Tornike Sharashenidze, Professor at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, non-resident senior fellow of the Partnership for Social Initiatives (PSI)
Just about a week ago Georgia looked like just another post-Soviet country with its democracy in decline as its ruling party had all branches of power and most of the media sources under tight control. The economy almost stagnated with only tourism industry showing signs of growth, mostly at the expense of the Russian tourists. Then everything changed literally overnight after the visit of the Russian parliamentary delegation headed by an obscure communist Sergey Gavrilov sparkled furious protests shocking both Georgian and Russian authorities. The Gavrilov crisis may be considered the continuation of the transformation started first in Armenia, then continued by events in Moldova. Georgia, once hailed as champion of regional reforms, looked to be stuck while others moved ahead. It could not go on forever and something had to serve as a trigger.
The Georgian authorities were shocked because this time protests were not organized by the opposition. Since 2012 Georgian Dream (the ruling party led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili) managed to discredit protests because they were inspired or exploited by former president Saakashvili’s party who still has too many opponents in the country. Thanks to a very simple formula – Georgian Dream may not be good but Saakashvili is even worse – the ruling party stayed in power. With time winning elections was becoming increasingly difficult but with help of falsification and administrative resource this formula still worked. The Gavrilov protest turned everything upside down because it was brought together students and civil society – angry young people.
The Russian authorities were shocked because up to this moment Georgia looked to be accepting the consequences of the 2008 war. Since 2012 the bilateral ties normalized, Georgian businessmen rushed back into reopened Russian market and millions of Russian tourists visited Georgia. People to people relations looked to be more than cordial and it was wrongly assumed that Georgia was peacefully returning to the Russian sphere of influence at the same time accepting its punishment – losing Abkhazia and South Osetia. The Russian policymakers obviously did not realize that Georgians differentiated people to people relations from official relations – they welcomed ordinary Russians but they did not like official Moscow at all. Plus, since 2008 a new generation grew up in the country, the generation of the Russo-Georgian war for whom Russia is an aggressor.
As the angry people started to assemble in front of the parliament the Georgian Dream leaders, including Ivanishvili himself, hastily condemned the visit of the Russian delegation and behavior of Gavrilov (the protests started when he was seen presiding in the chair of speaker of the parliament). This fact further infuriated Moscow as never before Ivanishvili allowed himself to make critical statements about Russia. It hardly would happen had not Ivanishvili felt an existential threat from the protesters. Most probably this feeling made the Georgian Dream leaders lose their nerve and commit a fatal mistake – disperse the rally by force beating and maiming not a few people and arresting even more.
This decision backfired. Ever since April 9 of 1989 (when the Soviet army dispersed a peaceful rally in Tbilisi killing 19 people) Georgians are very sensitive about using force against people. Instead of getting frightened the next day (June 21) in response to the brutality more people assembled in front of the parliament. Resignation of the speaker of the parliament (accused of inviting someone like Gavrilov) did not help. It was too late. Now people demanded resignation of the minister of interior and changing election system to a fully proportional one from a mixed one (proportional plus majoritarian with the latter giving a huge handicap to a ruling party).
So, the protests continued and in parallel with making political demands the demonstrators chanted offensive songs against Russia as an aggressor and personally Putin. The Russian media immediately started to seek for „the American hand“ behind the protests. In response to this conspiracy theory it should be enough to state a simple fact that the US has no ambassador in Tbilisi since March 2018. But Moscow wants to see its relations vis-à-vis Georgia in the context of confrontation with the West and so the American hand is seen everywhere, like it was seen in the Arab Spring and, of course, in Maydan. The Russian media quickly switched from business as usual topics (like Ukraine, the US and gay parades in Europe) to Georgia. “Russophobia in Georgia,” “Georgian fascists,” “new CIA plot in Georgia…” some analysts went as far as linked the protests in Georgia to the US-Iranian showdown – the US is going to attack Iran and so it needs to deploy troops in Georgia.
In parallel new sanctions were hastily imposed on Georgia aimed at crippling the Georgian economy or at least intimidating Tbilisi. Indeed, official travel ban looks to be very dangerous as Russians account for about a third of tourists visiting Georgia. But at the same time discouraging Russians from travelling to Georgia (through land or alternative air routes) will not be so easy for the Russian leadership that is losing popularity back home. Plus, lately millions of Russians have traveled to Georgia and it will not be so easy to convince them that this country is a dangerous place for Russians (as it is portrayed by Russian propaganda). Everyone could see that even during the protests Russian tourists calmly walked in Tbilisi center and no one oppressed them. Lately tens of thousands of Russian citizens moved to Georgia (for various reasons that can be summed up into a single one – they prefer to live in a country like Georgia) and they protested against the Russian sanctions too thus bringing disunity in the anti-Georgian front.
Of course, Moscow could simply ignore the developments and wait until the protests with its anti-Putin chanting died away. But obviously the Russian authorities decided that Tbilisi protests created a dangerous precedent that could not go unpunished – in front of thousands of Russian tourists Georgians freely shouted offenses against the Kremlin and its formidable master. So, in response to the childish behavior of Georgian demonstrators official Moscow reacted clumsily. Everything that the Russian soft power achieved in Georgia since the removal of Saakashvili collapsed after imposing new sanctions. It remains to be seen how it will damage Georgian economy, but so far it has damaged only the image of Russia among Georgians and undermined positions of Georgian politicians and opinion makers seeking further normalization with Moscow.
Meanwhile caught in a fire between protests at home and threats from Moscow (at some moment Putin even put the Russian troops on high alert) the Georgian authorities agreed to more concessions, namely to fully proportional elections in 2020. Looks like the so called Gavrilov Crisis has benefited Georgian democracy that was struggling under the rule of Georgian Dream. By a sheer irony the so much needed new wave of democratization will be associated with the name of a Russian communist who complained to the Russian TV stations that in Tbilisi he was threatened by “people speaking English with an American accent.” Gavrilov probably arrived in Georgia with the intention of improving relations in his own way but it so turned out that he undermined what was achieved not only by the Russian soft power but also by moderates of both countries. Now official Moscow will find it difficult to raise sanctions without losing its face, at least in foreseeable future. Official Tbilisi in its turn will find very difficult to make any goodwill gestures toward Russia without angering its people (as it is widely accused of being pro-Russian).
The Gavrilov crisis may be considered the continuation of the transformation started first in Armenia, then continued by events in Moldova. Georgia, once hailed as champion of regional reforms, looked to be stuck while others moved ahead. It could not go on forever and something had to serve as a trigger.