Georgia’s Tricky Balancing Act
December 6, 2022
  • Giorgi Masalkini
    Political scientist, Batumi State University, Georgia. 
Giorgi Masalkini analyzes the reaction of Georgian society to the influx of Russian emigrants and explains why Georgia's stance on the war in Ukraine often looks inconsistent and wavering.
Russian men seeking to dodge mobilization, at the Georgian border, September 2022. Photo from personal archive
Currently, the policy of the Georgian authorities is maneuvering between mostly pro-Ukraine public opinion and support for Western policies inside the country, on the one hand, and the risks of a renewed conflict with Russia and the national economic problems, on the other.

Georgia and Russian emigrants

The huge influx of Russians to the main cities in Georgia is advantageous for part of the national economy: banks, the service sector (restaurants, shops, hotels, tourism), taxi drivers and transportation; those who are renting out apartments and office space; and the construction business (real estate prices have jumped).

Although there is no sociological data on it, pro-Ukraine sentiment predominates across society as a whole, and the presence of Russian emigrants has likely played a role. In a popular Agrohub supermarket in Batumi that I visited the other day, the vast majority of customers were Russian. It is the same at other large supermarkets. There is a Soviet joke about how a Georgian teenager in the resort town of Kobuleti, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, replies that he would like to be a vacationer, because they have a lot of free time and money, are well dressed and eat out at restaurants. Something similar is playing out now, as it is mostly Russians of the IT generation who have come to Georgia – they can work online and have sufficient funds to sit out the war or even settle in the country. They look modern and successful, open offices and trendy cafes and bars; they are frequent visitors of restaurants. Queues have popped up at some Batumi restaurants, which never happened before. Tbilisi is seeing much of the same.

The fact that almost all the customers of supermarkets and the clientele of restaurants are Russian irritates those Georgians who see them as representatives of the aggressor country, as well as a significant part of the population whose standard of living is much lower than that of the Russian emigrants.

A joke went around Georgian social networks that, when finally approached by a Georgian customer, a cashier at a supermarket burst into tears and even sang a Georgian folk song with the man. (The other day, the same joke but with Armenian characters and an Armenian supermarket was told to me by a friend from Yerevan!)
Besides the rising prices for food, housing, etc. – which are at least somewhat due to the influx of Russians – there are concerns that Russian emigrants are taking jobs away from Georgians.

Naturally, Georgians’ views are also shaped by the memory of the recent wars in Abkhazia and Ossetia, as well as the issue of refugees (people forced to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and the consequences of the 2008 war, including the occupation of some Georgian territory and the Russian policy of "borderization” (when new borders are erected by rolling out “border infrastructure” like barriers, barbed wire, signs, etc.) around the occupied territory of South Ossetia.

Friction and risks

The Georgian government does not yet seem to have a strategy for building relations with Russian refugees/emigrants. The problem is too new, too complex and too delicate, and depends very much on how events unfold in Ukraine.

The tense situation that has developed in Georgia creates the risk of a social explosion, like in 1989 in the Uzbek SSR, for example, when riots broke out between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks "over a plate of strawberries." Any offense, any transgression, any inconvenience that we are inclined to forgive a compatriot, when it is someone from another country or of another nationality in question, triggers hostility and aggression.

Russians and other foreigners began to buy real estate in Tbilisi and Batumi long before the February events. It was mostly Muscovites, but Ukrainians and Belarusians were also active in the market. The practice was to bring them down on short tours that blended tourism and entertainment with real estate purchases.

In Batumi, there is an area known as "New Boulevard" (the continuation of the "Old Boulevard" along the seashore), which is being feverishly developed, where the majority of the inhabitants aren’t Georgian and the Russian language predominates. The local population speaks with them, as well as with Ukrainians and Belarusians, in Russian. In addition, Russians (and sometimes Belarusians) often pretend to be refugees from Ukraine, knowing that Georgians will be friendlier to them.

