

“I don’t think and can’t believe that Russia’s strategy is the occupation of territories of its neighbouring countries,” Ivanishvili said in an interview a few months after taking office.

Despite claiming to have sold his businesses in Russia after coming to Georgian politics, a recent report by Transparency International Georgia has revealed that Ivanishvili continues to own businesses in Russia through offshore entities. The same report found that Ivanishvili’s close relatives still do business with Western-sanctioned Kremlin affiliates, including former KGB General Poltavchenko and Kherianov (a husband of a Duma member Kovichko).

Naturally, Ivanishvili’s Kremlin ties have translated into Georgian politics. In 2019, the government allowed a Russian duma deputy to sit in the Georgian Parliament and lecture the audience in Russian about restoring relations between the two countries. The government dispersed the massive protest that followed with rubber bullets and rewarded the two Georgian Dream officials responsible for the so-called “Gavrilov’s night” by moving them to higher positions.

In 2020, Georgian Dream cancelled a US-funded project to build a deep-sea port in Anaklia that had the perspective of transforming Georgia into an international trading hub. Eventually, they announced the project would be revived, but with a 51 per cent share given to the state and a portion allegedly (YouTube) going to Ivanishvili’s entrusted businessman in Russia. This same company in Russia has supported Assad’s regime with telecommunication services after his use of chemical weapons.

Ukraine War Lifts the Veil of Ignorance 

While realists could initially justify Georgian Dream’s flirtations with the Kremlin as a tiny country being cautious in angering its giant, aggressive neighbour, Georgian Dream’s actions following Russia’s war against Ukraine have proven that its policies and actions are not guided by realpolitik.

After the beginning of Russia’s war, Georgia’s Prime Minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, quickly announced that Georgia would not join the Western world’s sanctions against Russia and blamed Ukraine for not being able to “avoid” war with Russia.

Soon after, the Georgian Parliament passed a resolution supporting Ukraine without mentioning Russia as an aggressor. Since then, Ukraine’s intelligence reports have revealed that Georgia is helping Russia evade sanctions, a claim that is further solidified by the tripling of cargo shipments between Russia and Turkey that pass through Georgia.

While the Georgian government has opened its border to Kremlin propagandists and Russians fleeing mobilisation – and over 17,000 Russian companies have registered in Georgia since the beginning of the invasion – it has denied entry to multiple Russian opposition-minded politicians and journalists attempting to escape Putin.

After Russia enhanced aggression against Ukraine in 2022, the Georgian Dream government sabotaged a historic window of opportunity to get Georgia EU candidate status.

Although the government followed Moldova and Ukraine’s path and formally applied for EU candidacy after massive protests in Tbilisi, Georgian Dream pursued its non-democratic tendencies in a number of recent moves.

Just weeks before the Council announced its final decision, Georgian authorities arrested the head of the largest government-critical TV channel, Nika Gvaramia.

Unlike Ukraine and Moldova which received candidate status, Georgia was presented with a “European perspective” and 12 recommendations it could follow to receive candidacy. Instead of following these 12 recommendations, the government has allegedly poisoned Georgia’s third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in prison and confirmed it would be voting in favour of the above-mentioned Kremlin-style “foreign agents” law aimed at suppressing civil society.

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While the EU has repeatedly warned that Gvaramia in jail, the ill-treatment of Saakashvili and the foreign-agents law lessened the chances of Georgia’s EU future, the government has not changed its course. On the contrary, the Georgian Dream government has now begun explicitly and repeatedly attacking Georgia’s Western partners, blaming them for attempting to “drag” Georgia into the “war” or accusing them of being “lobbyists” of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, has praised Georgian Dream for its actions. In January 2023, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov applauded the Georgian government’s “courage” to “resist Western pressure.”

Signalling at Zelenskyy, Putin’s propagandist Zakharova also lauded that “the fate of Saakashvili will be shared by all those who have sold their lives to Americans.” Following his violent transfer from prison to a hospital in 2021, a report by a US-based doctor now reveals that heavy metals have been found in Saakashvili’s body, which indicates poisoning. Saakashvili has lost over 100 pounds and has been diagnosed with anorexia. Yet, the Court has recently refused the appeal to release him on humanitarian grounds.

It seems that Putin, who has despised Saakashvili for leading Georgia on its Euro-Atlantic path, is getting exactly what he wanted in Georgia with his favoured Georgian Dream government.

Information Warfare: Georgian Dream’s Most Powerful Instrument

Given the Georgian public’s overwhelmingly pro-Western stance and defiance of Russia, the country’s democratic backsliding led by a Russia-linked oligarch Ivanishvili may seem puzzling from the outside.

