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Protesters carry a Ukrainian flag at an anti-war rally in front of the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi. March 7, 2022

‘Russia would do here what they did in Mariupol’ Why Georgia's response to the war has been feeble — despite months of pro-Ukraine protests in Tbilisi

Source: Meduza
Protesters carry a Ukrainian flag at an anti-war rally in front of the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi. March 7, 2022
Protesters carry a Ukrainian flag at an anti-war rally in front of the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi. March 7, 2022
Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Georgian citizens have enthusiastically supported Ukraine: thousands of people have attended anti-war rallies in Tbilisi, the city is covered in Ukrainian flags, and some Georgians have even chosen to fight alongside Ukrainians as volunteers. Despite all that, official relations between the two countries remain strained. Ukraine withdrew its ambassador from Georgia a month ago and has criticized the country for imposing insufficient sanctions against Russia, while the Georgian government has rejected Ukraine’s calls for it to open a “second front” and reclaim its occupied territories from Russia. The conflict has started to affect Georgia’s domestic politics as well — its ruling party is facing accusations of cowardice and of supporting Russia. At Meduza’s request, Georgian journalist Iya Barateli reports on how her country is trying to walk the line between Ukraine and Russia.

Mixed signals

“No sanctions will be imposed against Russia by Georgia,” Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said in a statement on the second day of Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Our team is acting in the best interests of our country and our people.” The next month, this same message was repeated multiple times by members of Georgia’s ruling party. Soon, the country found itself in a diplomatic conflict when Ukrainian leadership, unhappy with Georgia’s refusal to sanction Russia, pulled the Ukrainian ambassador from Tbilisi.

Still, Georgia has supported all of the resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council related to the war. It was also one of the first countries to sign on to the initiative to begin proceedings against Russia in the International Criminal Court.

On February 26, every branch of ​​Russia’s VTB Bank in Georgia closed. Any work with sanctioned Russian banks or with the Mir payment system is currently banned in the country. The only way to withdraw money from a Russian account in Georgia is to use a money transfer service to send it to another account.

It’s also become difficult for Russian citizens to open accounts with Georgian banks. Russians applying for an account in the Bank of Georgia have been asked whether they or any of their relatives belong to any political parties or work in any sanctioned organizations (Meduza has obtained a copy of the bank’s questionnaire). In early March, the bank also demanded Russians who wanted to open an account to sign a document attesting that they condemn Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine. TBC and other banks are also able to issue cards to Russian citizens with no explanation.

The tension between Georgia and Russia long predates the war in Ukraine; diplomatic relations between the two countries have been in shambles since 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. Both countries instituted visa requirements 22 years ago, when Moscow accused Tbilisi of allowing Chechen militants to freely travel across the Georgian border in Russia. In 2012, Georgia lifted the requirement for Russian travelers, though Georgians still need a visa to enter Russia. Direct flights from Moscow to Georgia are sometimes banned as well; there are currently none.

Ukrainian officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba and various other Verkhovna Rada deputies, continued criticizing Georgia. And on April 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he “[doesn’t] understand Georgia’s leadership, which refuses to impose sanctions against Russia.” He added that “Ukrainians and Georgians are truly brother nations, and that the Georgian government’s actions are therefore painful for him to witness.

Tbilisi had to justify itself. National Bank Governor Koba Gvenetadze claimed in early May that neither the U.S., Great Britain, nor the EU had complained about Georgia’s decision not to join the sanctions against Russia. “We’ve received nothing but positive feedback," he said.

Georgian Economic Minister Levan Davitashvili also pointed out that Georgia is far from the only country that hasn't levied sanctions against Russia — even some NATO members have refrained. “For Georgia to implement sanctions against the Russian economy might be ineffective, and could worsen our citizens’ standard of living yet again,” he said. “It would be irrational to join sanctions that wouldn’t affect the aggressor and would only serve to hurt the Georgian population,” echoed Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili acknowledged in an interview with Foreign Policy that Georgian banks and financial authorities “are not only complying with sanctions — they’re going even further, because they’re very afraid of standing out.”

On the other hand, imposing sanctions against individuals, according to Zourabichvili, is not possible. “We are 90 percent dependent” on “wheat from Ukraine and Russia,” she said. “There is some trade, of course, between Georgia and Russia, but that’s basically fruits, which are not sanctioned goods.”

