With All Eyes On Ukraine, Georgia Tries To Make Its Own Way With Russia

“We have become fatalists over all this time. We know where we are and what world we live in. What can we do, take tranquilizers?”

Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili ©, speaks alongside the president, Giorgi Margvelashvili ®, and head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II (L), during celebrations for the signing of an association agreement with the E.U. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP / Getty Images

TBILISI, Georgia — The bloody conflict between Russia and Ukraine has its roots in an innocuous-sounding document Kiev refused to sign last year, which would have brought it into the European Union’s orbit, and out of Russian control.

That failure to sign an association agreement with the EU started a revolution on the streets of the Ukrainian capital that eventually led to the battles that continue to rage across the country. It also left officials worrying that Moscow’s other neighbors might be next.

But last week, Georgia put pen to paper on a similar deal with the EU, which had been drastically rushed forward to prevent the Kremlin from intervening there, too. It might not, however, be the end of Georgia’s troubles.

A battleground between the West and Russia since the Rose Revolution of 2003, this small republic in the Caucasus mountains claims to be the first post-Soviet democratic success story, and hopes the agreement will eventually bring it closer to its long-desired goals of EU and NATO membership. The country’s leaders are also proud of what they say is a unique rapprochement with Russia that has allowed it to rebuild relations with Moscow. Under maverick president Mikheil Saakashvili, the country had stumbled into a disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008 that saw two breakaway territories declare independence and ended Tbilisi’s long romance with the US.

The signing of the EU agreement, Tbilisi’s critics and even many of its allies say, is only the first step for a country that still faces considerable challenges to move out of Russia’s orbit. Things may be now coming full circle. The Ukrainian conflict can trace its roots to the global blowback from the Georgian conflict; regional fallout from there would significantly impact Georgia, where Russia effectively controls 20 percent of its territory. As Vladimir Putin continues to challenge the post-Cold War global order, many here fear the most difficult moments for Georgia may still be ahead.

“Touch wood, nothing will happen.” said Zurab Abashidze, a Georgian envoy tasked with repairing relations with Moscow. “But what happens next is a different question,” he added. “We have become fatalists over all this time. We know where we are and what world we live in. What can we do, take tranquilizers?”

The EU agreement, under which Georgia receives greater access to European markets in part-exchange for a series of European-standard reforms, is essentially the end result of the 2008 war, which prompted an effort to bring it and four other former Soviet countries closer to the West. (Belarus and Armenia opted to go with Russia.) Yet since the Ukraine crisis raised fears Russia could attempt to derail Georgia’s European integration process, things have been eerily quiet. Georgian and EU officials say the Kremlin has promised not to punish Tbilisi for signing the agreement — despite threats of “serious consequences” against Ukraine and Moldova last week after they did the same thing.

Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his cabinet say Georgia is a “unique” case of a country able to balance strong ties with the West and rapprochement with Russia, which long treated Tbilisi as its bete noire until Saakashvili left office last year. “What was the benefit of bad relations with Russia? Nothing,” foreign minister Maja Panjikidze told BuzzFeed. “Russia is the most difficult and the most problematic neighbor for us. But with this rhetoric nothing could be achieved.”

In reality, however, Georgia’s policy amounts to what Abashidze admits is an attempt to “provoke [the Russians] as little as possible” and hope for the best. Georgia is vulnerable to potential disruptions in Russian trade, now at its highest level since independence after Moscow lifted a blockade last year. Russia now accounts for about 70 percent of the crucial Georgian wine export market and has quickly risen to become the country’s third-largest trading partner.

Recent rumblings in the two Russian-protected territories that declared independence from Georgia have raised fears of Ukraine-style security scenarios. Last week, South Ossetia, the mountainous republic that saw most of the fighting in the 2008 war, announced plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia and offered recognition to separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. Many in Tbilisi fear repercussions from turmoil in Abkhazia, where the new government is even more pro-Moscow than the one it replaced and appears intent on restricting the rights of ethnic Georgians, potentially with a view to expelling them.

Against that backdrop, the government’s critics say its hope that differences over the agreement can be resolved through technical consultations in Prague later this week are naive.

“The government is promoting calmness, and that’s going to lead to a bigger shock,” said Eka Tkeshelashvili, a former deputy prime minister who now runs the Georgian Institute for Strategic Studies. “There’s this feeling that they have to prove inside and out that they are a capable government — there’s zero self-criticism.”

Domestically, for now, Gharibashvili’s government has little cause for concern, despite recent blips in support. Public support for Georgia’s pro-Western course still hovers around 80 percent. Georgian Dream, the coalition Ivanishvili founded to oust domineering Saakashvili in 2012, won just over half the votes in local elections last month.

With the government’s pro-European vector seemingly secure, the government’s fixation with traditional Georgian power politics has appeared stark. Gharibashvili, 31, and President Giorgi Margvelashvili, 44, sparred in public for weeks about which one of them would sign the agreement. To the amusement and embarrassment of the public, the president eventually delegated his constitutional authority to the more powerful premier — only to be told his decree was not needed and eventually left out of the delegation to Brussels entirely.

Ivanishvili has made little attempt to conceal the power he clearly still wield behind the throne and seems intent on pursuing vendettas against Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, which he and Gharibashvili repeatedly vow to destroy. Margvelashvili’s entire staff resigned en masse last month after he fired his foreign policy advisor, whom Ivanishvili had repeatedly criticized because his brother is a leading UNM figure. Prosecutors are investigating Saakashvili, who has spent his time between the U.S. and Kiev since leaving office last year, despite public warnings from EU officials that doing so would be a red line jeopardizing signing the agreement.

Panjikidze, the foreign minister, became visibly agitated at the mere mention of Saakashvili and told BuzzFeed that the matter had simply not come up. “Saakashvili is not a major problem in Georgia. We have other problems,” she said. “You want some advice? Forget Misha,” she added, using Saakashvili’s nickname.

The infighting has even threatened to damage Tbilisi’s relations with its Western partners. French president Francois Hollande nearly cancelled a state visit over Georgia’s refusal to hold it in the presidential palace Saakashvili built or allow cabinet members to attend. Other officials are increasingly frustrated with Ivanishvili’s apparent favor for loyal, but unthreatening ministers, whose unimpressive private performances have seen Georgia sink to a distant third on Brussels’ regional priority list. Tbilisi kept conspicuously quiet for months during the Ukrainian crisis, then protested publicly when the new government in Kiev said it would bring a few former UNM officials on in advisory roles.

“It gives you an answer: what is top of their agenda? Not what is good for the country, but good for Ivanishvili,” said Kakha Bendukidze, who chaired Saakashvili’s pre-war reform efforts and advises Kiev on economic issues. “They are hostages to the wrong idea — that if you say nice things to Russia, Russia will change their minds,” Bendukidze added. “And that’s not true.”

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