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Georgians Dream of EU Membership as Their Leaders Move Closer to Putin

Around the Georgian village of Khurvaleti, Russia’s occupation can creep forward a few yards at a time, often in the middle of the night. It often starts with a line ploughed across a field. Then a green sign will materialise, warning people not to cross. Then the concertina wire appears.

Khurvaleti is at the southern edge of South Ossetia, a breakaway region occupied by Russian troops since a five-day war with Georgia in 2008, in what proved to be a dress rehearsal for Ukraine. Now on the defensive after Putin’s botched Ukraine invasion, Moscow has shifted troops and equipment from Ossetia.

There are few soldiers to be seen in the two military bases built in the hills on either side of Khurvaleti. But Georgians fear that if Russia were to prevail in Ukraine, Putin’s forces will be back to take another bite out of Georgia, most likely with the intention of swallowing the country whole.

For now, the line marking the extent of Russian occupation is watched by EU monitors who patrol in dark blue Toyotas, looking for new signs of “borderisation”, their word for the steady hardening of boundaries.

“Usually it starts with soft borderisation: ditches, ribbons on trees that show demarcation between the two different sites,” said Klaas Maes, a spokesperson for the monitoring mission. “Then it goes on to hard borderisation, where the ditches become fences, the fences become barbed wire, and then barbed wires are then fortified with extra watchtowers.”

Five years ago, the inhabitants of Khurvaleti woke to find their village had been cut in two by a wire fence, and then later, a watchtower was built to guard the barrier. Villagers were suddenly separated from family, friends and their own land. Where there is now fence, the dividing line is enforced by fines and sometimes lengthy prison sentences. The nearest crossing point is 30 miles (50km) away and open 10 days a month. A visit to a relative or friend on the other side of the line now involves a 200km round trip.

If the Russians did strike from South Ossetia, they could cut Georgia’s main east-west highway in a few minutes, and be in Tbilisi within a couple of hours. With Moscow’s troops bogged down in Ukraine, however, the appearance of Russian tanks on the streets of the capital is not an immediate threat. But many Georgians fear that Russia is already taking over their country by stealth, stealing their sovereignty and democracy from under the noses of an overwhelmingly pro-western population.

A sign in Khurvaleti warning people not to cross the ‘state border’.
A sign in Khurvaleti warning people not to cross the ‘state border’. Photograph: Zuma Press Inc/Alamy

Opposition parties and civil society activists say the vehicle for this takeover is being carried out by the country’s own ruling party, Georgian Dream, which is ostensibly pursuing EU membership, while turning further towards Moscow.

Earlier this month, direct flights were resumed between the two countries after a four-year break, just when the US and Europe are seeking to isolate Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. One of the first flights brought the daughter of the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, whom the Georgian authorities allowed in at a time when they have been increasingly barred entry to Russian opposition activists. Yekaterina Vinokurova and her husband had come for a wedding, but protesters picketed their hotel and they were ultimately forced to leave, though not before they had highlighted the rift between the government and the people over relations with Russia.

An independent advocacy group for press freedom, Open Caucasus Media, analysed the rhetoric of the Georgian Dream chair, Irakli Kobakhidze, over the first five months of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, and found 57 negative remarks about the west, 26 about Ukraine, and only nine comments critical of Russia.

Irakli Garibashvili.
Irakli Garibashvili has accused the European parliament of trying ‘to drag Georgia into the war against Russia’. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Officially, the ruling party is pursuing a Euro-Atlantic future, an aspirant Nato member that is also working to respond to 12 reform recommendations from the European Commission before a decision in December on whether Georgia should be given EU candidate membership status. At the same time, party leaders have adopted rhetoric certain to alienate the alliance and Brussels.

In April, the prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, met Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, in Brussels, declaring: “Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspiration remains our top foreign policy priority.” Just over a month later, he shocked a security conference in Bratislava by blaming Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Kyiv’s own aspirations for Nato membership.

Garibashvili said: “One of the reasons was Ukraine’s will and determination to become a member of Nato. Therefore, we see the consequences.”

At the same time, the prime minister has accused the European parliament of trying “to drag Georgia into the war against Russia”. Garibashvili attended a gathering of US and European far-right leaders this month in Budapest, denouncing what he called “LGBTQ+ propaganda” and defining the family as “a union between a man and a woman”. The defence minister, Juansher Burchuladze, has called liberalism a threat to Georgian security and sovereignty.

“It is not just a rhetorical semblance between the Kremlin messaging and Georgian Dream messaging; it’s also actions that … further Kremlin’s goals in Georgia,” said Tinatin Bokuchava, an MP from the opposition United National Movement. “Along with the erosion of pro-western sentiments is the erosion of Georgia’s democratic institutions, and that is a direct guarantee of preventing Georgia from ever becoming a member of the EU or Nato.”

The country’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili has been hospitalised while serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power while in office, the result, his aides claim, of torture and poisoning. The European parliament has called for his release, deeming his imprisonment to be a “personal vendetta”, but the government has ignored those appeals.