Georgia isn’t dependent on Russia for its electricity or gas supply, but Russia is still one of the country’s largest trade partners, as well as the largest importer of Georgian wine.

In an attempt to justify the Georgie prime minister’s statement about how Georgia won’t impose sanctions against Russia, Zourabichvili said, “[that statement] was intended for domestic public consumption; it was intended to explain that we will not be imposing national sanctions in addition to international sanctions.” This made it clear that for Georgia, Ukraine isn’t just a foreign policy issue, but also an important factor in the country’s domestic politics.

The Ukrainian flag on a digital sign in Tbilisi
Denis Kaminev / Meduza

'They would have done here what they did in Mariupol'

“Our country and its people are tired of misfortune and disorder. Peace is crucial. If we don’t have peace, we'll have nothing,” said Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili on May 13 at a meeting with supporters of the Georgian Dream party, who unanimously thanked him for “maintaining peace.”

Garibashvili is 39 years old. A year ago, he began his second term as Prime Minister of the Georgian Dream-led government; the party has been in power for nine years now. After its creation in 2012, Georgian Dream immediately achieved large electoral success in the country's parliamentary elections, surpassing the United National Movement, the party of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. Since 2012, Georgia has been a parliamentary republic; in it, the president’s powers are limited, the ruling party plays a critical role in governance, and the prime minister is the nation’s top political figure.

It’s because of Saakashvili that relations between Ukraine and Georgia have been strained for so many years and continue to affect Georgia’s domestic politics.

In October 2013, after his second term in office, Saakashvili left Georgia. About six months later, several criminal charges were brought against him at once. Georgian Dream continued to campaign against Saakashvili and his supporters even after he left; for eight years now, opponents of the ruling party are frequently accused of being “Saakashvili supporters,” “pests,” and sometimes even “accomplices of Russia.”

In 2015, Saakashvili received Ukrainian citizenship and got involved in Ukrainian politics. Several former members of his government moved from Georgia to Ukraine, where they were soon appointed to key posts in Kyiv. Meanwhile, the Georgian government put them on the wanted list (though Interpol refused to put them on the international list). As a result, Georgian Dream supporters consider the Ukrainian government something akin to a branch of Georgia’s opposition.

Nevertheless, Saakashvili returned to Georgia in advance of its parliamentary elections — and was arrested on October 1. Since then, the former president has been in custody and has declared multiple hunger strikes; after one of them, he had to be hospitalized.

After Saakashvili’s return and arrest, Georgians held mass protest rallies in which they demanded Saakashvili be released; later, they took to the streets to demand he be transferred to the hospital after reports surfaced that the hunger strikes were damaging his health. Many of the rallies ended in clashes between activists and police, who made multiple arrests. On February 12, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General officially declared Saakashvili a victim of improper treatment in the Georgian prison system.

Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych recently drew criticism from the Georgian government for publicly discussing the return of Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia. Arestovych mentioned Saakashvili, agreeing that if he were currently in charge, he would surely have begun military action already.

Because of Saakashvili’s proximity to the Ukrainian authorities, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili seemed to respond to the former president’s supporters in Georgia rather than to the Ukrainian authorities. Georgian Dream is strongly anti-war; for 10 years, the party’s rhetoric has been based on the idea that Saakashvili was responsible for unleashing the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, that Georgia suffered as a result, and that Russia continues to occupy Georgia. .

“Ukraine’s senior leadership admitted that their desire and their task is the opening of a second front in Moldova and Georgia,” said Garbashvili. According to him, it was right after Georgia refused to join the war that the stream of “baseless allegations” began,” and it’s his belief that Saakashvili returned to Georgia with a singular goal: to launch a coup and force Georgia to go to war (though Saakashvili arrived in Georgia about six months before the war began).

“If Saakashvili were in power today, we would be at war; they would do here what they did in Mariupol,” Garbashvili said during a recent visit to rural Georgia. “Do you understand the kind of filthy provocation we protected you all from?”

It’s worth mentioning that this sentiment has found some support: according to a survey from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a large share of Georgian citizens (46 percent) approve of Garbashvili’s position on the war.

Even more voters — 63 percent of respondents — approve of President Salome Zourabichvili’s more critical position: she opposes the war, but has sharply criticized Russia on trips to Europe and the U.S.

