Apr 16, 2014 | 09:04 GMT

6 mins read

Unrest in Georgia Could Hamper Western Integration Efforts


Russian and Georgian diplomats Grigory Karasin and Zurab Abashidze will meet April 16 as tensions between the two countries, and between Moscow and the West more generally, continue rising. Demonstrations were held in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on April 13 against Russian actions in Ukraine and alleged pro-Russian forces operating in Georgia. These protests follow recent controversial allegations by Georgian Interior Minister Alexander Tchikaidze that the opposition United National Movement party is attempting to organize groups in order to provoke "Kiev-style" unrest in the country.

As the standoff between Russia and the West continues in Ukraine, Moscow has looked to fuel pro-Russian and anti-Western movements and protest groups across the former Soviet periphery. It is unlikely that Georgia will see a Ukrainian style-uprising in the near future, but the country's domestic political rifts — combined with Russian pressure elsewhere in breakaway or autonomous-minded territories — will serve as a significant stumbling block toward Tbilisi's efforts at closer integration with the European Union and NATO.

Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, is among the former Soviet countries currently seeking closer ties with the West. Like Moldova, Georgia recently initialed key EU association and free trade agreements and plans to sign the agreements by June. The Georgian government has also openly backed the country's accession into NATO, which even the governments in Ukraine and Moldova have shied away from.

In response to these moves toward Western integration, Russia has pressured Georgia using tactics similar to those employed against the Western-oriented governments in Ukraine and Moldova. One of these pressure tactics has been the organization of demonstrations in these countries supporting Moscow and condemning any moves to get closer to the West. Such protests have been held in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau and have spread throughout eastern Ukraine, growing to include the armed occupations of regional administration and security buildings in the latter case.

However, in Georgia's case, these pro-Russian demonstrations have so far been marginal. Pro-Russian rallies were held on March 15, 24 and 27, but only a few dozen people participated in each. In the first two rallies, organized by the groups Eurasian Choice and Eurasia Institute, respectively, demonstrators were met by anti-Russian protesters, and minor clashes between opposing sides ensued. Given that Georgia recently fought a war with Russia over its NATO integration aspirations, the appetite for pro-Russian support is much weaker there than in Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia also has a much smaller ethnic Russian population than Ukraine — 5 percent, compared to more than 17 percent in Ukraine.

Georgia and Russia

Georgia and Russia

Ingredients for Unrest

But while the pro-Russian political support in Georgia is quite small and the majority of the population supports the country's orientation toward NATO and the European Union, there are conditions that could lead to larger demonstrations against the government. The country recently saw a major political shake-up with the emergence of the Georgian Dream movement, initiated by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. The Georgian Dream coalition ended the 10-year monopoly on power held by former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement party in the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections. Georgian Dream's consolidation of power has created substantial friction with the United National Movement, especially because several key United National Movement figures (including Saakashvili, who is now in the United States) have been detained or targeted by the government.

In this context, it is notable that Tchikaidze said that the country faces a threat of growing demonstrations akin to those that occurred during the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine. In an April 7 interview with Georgian weekly newspaper Prime Time, Tchikaidze said that the United National Movement could try to destabilize the country and overthrow the government, and accused the party of purchasing tires in order to use them for barricades in street demonstrations like those seen in Kiev. He also said that Euromaidan activists were in Georgia "holding trainings and preparatory works."

United National Movement members have denied these statements, with parliament members from the party calling the allegations "absurd" and others saying that the party will summon Tchikaidze to a parliamentary hearing to deliver concrete facts about these allegations. Even certain members of the ruling Georgian Dream party have distanced themselves from the statements, including parliament member Tina Khidasheli, who said she does not view such comments as serious and that there is "no political force in the country capable of staging such destabilization." For his part, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has not given any further details on the information, instead stating that it was up to the interior minister to assess threats of instability.

While the veracity of Tchikaidze's statements is currently unclear, such allegations are at the very least meant as a warning for the United National Movement not to take provocative actions against the government in the future. The United National Movement certainly does not represent a threat to Georgia's Western integration efforts; if anything, the party has criticized the Georgian Dream government for not pushing for NATO accession aggressively enough, especially in reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama's comments that there are no current plans to accept Georgia into NATO.

And though the Georgian Dream government did initially improve ties with Russia upon coming into power, the government's continued policy of EU and NATO integration and Russia's continued occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have prevented a broader normalization of ties between the two countries. Therefore, Georgia does not face the same kind of deep divisions over its foreign policy orientation as Ukraine, which laid the foundation for the Euromaidan movement and the current clashes between Western-oriented and Russian-oriented forces in the country.

Russia's Potential Moves

However, this does not preclude potential Russian involvement with various activist groups in Georgia, even if they do represent fringe elements within the country. Russia also has an interest in sowing discord within Georgia's political establishment, which means it could indirectly support groups that are not necessarily pro-Russian in their ideology. Any demonstrations that distract the government or could pose a challenge to its legitimacy, such as those alleged to be organized by the United National Movement, ultimately could benefit Moscow as it weakens Tbilisi and attempts to undermine Georgia's Western integration efforts. Indeed, the most recent anti-Russian protests on April 13, organized by a group called Iveria and attended by several members of the United National Movement, also criticized the Georgian government.

Meanwhile, Russia has other levers to use in dissuading Georgia's Western integration drive. As it has done elsewhere in its former Soviet periphery, Russia has been holding military exercises in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which host Russian troops. There are also unconfirmed reports that Russia has been handing out passports to ethnic Armenians in the autonomous-minded Samtskhe-Javakheti province, much like it did in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the war. Such moves — or even the threat of such actions — are designed to undermine Georgia's plans to get closer to the European Union and NATO. Further protests in the country, even if they are draped in local politics as opposed to a pro-Russian campaign, could be an added lever for Moscow to use in trying to achieve its goal.

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