The top ranks of the judiciary, known as the “clan” in Georgia, are widely seen as being in the pocket of the ruling party, and four senior serving and former judges were sanctioned by the US last month for corruption.

People stage a demonstration against the bill on foreign influence transparency in Tbilisi on 9 March.
People stage a demonstration against the bill on foreign influence transparency in Tbilisi on 9 March. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Street protests in March forced the government to shelve a bill that would have classed NGOs and civil society groups with funding from abroad as “foreign agents”, a particularly loaded term in Georgia, redolent of espionage. A similar law in Putin’s Russia was a precursor to a string of human and civil rights organisations being shut down.

Despite that temporary opposition victory, press freedom continues to corrode in Georgia. The governing party refuses to talk to any media deemed to be critical. Parliamentary rules are now being enforced that strip accreditation from any journalists for repeating a question that an MP has previously refused to answer. Owners and senior journalists on opposition-aligned television channels have found themselves the target of a string of draining lawsuits.

Nika Gvaramia, a director and talkshow host on a critical TV channel, was sentenced in 2022 to three and a half years in prison for “abuse of power”, largely for using a company car for private purposes at a previous TV job. It was a judgment that Transparency International declared politically motivated, designed “to punish Nika Gvaramia and disrupt the activities of a critical media outlet”.

There is still a government-run Nato and EU information centre on Tbilisi’s Liberty Square flying the blue flags of both organisations, but it has stopped putting on public advocacy events, confining itself recently to more technical functions. Its front door is permanently closed and a flower seller has taken up a position on its doorstep.

Georgia Dream’s critics say the building is an apt metaphor for the government’s policy: maintaining a pro-western facade while hollowing out the substance within.

For now, the facade is essential, civil society activists say, as there are elections next year in a country where more than 80% of the electorate support EU membership. But ultimately, they insist, the party is answerable just to one man, its billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili’s wealth, an estimated $5bn made in metals and banking in Russia, is equivalent to more than a quarter of Georgia’s GDP. After leading a movement to oust Saakashvili in 2012, he stepped down as prime minister in 2013. But he continues to wield powerful influence over the country. Garibashvili, the current prime minister, was a longstanding Ivanishvili employee, starting off in his construction business and rising to run his charitable foundation and sit on the board of his bank. The interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, used to be chief of the oligarch’s bodyguards. The head of state security, Grigol Liluashvili, held senior positions in a string of Ivanishvili companies.

The tycoon looks down on Tbilisi from a modernist glass and steel mansion. At his summer residence on the Black Sea he keeps a menagerie that includes sharks, zebras, penguins, flamingos and parrots. An adjoining park has been planted with a wide variety of mature trees uprooted around the country, and brought by barge to his estate. No one knows the extent to which he is beholden to Putin, but Kremlin-watchers point out that it is hard for oligarchs to take their money out of Russia without doing a deal with the Kremlin.

“We are basically a one-man-dominated political system, where the oligarch Ivanishvili is basically fine-tuning everything,” Irakli Porchkhidze, the co-founder and vice-president of the Georgian Institute for Strategic Studies, said.

View of the compound of the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili above Tbilisi, Georgia.
View of the compound of the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili above Tbilisi, Georgia.Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance Archive/Alamy

Nikoloz Samkharadze, a senior Georgian Dream official who chairs the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, rejected the suggestion that the party is merely Ivanishvili’s personal project.

“I don’t know him personally,” Samkharadze said. “Of course, there are some who still have links, or who at some point have worked with him. Of course, I don’t deny that. But it’s not true that 100% of Georgia Dream leadership is somehow connected to him.”

As for Ivanishvili’s Moscow links, he said: “There’s no evidence proving that he has ties with Russia, no facts of him meeting Russian politicians, or having any business in Russia.”

And regarding the reopening of flights to and from Moscow, Samkharadze argued that the airline flying the route had not been put under EU sanctions.

“So this is a huge difference,” he said “We are not receiving any sanctioned airplanes from Russia.”

The restoration has annoyed the US and the EU, however, especially as Georgian Airways went on to announce plans for transit flights through Tbilisi for Russians flying to five European destinations, further blunting the impact of sanctions.

“The leadership of the party has gone beyond appeasement,” a western diplomat said.

An EU spokesperson pointed out that the rate of alignment between EU and Georgian decisions and declarations had gone from an already low 44% in 2022 to 31% so far this year. “This step raises concerns in terms of Georgia’s EU path and its commitment to align with the EU in the foreign policy as per the EU-Georgia association agreement,” the spokesperson said.

However, European diplomats in Tbilisi are conscious they face a dilemma. Granting candidate status in December would reward the governing party for democratic backsliding and solidify its grip on power. Denying Georgia that prospect could rob ordinary Georgians of hope and turn Georgian Dream’s embrace of Moscow from tentative to enthusiastic, triggering more street conflict.

As one European diplomat put it: “A ‘no’ decision could trigger a spiral of events that could get out of control.”

Source: The Guardian



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