Having your cake and eating it. Georgia, the war in Ukraine and integration with the West
Center Of Eastern Studies 09.06.2022 13:24
Georgia’s reaction to the war in Ukraine can be called ambivalent. Although Tbilisi condemned the aggression, it has not joined the anti-Russian sanctions. Indeed, according to Kyiv, Georgia has been violating them and allowing Russia to circumvent them, although so far there is no hard evidence of this. Georgia’s stance of ‘benevolent neutrality’ towards the aggressor may be partly explained by the fear of a Russian threat; objectively, however, this stance means de facto support for Moscow. In the context of the cooling of relations between Georgia and the West (i.e. the EU & US) observed over the last few years, this raises the question of whether Tbilisi is not carrying out a creeping reorientation of its foreign policy from pro-Western to pro-Russian – something which the Georgian opposition has accused the government of doing. It seems that although at the moment there is no question of a deliberate geopolitical shift, the drift towards Moscow is setting a new tone, and it is becoming increasingly inconvenient for Washington and Brussels to support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
On the rhetorical level, Tbilisi’s main priority is still accession to the EU and NATO: in early March Georgia applied for EU membership, together with Ukraine and Moldova. It should be assumed that the Georgian government is being guided by an extreme pragmatism, which in many cases takes the form of open cynicism. The Georgian Dream party, which has been ruling the country since 2012, does not want to bear the social or political costs of reforms (which would risk it losing power), as it realises that integration with the institutional West is not very realistic in the foreseeable future. Cooperating with internationally isolated Russia may bring specific benefits for Tbilisi and is in line with the expectations of the Georgian public, which on the one hand is mostly supportive of Euro-Atlantic integration, while on the other is afraid of Russia and favours maintaining dialogue with Moscow. For these reasons – and also due to the weakness of the opposition – a change of government in Georgia and the return to power of clearly pro-Western forces seem unlikely at present. The strong ties between the Georgian opposition (including former president Mikheil Saakashvili), and the Ukrainian government are an important cause of the cool relations between Tbilisi and Kyiv.
Tbilisi’s double game
In response to the Russian invasion, the president, the prime minister and the head of parliament of Georgia declared their solidarity with Ukraine: the prime minister condemned Moscow’s actions and called for de-escalation, and the president called the events a joint tragedy for Ukraine and Georgia. Despite these initial reactions (subsequent ones, especially from the prime minister, were already more subdued), Tbilisi did not join the anti-Russian sanctions announced by Western states and institutions. This was allegedly done to avoid drawing the country into an armed conflict: a scenario in which Georgia becomes the next target of a Russian attack is not implausible in the light of the experience of the war between the two countries in 2008 – and the costs for the economy (e.g. tourism), which was already weakened after the pandemic, would be too high. Over the following weeks, Georgia’s attitude towards the war (and towards defending Ukraine) became even more ambivalent.
On one hand, Tbilisi spoke out in favour of punishing the aggressor, showing solidarity with Kyiv. On 7 April, Georgia voted in the UN General Assembly to suspend Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Council; on 5 May Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili took part in a conference of donors to Ukraine held in Warsaw, and presented data on the aid Georgia had provided; and President Salome Zurabishvili has emphasised the community of fate that binds both countries in numerous speeches and interviews (the president was elected with the support of the ruling Georgian Dream but is not a member of this party; her position has remained clearly pro-Ukrainian, which is why it often diverges from that of the government). It should also be mentioned that (following Ukraine) on 3 March Georgia and Moldova officially applied for EU membership. On the other, however, Tbilisi has also made a number of friendly gestures towards Russia; for example, it denied permission to take off to a charter flight which Georgian volunteers wanted to use to travel to Ukrainian territory in the first days of the war. The speaker of the Georgian parliament was only able to visit Ukraine thanks to pressure from the opposition, which also sent a separate delegation itself.
Georgia has regularly been accused (above all by the government in Kyiv) of violating sanctions and allowing Russia to circumvent them, although there is no convincing evidence that this is the case. Tbilisi rejects these accusations outright, and maintains that although it has not formally introduced any sanctions, it does respect the internationally accepted arrangements. In a statement from the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine at the beginning of April, it was stated that channels for transporting goods to Russia which are subject to sanctions are being established in Georgia, including military and dual-purpose items, and that “Georgian secret service officers have been instructed by the country’s political leadership not to interfere with the activities of smugglers”. In response, the State Security Service of Georgia, referring to bilateral information exchange agreements, asked Kyiv to provide evidence of such a practice. On 1 May, the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence renewed the accusations, stating this time that Russia is in talks with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to re-export sanctioned Russian products to world markets via these three countries. Tbilisi has also denied this accusation: the Ukrainian chargé d’affaires was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked for an explanation, and the Georgian finance minister argued that re-exporting in this form was not possible due to international monitoring systems. On 20 May, the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Administration, Andriy Yermak, said in an online interview organised by the Atlantic Council and published on its YouTube channel that Georgia is on the blacklist of countries that are helping Russia to bypass the sanctions. Yermak said that influential Georgian businessmen who own shares of Russian companies are involved in this, but he did not provide any specific data.
On one hand, it can be concluded from the frequency and gravity of the accusations made against Tbilisi that attempts to violate the sanctions regime are indeed taking place. One clue to this may be the fact that since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the number of newly registered companies in Georgia has risen by 70% (although this is probably also related to the activity of Russian and Belarusian citizens who oppose the Kremlin’s policy and have decided to settle in this country). Regardless of this, Georgia is actually intensifying its economic contacts with Russia. In the first four months of 2022, imports from Russia to Georgia rose by 27% (compared to the same period in 2021; Georgian exports have fallen by 0.4%). In recent years, the Georgian economy’s dependence on its northern neighbour has increased noticeably in various areas, including energy. According to a report in this March from Transparency International Georgia, in 2021, for example, over 23% of the gas Georgia imports (in 2018 it was just 2.8%) and as much as 94% of its wheat came from Russia. On the other hand, some EU countries have also become dependent on Russian raw materials, and the Ukrainian accusations may be intended as a warning, portraying not so much real incidents of abuse as the potential for them to occur (it should be remembered that for Kyiv, expanding and tightening the sanctions imposed on Russia are a raison d’état). Even on this basis, however, it must be stated that the kind of double game which Georgia is playing is weakening the anti-Russian front, which in the situation of Moscow’s international isolation constitutes a de facto declaration of ‘benevolent neutrality’ towards the aggressor. This has been confirmed by the compliments Russian politicians have paid to Tbilisi.
Full article: Having your cake and eating it. Georgia, the war in Ukraine and integration with the West (osw.waw.pl)