Georgia celebrated the 32nd anniversary of its independence on May 26 to mark its emergence from the rubble of the Soviet Union. Despite festivities across the country, the mood was somber.  

The visible signs of heightened patriotism seemed a clear reaction (like mass protests) to a worsening geopolitical landscape in the region as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a strained political situation inside the country. There are now fears for Georgia’s long-held pro-Western trajectory amid the European Union’s (EU) looming decision on candidate status. 

The pro-Russian sentiment at the elite levels of the Georgian state may seem odd. Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008 and has been partially occupied ever since, with Russian troops effectively controlling 20% of its territory. Yet a traditionally tense relationship with the Kremlin has significantly warmed over the past year, leading many to fear that a more radical change of foreign policy direction might be in the offing. 

On May 10, as a result of a decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the visa regime for Georgians was lifted. The decision is significant — the rules were imposed more than two decades ago at a time when Georgian-Russian relations were extremely uneasy. The new visa-free regime came together with another sweetener: the decision to lift a ban on air connections. The Georgian government quickly embraced the Russian move. 

It nodded to Western sanctions by announcing only unsanctioned Russian air carriers would be allowed to enter its airspace. Two carriers were licensed, but even the limited nature of the decision brought criticism and caused worry among Georgia’s Western partners. The US Department of State issued a warning to Georgia, mentioning the possible imposition of sanctions for the resumption of air traffic with the Russian Federation, saying, “now is not the time to increase engagement with Russia.” The EU said that the decision would have a negative effect on Georgia’s integration process with the bloc. 

The issue flared up on May 20, when it was discovered that members of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s family were visiting the country for a wedding and that they included his daughter and her billionaire husband. Both are subject to Western sanctions. Georgia’s still-vibrant press tracked down the Russians to a hotel and crowds soon gathered to protest. At least 16 people, including parliamentarians, were arrested and the visitors were swiftly escorted out of the country. 

Georgia’s relations with the West were already in trouble. Last year, in contrast to Moldova and Ukraine, Georgia was only given a so-called European perspective in June 2022, causing anger and protests from parts of society. The failed attempt in March to introduce a repressive foreign agent law, modeled on the Russian version, made matters worse and genuinely alarmed many previously sympathetic Western governments. 

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What’s going on? The ruling Georgian Dream party — founded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia — may already have factored in Western resistance, and it may have judged that it can ride out the storm. Certainly, the mood music from the government is far from anti-Russian. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on May 30: “I don’t want to quote the statements of the Russian government. But one of the reasons [for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] was the desire of Ukraine to become a member of NATO. Therefore, we see the consequences.” If that sounds surprising from a government whose policy is to join the alliance, there’s more. The government has also hinted at a resumption of diplomatic relations after a 15-year break. 

There is a recognition in Tbilisi that the geopolitical facts have changed. With Europe’s reliance on Russian energy almost ending, the EU has turned to others to supply its needs. Most of the EU’s newly critical energy routes converge on Georgia, as do other transportation routes. Take, for example, an agreement to lay the world’s longest and deepest power and data lines to carry green energy from Azerbaijan and Georgia to Romania, and then to wider European markets via undersea cable. 

Such deals make Georgia geopolitically far more important than prior to 2022. This relevance is a source of real strength and could be a main motive behind the country’s changed rhetoric regarding its European path. In short, the ruling party may feel it has considerable freedom of maneuver to engage in a rapprochement with Russia (even if the public is strongly pro-Western; a poll last year showed around 80% want EU membership and 92% say Russia is a threat to its neighbors.)   

The government’s approach carries risks. It is far from certain that this policy would allow Georgia to stay safe in the current Russia-Western standoff. It is currently in a strong position and this could be beneficial in the near term, but in the longer term, it means navigating uncharted waters. And what are the costs? It is easy to discourage EU and NATO membership since there are skeptical member states in both organizations who question its entry. Some still see Georgia as distant, even though it has a Black Sea coastline, and is prone to instability. Meanwhile, it may not always be possible to maintain a balance between Russia and the West. 

There is a broad economic background to Russia’s influence in Georgia. The latter’s exports to Russia rose by 6.8% in 2022, to $652m. Russia’s imports from Georgia surged by 79%, to a total of $1.8bn. Commerce with Russia increased from a share of 11.4% to 13.1% in 2022, the highest level in 16 years. In terms of remittances, Russia sent $2.1bn to Georgia last year, which is five times higher than in 2021. The large increases in trade have been attributed to sanctions busting, although the government says it strictly enforces the measures. 

A critical moment now seems to be nearing. What started as a tactical ploy after the all-out war began — through a refusal to join Western sanctions and through careful rhetoric — now seems increasingly like a new foreign policy. Russia’s economic and political influence is simply too great, and Georgia might easily fall into the Kremlin’s orbit without a Western counter-balance. Realists might argue that rapprochement with Russia is partly driven by geopolitical calculation, but if the EU in particular begins to lose patience, Russia will be the only player left on the field.  

The Russian threat is real. When the Kremlin sent its infamous ultimatum to the West in December 2021, a prelude to the full-scale war in Ukraine, the statement mentioned that Georgia too should abandon its pro-Western course.  

The outline of a Georgia-Russia rapprochement is fairly clear. One central Russian demand (as in the case of Ukraine) would be the official abandonment — or perhaps a “postponement” — of NATO and EU aspirations. 

The granting of EU candidate status by Brussels might alleviate the situation somewhat, but it would be unlikely to correct Georgia-Western ties. Perhaps Ukraine’s success on the battlefield would alter the balance, but until then Georgia is gradually turning toward Russia with very clear consequences for its ties to the West. 

Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of silk roads. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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