Stagnation and apathy

In Georgia, the president is purely a figurehead; Salome Zourabichvili is unable to conduct her own policies and is fully dependent on Georgian Dream. Her most recent overseas visits and harsh statements against Russia provoked so much concern in the party that they were declared “personal,” unsanctioned by the government, and even “unconstitutional.”

Salome Zourabichvili
Daro Sulakauri / Getty Images

Parliamentarians appealed to the Georgian Constitutional Court to officially confirm the violations. This ultimately required amending the law outlining Georgia’s Constitutional Court to create a procedure for lodging official complaints against the president.

Perhaps the most striking piece of data from the most recent public opinion surveys conducted in Georgia is that 64 percent of respondents claimed not to support any of the country’s political parties. The survey reflects a growing problem: Georgian Dream, the party currently in power, is frequently accused of stagnation and being unable to carry out reforms, while the opposition is often accused of lacking unity, engaging in populism, and having no new faces or leaders. Many Georgians don’t know who to vote for in the next election — or if they’ll even vote at all.

In the country’s 2020 parliamentary elections, deputies were elected from 10 different parties. Georgian Dream won for a third time, but it lost its constitutional majority (which requires 75 percent of mandates); 90 and of the parliament’s 150 seats are held by Georgian Dream members. The party did maintain its right to appoint the government (which has been almost completely replaced in the last two years, including the prime minister). The strongest opposition party, the Saakashvili-created United National Movement, won 36 seats, but several deputies refused to take up their mandates in protest, leaving the party with only 32 seats. The other opposition parties won between one and five seats each.

Claiming the election had been rigged, the opposition held protest rallies and announced a boycott of all parliamentary sessions. EU representatives were eventually called in to assist in negotiations, and seven months passed before the parliament finally gathered for an official session.

'Georgia's on the wrong side of history'

Despite the fact that Georgian Dream’s leadership opposes the idea of opening a “second front,” there’s an active discussion about it in Georgian society — especially as the war in Ukraine brings back memories of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Georgians protesting in support of Ukraine often pose the question on social media, “Ukraine will win and the West will help, but where is Georgia right now?”

Former Georgian Counterintelligence Department Deputy Director Levan Tabidze, a veteran of the 2008 conflict, told Meduza that Russia’s bases in the Tskhinvali region (also known as South Ossetia) are currently exposed. However, Georgia won’t be able to regain its captured territory unless “the country is led by a strong and patriotic government and Russia is sufficiently weakened.”

“After the 2008 war, Russia built up to 20 military bases in the Tskhinvali region (though Russia doesn’t disclose this information). Out of those, only a few are large — the ones in Tskhinvali, Java, Dzartsemi, and along the road in Dzari; the rest are small. In ordinary times, about 4-5 thousand contract soldiers are stationed there. The bases have a lot of old military equipment — old enough that they can’t be taken into consideration during military conflicts. The offensive tanks that were previously on the move here have almost all been taken to Ukraine,” Tabidze told Meduza, citing sources from Georgian intelligence services. “We recently saw two battalions of volunteers that were taken from Tskhinvali fleeing from Ukraine. After the transfer of troops to Ukraine, there aren’t more than 1,500 military personnel left in Tskhinvali — and that’s mainly equipment specialists. Overall, there are currently less than 200 people in Tskhinvali right now who could realistically take up arms.”

Tabidze believes that Georgia’s 26 thousand soldiers could take control of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s de facto capital, and reach Java, which is on the Russian border, in a single day — but the country isn’t prepared for the Russian counterattack that would follow. They simply don’t have enough modern equipment like drones and air defense systems.

“Thanks to Georgia Dream’s policies, the level of patriotism in the army and in society at large has fallen to zero. It’s already hard to recall when they last spoke of getting the territory back. Over the last nine years, we’ve practically become a Russian province,” said Tabidze. “Georgia now finds itself on the wrong side of history. I’m confident everything in Ukraine will soon be fine, while our fate is still uncertain.”

Old friends

In late April, Ukraine and Georgia made a serious attempt to iron out their differences, and 50 days after Russia’s invasion began, a parliamentary delegation from Georgia visited Kyiv, Irpin, and Bucha.

Commenting on the question of Georgian sanctions against Russia, Georgian parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili, who led the delegation, promised that “Georgia will not help Russia in any way whatsoever.” Delegation member Khatuna Samnidze, who opposes Georgian Dream, said that the leading party had been forced to come to Ukraine by pressure from its Western partners and by public sentiment.

