The sight of a Russian Communist presiding in their parliament has shocked Georgians into demanding greater democracy and circumspection towards Moscow.
Street protests are now deep into their second week in Georgia. These demonstrations of public anger were sparked by a crisis centring on the person of Sergey Gavrilov, Russian delegation leader in the Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodox Nations. Georgians noticed – and erupted in anger – when they witnessed the Russian Communist and Duma member preside from the speaker’s chair of their parliament during assembly proceedings. The outcry took the government by surprise: this was no ordinary protest organised by an opposition party, not even by the party of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who still has too many enemies in Georgia to threaten those in power. Instead, this was a protest by younger people and civil society, the generation of the 2008 war fed up with a government that they believe has failed on democratic reform.
The EU’s reaction to the protests was sluggish, going no further than the release of tepid statements
The protests may be ongoing but they have already resulted in number of concessions. The most important among these is the government’s pledge to hold parliamentary elections in 2020 using a fully proportional system. But one of the reasons these concessions have not brought the demonstrations to an end is the government’s early reaction: when an initial apology for the incident was met with indifference, the authorities dispersed a public rally by force, beating and injuring dozens of people. This was a big mistake. Ever since 9 April 1989, when the Soviet army killed 19 people while dispersing a peaceful gathering in Tbilisi, Georgians have been very sensitive about the use of force against civilians. In response to the brutality they witnessed on this occasion, yet more people began to assemble in front of parliament. The resignation of the speaker, who protestors accused of inviting Gavrilov, also made no difference. The people are still further demanding the resignation of the interior minister.
Russia was no less shocked by the developments, as demonstrators’ chants and songs branded it an aggressor, and named Vladimir Putin specifically. The Russian media immediately started to look for “Western tricks” and “the American hand” behind the protests. This is despite the fact that the United States has had no ambassador in Tbilisi since March 2018. Europe – as another part of “the West” – has so far largely escaped the Russian media’s aim: the European Union is quite happy with the current status quo in Georgia, and with Tbilisi’s Russia policy especially, given its goal of normalisation. Indeed, the EU’s reaction to the protests was sluggish, going no further than the release of tepid statements, and doing so only at the level of the EU delegation to Georgia, and via a handful of EU member state embassies. In contrast, the US took a clearer stand and called for dialogue and restraint on the part of the authorities.
Moscow could have chosen to ignore the developments and wait until the protests and their anti-Putin chanting died away. Instead, it has imposed a ban on air travel that will damage the Georgian tourism industry. And, at one point, Putin actually put Russian troops on high alert. Russian media sources continue to accuse Georgians of “Russophobia”, and have called demonstrators “fascists”. But the new information war may not succeed this time. With the recent normalisation of relations, millions of Russians have travelled to Georgia recently, and so it will not be so easy to claim it a dangerous place to visit. Even during the protests, Russian tourists appeared able to walk untroubled through the centre of Tbilisi. People-to-people relations remain strong and, of course, tourists benefit the economy.
In a sense the ‘Gavrilov crisis’ may have benefited Georgian democracy, which has been struggling under the rule of Georgian Dream, the governing party. The West, and the EU in particular, should come to Georgia’s aid as it looks to enter a new phase of democratisation, such as by providing training for political parties and strengthening civil society. The EU also can more actively help Georgian businesses by helping them adopt the standards needed to enter the single market. Despite enjoying Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas privileges, Georgian exports to the EU have grown only slowly. The world is a distracted place right now – not least by the demonstrations in Hong Kong. But as in Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine, democracy in Georgia will also benefit from the support not just of the US but of its nearer neighbours in Europe too.
Tornike Sharashenidze is a professor and head of School of International Relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), as well as former foreign policy assistant to the Prime Minister of Georgia, and director of NATO Information Center in Georgia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.