Yet, it is exactly Russia’s ability to infiltrate Georgian politics and subvert Georgia’s democracy despite the Georgian public’s resistance to Russia that reveals the sophistication and danger of the Kremlin’s grey-zone operations.

Until recently – when the ruling Georgian Dream party’s rhetoric and actions have made it too obvious to deny – there was no consensus amongst the Georgian public or Georgia’s Western partners that Putin’s playbook guided Georgian Dream’s actions. By persecuting critical-media representatives, operating troll factories and supporting pro-government “independent” TV channels, Georgian Dream has managed to practically monopolise the information discourse in the country and maintain a democratic image despite its illiberal and Kremlin-style policies.

Before Russia’s war against Ukraine, Georgian Dream invested most of its resources in promoting the narratives that it was leading Georgia towards Europe, and Saakashvili and his UNM government are the main sources of everything wrong in Georgian society. Given Georgia’s visa liberalisation with the EU in 2016 and the existing discontents and divisions over Saakashvili, both narratives had some basis of truth in them. Yet, Saakashvili has not been in power for twelve years and is now dying in prison. The current government’s commitment to the EU has remained merely a narrative (even the anti-discrimination bill that paved the way to Georgia’s visa liberalisation with the EU has never been enforced.)

However, the revelations of the EU’s refusal to grant Georgia candidate status and allegations that Georgian Dream has been helping Russia evade sanctions could not be justified by blaming Saakashvili. And so, a new and even more worrying narrative has emerged amongst the ruling party.

According to the latest narrative, the West is trying to “push Georgia into war” while the Georgian Dream government is attempting to maintain “peace”. With Viktor Orban promoting the same rhetoric in Hungary, it is clear that this is the Kremlin’s new disinformation campaign aimed at turning people against the West and in favour of “peace” on Russian terms.

Even if they are not always taken at face value, Georgian Dream’s dominance of the information channels in Georgia has created numerous different “truths” that have distorted the ability of many citizens to see the difference between black and white. This, in turn, has led many citizens into apathy and inaction.

Furthermore, the Kremlin’s ability to subvert Georgian democracy despite the public’s resistance to Russia and support for the EU has revealed that it may also get away with similar attempts in other countries. And, as Maia Sandu has revealed recently, Moldova is the next country that the Kremlin may have its eyes on.

Georgia’s Route Forward          

Unlike in most countries of the Eastern Partnership, the EU has great leverage in Georgia given the public and political establishments’ unwavering support of the country’s European future. Indeed, the EU has been attempting to use this influence by having Charles Michel mediate a major political deadlock in the country and giving Georgia another chance at EU candidacy with its 12 recommendations.

However, as Georgian Dream is clearly not planning to follow the recommendations, the EU needs to turn to different instruments to counter Russia’s authoritarianism in Georgia. As the European Parliament has suggested twice already, the most powerful instrument the EU can turn to is targeted sanctions against Ivanishvili and his associates whose ties to and support of Russia’s war crimes have become crystal clear.

Following Georgian Dream deputies’ support for the “foreign agents law” in the first hearing, the EU and the US should also extend sanctions to each Member of Parliament who has voted in favour of the law. In the meantime, the West can do more to empower the political establishment in Georgia which is, albeit divided and discredited, overwhelmingly pro-Western.

By sanctioning Ivanishvili and his associates, the EU should also ensure that it does not lose the public’s overwhelming support for Georgia’s European integration by keeping Georgia’s door to the EU open.

Georgian citizens are proudly waving EU flags while being met with water cannons and tear gas, and it is more important than ever that these people know that the European Union stands with them. While the EU should not give Georgia candidate status under the current government as it would legitimise Georgian Dream’s authoritarian turn, it should make explicit that the road to Georgia’s EU candidacy is tangible and close once the oligarch Ivanishvili’s government is out of power – much like it did with Slovakia in 1997.

Given Georgia’s strategic significance as a corridor between Europe and Asia and as a former democratiser in the region, a Kremlin victory would not only be a disaster for Georgia but also for the entire Western world. Therefore, together with supporting Ukraine in winning the war against Russia, it is vital that the West also helps Georgia defeat Russia in the Kremlin’s hybrid war against the country.


Featured image: Kober, Ukraine solidarity protests in Tbilisi, Georgia 26.02.2022 08, CC BY-SA 4.0

Anastasia Mgaloblishvili

Anastasia Mgaloblishvili is a Doctoral Researcher at the Berlin Graduate School for Global and Transregional Studies, researching how semi-authoritarian regimes abuse EU democracy promotion to consolidate authoritarian rule. She has previously worked in Georgia’s pro-Western political movement Droa as a foreign relations coordinator and in the German Marshall Fund of the US as a Program Assistant trainee."

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