“In actuality, [Georgian] Dream’s decision regarding Ukraine is cowardly. But they saw that the opposition was sure to go, that the protocol allows us to, and they realized it would disadvantage them. Ultimately, it was decided in two days that the delegation would be led by the speaker himself,” Samnidze told Meduza. “Do you know what kind of meeting it was? It was like old, time-tested friends getting into a fight and then making up after some time, and now both sides are happy they can once again count on the support they’d already gotten used to.”

Ukraine is resentful of Georgia for “letting them down” by not coming [in an official show of support] in the first days of the war, Samnidze said. In her view, one of Kyiv’s priorities in the information war is demonstrating that everybody is on their side — ”that even Georgia is supporting them, despite the fact that it’s afraid of Russia.”

The way Georgia’s domestic opposition sees it, not only is Georgian Dream afraid of a Russian attack, it has no clear idea of how to behave against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

“We started asking for a visit [from a parliamentary delegation] on the first day of the war, and they would say, ‘What, do you want a war?’” said Samnidze. “Supporters of our government often say that Zelensky ‘failed to protect his country.’ I think they say that to gauge society’s reaction. And the fact that the government’s position has changed is a testament to the Georgian people; Georgian Dream can see that they’re losing trust. Of course Georgians don’t want war. But you can’t just disregard the people’s spirit; the government shouldn’t be demonstrating despair and hopelessness. All that means is that it’s unwilling to protect its citizens.”

After a meeting in Kyiv on April 16, Georgia’s delegation vowed for the first time that the country won’t become a “black hole” for Russia to circumvent sanctions.

At the meeting, representatives of Georgia and Ukraine discussed the possibility of Georgia instituting personal sanctions against Russian individuals. Here’s how Khatuna Samnidze described the meeting:

Our Western partners openly stated that if Tbilisi circumvents sanctions, Georgia will be punished. To oversimplify it a bit, they’re saying, ‘Right now there’s a war and we don’t have time for you, but later on, we’ll take strict account of everyone, and there might be problems for you. Of course, it’s not a good idea to play games with our partners’ trust at a time when our country has declared its desire to join the EU in an expedited manner.

Ukraine’s parliamentarians asked us to think about implementing our own sanctions if it won’t harm our country’s interests. That was news to us, because we haven’t previously discussed these kinds of sanctions, and our Western partners haven’t asked this of us.

During personal, unofficial conversations, we’ve asked how they imagine Georgia being able to do these [sanctions] with our small economy. They proposed bans on the import of various products, even if it’s purely symbolic, or a visa requirement for Russian citizens.

The Verkhovna Rada also asked us to ban the broadcast of Russian state propaganda media, citing the fact that EU countries have already implemented this policy. Details such as a list of media outlets to be banned were not discussed, and we haven’t yet provided an official response to the request.

Khatuna Samnidze believes that the war in Ukraine could lead to Georgia being accepted into the EU sooner than previously anticipated; the country has already submitted an application, two years earlier than planned. “We understand that the cost for this expedited process is Ukrainians’ bravery, blood, and tears. If our application is approved a month from now, our country will receive a reform plan from the EU. It will become impossible to keep dragging out our reforms. If the government kills our chance to join the EU, the populace will start acting differently.”

On May 5, in an address at the International Conference that included Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, the Georgian Prime Minister made one of his harshest statements yet regarding the war in Ukraine: “We condemn Russia’s wide-scale aggression against Ukraine, which is a clear and gross violation of international law and the NATO charter.”

Garibashvili also stated that Georgia had allocated seven million dollars to provide assistance to about 28,000 Ukrainian refugees in Georgia by the end of 2022.

A regional leader

As Georgia’s leadership hesitated about whether to hit Russia with additional sanctions, Kurt Volker, an American diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, said that Georgia has lost its status as a regional power in reforms — and that Ukraine has taken over that role.

“Georgia used to be the country most prepared to join NATO or to establish closer ties with the EU. Ukraine was too large, and that was a problem. Moldova wasn’t ready,” Volker said in an interview with the online Georgian outlet PalitraNews. “But now the situation looks different: everyone sees Georgia as a country whose democracy has regressed. Meanwhile, Ukraine is in the leading role. We’re looking forward to Georgia’s next elections, and we hope to see an improvement with respect to justice and freedom.”

Georgia’s next parliamentary elections will be held in 2024. Their results may largely depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

Story by Iya Barateli

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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