Thus far, the Russian emigrants haven’t acted as an organized group, but tensions between Russians and Georgians have arisen concerning schooling for children and intercultural communication in particular. In recent years, a generation has grown up in Georgia for whom Russia isn’t a center of gravity or a source of nostalgia. 
"Moreover, Georgian youth often see Russia as an alien and aggressive country, both politically and culturally."
While the first wave of emigrants who came to Georgia after the invasion of Ukraine was mainly educated Russians who opposed the Kremlin and generally didn’t arouse resentment, among the autumn wave of mobilization-dodgers there are many who are fine with Putin as long as they don’t have to risk their life for him.

Friction is inevitable when dealing with this second wave.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian politician, billionaire, former PM and founder of the Georgian Dream party. Source: Wiki Commons
The war in Ukraine and Georgian politics

The war in Ukraine has also intensified Georgia's position on the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Hotheads have appeared offering to resolve both conflicts by force while attention is diverted (like what Azerbaijan is doing in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh). However, the idea of an armed solution has failed to find support among the political elite, the Georgian expert community and society as a whole.

The Georgian authorities have generally maintained a pro-Western line and supported the decisions of the Western bloc, which has condemned Russia's aggression in Ukraine. However, the ruling Georgian Dream party (the creation of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili) has led the opposition – above all, the radical part as represented by United National Movement (Mikheil Saakashvili’s party), the largest opposition force – and part of society to doubt how genuine Georgia’s stance is. Comments by the highest state officials about the events in Ukraine, especially in the first months of the war, gave reason for these doubts. In particular, PM Irakli Garibashvili said in April that Georgia wouldn’t join the sanctions against Russia and that “sanctions aren’t an effective means” to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Another reason for the opposition’s suspicions is the figure of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling party, most powerful person in Georgia and former PM, who made his billions in Russia and perhaps has some remaining links to Russia.

Overall, the Georgian opposition is very weak currently and can’t always formulate criticism of the government.
"It interprets the cautious and sometimes confusing official stance on Ukraine as proof of the pro-Russian sympathies of the country's leadership."
The opposition has managed to take advantage of major blunders by the authorities, like when a leading journalist from TV Rain was denied entry into Georgia, or when the Tbilisi concerts of the Russian rock bands Mashina Vremeni and DDT, which had condemned the war in Ukraine, were cancelled. Meanwhile, the not-always-diplomatic comments of certain Ukrainian politicians regarding Georgia’s stance irritated a certain part of society, while the opposition has used those comments to criticize the government. For example, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the policy of Georgia’s “pro-Russia government” represented a “huge problem” for Georgian national security. Mikhail Podolyak, another Ukrainian presidential adviser, said that “if the Georgian government doesn’t change its tone, it is risking international isolation.”

Sources of pro-Russia sentiment

One shouldn’t ignore the pro-Russian sentiment that is shared by certain Georgian constituencies (mostly older people) for whom the Russian narrative, with its nostalgia for everything Soviet, is understandable and perceived with greater ease than the Western one. It is people who are generally dissatisfied with the situation in the country and frightened by war – both the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 and the current war in Ukraine. For them, Russian official rhetoric provides simple answers to complex questions about how relations between the countries should be.

While any consistent pro-Russia policy is hardly possible in a country where 20% of the territory is occupied by Russia, a set of well-known theses continue to work on this group: Europe is far away, Russia is close; NATO won’t risk a war with Russia to save Georgia; Russia and Georgia are Orthodox nations; peoples are losing their national identity in Europe; and so on.

The anti-Western stance of Voice of the People, a new political force, is often covered up with “pro-Georgia” rhetoric, which boils down to Georgia looking out for its own interests, not those of the West or Russia. The movement – consisting mostly of deputies from various levels who defected from the ruling party – is not perceived as being independent and is seen by many as an unofficial mouthpiece of the regime, which is trying to maneuver, partly supporting Ukraine and the West while trying not to irritate Russia.

The anti-Western rhetoric got a boost when Georgia was denied candidate status for the EU, even though Ukraine and Moldova got it. The hope for getting that status had warmed up pro-Europe sentiment in society, but now the rejection has triggered feelings of resentment and disappointment toward Europe and a European future.
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