“For many years my country was a leader in reforms and getting closer to the West. Now it is trailing behind,” says Giorgi Badridze, former ambassador to Turkey and the UK, in an interview with Wojciech Wojtasiewicz.
Wojciech Wojtasiewicz: How has the arrival of a huge number of Russian refugees in Georgia in 2022 affected the country’s political, social and economic landscape?
Giorgi Badridze: Life in Georgia has become much more expensive. The prices of necessities and rental housing in major cities, especially in Tbilisi, have increased. Many of my students can’t afford to rent a place in the capital after a break of more than two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, when classes were held remotely.
That said, the Georgian government does not call Russians migrants or refugees, but tourists. It compares current numbers with statistics from the best years past, when the number of actual tourists from Russia was the highest.
The idea is to show that the number of newcomers from Russia in 2022 has not increased dramatically at all.
It’s just that in the past Russians came to Georgia for a while, left their money and went home; a few settled permanently in the richer districts of Tbilisi and Batumi. Now Russians do not know when they will be able or willing to return to their homeland. Many of them have no plans to return to their country at all. Comparing the two is therefore completely unwarranted.
How do Georgians relate to newcomers from Russia? Have there been cases of publicly demonstrated dislike?
Many Georgians absorb Russian culture, follow Russian media, watch Western films with Russian dubbing. There is no widespread Russophobia, despite what we have experienced from the Russians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Just a few incidents have been reported. A Russian in a cab from the airport to downtown Tbilisi told the driver to turn off Ukrainian music. The Georgian drove him to the outskirts of the city and threw him out of the car. However, such incidents have been few, and we are talking about a country where citizens of a country, occupying 20 percent of its territory, come in large numbers.
Why did the Georgian government allow such a large number of Russians to enter the country? It is estimated that 700,000 Russians have arrived in Georgia, and about 100,000 remained. The rest went to Armenia, Turkey and Europe.
The arrival of so many Russians was made possible by the visa-free regime introduced by the previous government to attract foreign tourists. You can stay in Georgia for a year without any permits. The same was true of customs procedures, which were radically simplified. The idea was to strengthen Georgia’s position as a transit country.
However, circumstances have changed since the war in Ukraine.
Today, there are many indications that Georgia may take over Belarus’ former role as a country through which Russia seeks to circumvent Western sanctions.
This was the case with the first Western sanctions introduced in 2014. Maintaining the previous liberal rules on the borders, including the transport of goods, clearly shows the real intentions of the Georgian Dream government. This is a continuation of the policy of so-called not irritating Russia.
How should this policy be understood?
To get this idea, it is necessary to look at the current political system. In the previous decade, Georgia was classified by most European institutions as a hybrid regime, that is, not fully democratic, but moving toward democracy. It continues to be so defined.
However, the country is now moving in the opposite direction. Most of the institutions – parliament, courts, administration – and politicians from the ruling coalition are accountable not to the voters, but to one man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. All these institutions act in his interest.
If my memory serves me well, the grouping of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili promised to strengthen democracy before coming to power? Moreover, why do you mention the former Prime Minister when he is no longer in Georgian politics?
Yes, Georgian Dream won the elections promising to continue the pro-Western course of the previous administration, to continue the achievements of Mikheil Saakashvili’s team and eliminate all the shortcomings, first of all in the areas of rule of law and human rights. But in fact, we are seeing exactly the opposite. All the reforms and projects have been stopped for political reasons, such as the construction of the Anaklia port, which would have definitely strengthened Georgia’s geopolitical role as a transportation hub between Europe and Asia.
Americans and Europeans stress that Georgia is going backwards in terms of democratic standards.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was Prime Minister in 2012-2013 and party leader in 2011-2013 and again in 2018-2021, despite officially retiring from Georgian politics for the second time, remains the informal leader of the ruling camp. He is the one pulling all the strings and making key decisions.
Why is Ivanishvili’s team acting contrary to its promises?
Because Ivanishvili’s goal is to retain power, not to integrate with the West. Ivanishvili stressed that Georgia should not be the subject of a dispute between the West and Russia. This means that it should give up its ambition to be an independent and sovereign country and become a Russian sphere of influence.
