Georgia has drifted into the Kremlin’s orbit

  • The West once saw it as a beacon of liberty

The Economist
Published1 Feb 2023, 10:06 AM IST
Mr Saakashvili’s mistreatment is impeding Georgia’s chances of integrating into Europe. (File Photo: AFP)
Mr Saakashvili’s mistreatment is impeding Georgia’s chances of integrating into Europe. (File Photo: AFP)

The road from Tbilisi airport to the old town—a web of steep cobbled streets with ornate balconies and the mouthwatering smell of khinhali dumplings and khachapuri cheese bread—bears the name of George W. Bush, the first American president to visit the small Caucasian country, in 2005. Saluting its democratic reforms and thanking it for sending troops to Iraq, Mr Bush called Georgia “a beacon of liberty” and told its youthful and restless reformist president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was swept to power in 2003 by the first “colour” revolution, that Georgia had “a solid friend in America”.

These days it is the Kremlin that is praising Georgia, a country it invaded in 2008, for toeing its line and refusing to join Western sanctions against Russia. The 55-year-old Mr Saakashvili is under guard in hospital on the outskirts of Tbilisi, fighting dementia and muscle atrophy. His mother, who visits him daily, says he has memory lapses and needs a walking-frame. “My health is in deep shit,” Mr Saakashvili wrote to your correspondent in a letter. “Besides all kinds of bad symptoms, what makes me desperate is a terrible memory loss.” Mr Saakashvili believes that he has been poisoned, and says he lapsed into a brief coma after an earlier move to a different prison hospital. In December his legal team distributed a toxicology report said to identify the presence of heavy metals in his body, in which the toxicologist expressed the opinion he had been poisoned. On January 31st his associates said he had been moved to intensive care, though the authorities have denied this.

Mr Saakashvili modernised Georgia but also became enmeshed in scandal and repression. After standing down once he had been termed out as president, he fled in 2013 fearing arrest at the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a reclusive businessman who made his money in Russia, served briefly as prime minister, and has in effect ruled Georgia ever since, though he holds no formal government post. Mr Saakashvili, subsequently stripped of his Georgian citizenship, moved to Ukraine and took a Ukrainian passport, but in October 2021 he returned to Georgia, despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest, hoping to rally protests in his favour. Instead he was arrested, having been sentenced in absentia for abusing his powers as president, and is serving a six-year sentence.

The European Parliament and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, have asked Georgia to release Mr Saakashvili, who once served as the governor of Odessa and still chairs the National Reform Council in Ukraine, a consultative body, for medical treatment outside Georgia. His incarceration and mistreatment appear to be political revenge, according to Amnesty International, and a favour to Vladimir Putin, who conducted a short war against Georgia in 2008 and once promised to hang Mr Saakashvili “by his balls”.

Georgian Dream, the party Mr Ivanishvili founded, has held on to power by stoking fears of turmoil and of Mr Saakashvili’s return to power. But while Georgians may be disenchanted by their former president’s politics, they are also repelled by the inhumanity of his treatment. “People are more supportive of Saakashvili as a prisoner, than they are of Saakashvili as a politician,” says Iago Kachkachishvili, a Georgian sociologist.

Mr Saakashvili’s mistreatment is impeding Georgia’s chances of integrating into Europe. Other breaches of the rule of law include the imprisonment last year of Nika Gvaramia, who runs a leading private TV channel critical of the government, on patently trumped-up charges. The political opposition is monitored. Georgia’s bid to be granted candidate status by the EU was sent back last June with a list of 12 demands, which the government seems in no hurry to address.

“Georgia used to be a favourite toy of America and the West. Now the toy is broken and nobody pays much attention to it,” says Shota Utiashvili, a former government official, now a fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Tbilisi. Georgian Dream now rules in coalition with several of its former members who have set up a more radical and overtly anti-Western movement in parliament, called Power of the People. Its rhetoric and policies, including a proposed bill to bar “foreign agents”, look like a carbon-copy of Kremlin tactics. The movement has even blamed America for attempts to overthrow Georgia’s government.

Georgia is still far less authoritarian than Russia or Belarus, but it is fast drifting into the Kremlin’s orbit. To appease Mr Putin, its government has refused to join sanctions against Russia or return an anti-aircraft missile system that Ukraine gave Georgia in 2008. “I don’t understand why the Georgian government has shackled itself to the Kremlin,” Ben Hodges, a former commander of American forces in Europe, said on a recent visit to Tbilisi.

Many Georgians do seem to object. Ukrainian flags are a common sight, as are houses sporting graffiti reading “Georgia is Ukraine; Ukraine is Georgia”. Mr Kachkachishvili says the sentiment goes far deeper than the liberal Tbilisi middle class. Some 1,000 Georgian volunteers are believed to be fighting on Ukraine’s side. But equally deep is the trauma and fear of war exploited by Mr Ivanishvili’s party. Georgian Dream has seen off pro-Ukraine protests and marginalised the opposition by arguing that they risk dragging Georgia into a war with Russia.

The picture is further complicated by the presence of some 100,000 Russian exiles who have taken refuge in Georgia from the very regime that still occupies 20% of the country in the two enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the most part, these are educated young people who openly back Ukraine and are against the war, but keep out of Georgian politics.

Nowhere are the new alliances and divisions more evident than in Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Its main tourist attraction is a museum devoted to the Georgian-born Soviet dictator. The government had removed the giant statue of Stalin from Gori and planned to turn his museum into a grim denunciation of Stalinism rather than a celebration of his life. But, as a visibly embarrassed tour guide tells her group of Russian-speaking tourists, the plan was aborted: the “de-Sovietisation and de-Stalinisation” have been on hold since Mr Saakashvili left power a decade ago.

More recently a dozen new statues and plaques commemorating Stalin have risen across Georgia. The dictator, who destroyed Georgia’s democracy and independence by helping the Bolsheviks to occupy Georgia in 1921, is now being promoted as a Georgian hero. The Kremlin must be thrilled.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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First Published:1 Feb 2023, 10:06 AM IST
HomePoliticsGeorgia has drifted into the Kremlin’s orbit

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