If Georgia keeps quiet and vanishes from the international space, Ivanishvili will retain power. By the same token, however, the country will become an easy target for Russia’s imperial aspirations.
Today, Georgia’s biggest problem is that the oligarch’s interests are in direct conflict with those of the state.
A country that is poor, from which people emigrate for work, is easier and cheaper to control than one with a strong middle class. In a democratic country, with a strong opposition, independent media, much more resources have to be allocated to win elections and retain power. The economic development of the country is thus at odds with the development of the largest local oligarch’s businesses.
European Parliament resolution on Saakashvili, calling on EU to consider sanctions on Ivanishvili. https://t.co/sE2rNuIohj
— Giorgi Badridze (@GiorgiBadridze) February 15, 2023
All this influenced the Georgian authorities’ decision to accept the influx of such huge numbers of Russians. No other country acts like Georgia. Neighboring Azerbaijan has chosen not to open its borders (they have been closed since the coronavirus pandemic), despite being on good terms with Russia.
The arrival of Russians not only results in social and economic problems, but also threatens Georgia’s security.
It should be recalled that Crimea was taken over by soldiers who appeared there as ‘tourists’. However, Ivanishvili considered the influx of so many Russians as less of a risk than opposing Russia, which could threaten his staying in power.
But it was the Georgian Dream government that signed an association and free trade agreement with the European Union in 2014.
That’s because the Georgian dream government didn’t repeat the mistake of Viktor Yanukovych. The ruling coalition signed agreements with the European Union, but acted exactly the opposite of what their provisions said. Instead of strengthening its economic ties with the West, Georgia intensified its trade with the Russian Federation. And when the window of opportunity opened in 2022 to receive candidate country status, it was unable to meet the basic criteria.
At the same time, Georgia has been a leader in reforms and getting closer to the West for many years. Now it is trailing behind. Brussels has officially stated that Tbilisi has failed to meet the criteria for candidate country status. The current government had previously declared that it could not apply for candidate status until 2024 at the earliest, but even that would be too soon with the current political course.
Brussels itself, however, is not very interested in further EU enlargement. The situation is similar with regard to Georgia’s presence in NATO. So isn’t the obstacle to Tbilisi’s path to the West also the geopolitical reality in which Georgia operates?
The geopolitical situation changed with the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. A transfer window has emerged for Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi. Ukraine and Moldova are official candidates for European Union membership. Georgia has failed.
When I was a diplomat, our Western partners, starting in the 1990s, always prioritized building a strategic partnership with Russia, and ignored Russian aggression against Georgia.
It was only in 2014 that they recognized that they had to at least pretend to respond to Russia’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine.
That was the time when Georgia, instead of seizing the opportunity and standing in a united diplomatic front with Ukraine, decided to shape relations with Russia on its own. Unfortunately, this did not produce any progress. Now, with the onset of a new war in Ukraine, the Georgian Dream government has refused to join Western sanctions.
So has Moldova, and it has been given the status of a candidate country of the European Union.
True, but Moldova is not behaving like an opponent of Ukraine. If we look at the attitude of the Georgian government, we see that it has not voted with the Western community at the UN or other international organizations. It has only occasionally voted in favor of Ukraine. For that, we hear all the time Tbilisi’s accusations against Kyiv that it is trying to drag Georgia into the war, which is a lie.
Ukraine would not gain much from a Russian military operation in Georgia.
Tbilisi would not be able to tie down the larger Russian forces on its territory. In addition, it would need additional support from the West.
The EU is making it clear to the Georgian authorities: if you want candidate status, you must speed up the reforms. But since this is completely at odds with the interests of the country’s chief oligarch, the Georgian government is promoting the claim that the West wants to drag Georgia into a war with Russia. And this works for a certain part of the population.
So Georgia has no chance of becoming a candidate country in 2023?
Only if the EU gives up its criteria and standards. Otherwise, there is no chance for the Georgian government to fulfill the conditions.
A not very optimistic future for Georgia emerges from your narrative.
Under the current circumstances, I see no prospects for change. The Georgian Dream government is killing the country’s future. It has already weakened Georgia’s international position. It has not consolidated democratic institutions – even Armenia has surpassed us in terms of democracy. We have also missed the opportunity to strengthen our role as a transportation hub.
Unfortunately, I remain pessimistic about the future of my homeland.
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