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GEORGIA'S DEAFENING SILENCE AND THE R-WORD THAT SHALL NOT BE MENTIONED

Sergi Kapanadze




GD adopts Ukraine resolution, makes statements without mentioning Russia; pro-Kremlin forces find momentum and call on Georgia's neutrality; another Navalny ally barred from entering Georgia; MEPs cancel the visit due to Georgian speaker not finding time; Russia's strangle over Abkhazia tightens.


As the West continues to provide Ukraine with political, economic, and military support, Georgia's silence on Ukraine in international forums and domestically is deafening. Georgian leaders have taken neither symbolic nor meaningful steps in support of Ukraine. From the menu of official statements, formal/informal visits, public expression of support, and sending military, financial or humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Georgian Dream (GD) leaders have opted in favour of doing next to nothing. The only tweet by the Foreign Minister Zalkaliani on January 24 said that threatening "any country's sovereignty and territorial integrity" was unacceptable and failed to mention Russia even once. On January 15, Georgia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned "cyberattacks against Ukraine", but again did not mention Russia. Before that on December 12, 2021, Salome Zurabishvili also expressed support to Ukraine's territorial integrity, but also without mentioning Russia.


But most outrageous was the resolution that the Parliament of Georgia adopted on February 1 in support of Ukraine. The parliamentary resolution also did not refer to Russia even a single time. Moreover, the resolution mentions neither Donbas, Crimea, sanctions, occupation, annexation nor any condemnation of Russia's threats to use force or imminent military aggression. During the Parliamentary debates, GD majority leaders have repeatedly claimed that they do not want to complicate the regional security situation with inflammatory text and rhetoric. One of the GD leaders went as far as saying that the resolution was such that "even enemies" should have nothing against it. Indeed, the failure to distinguish friends from foes in the resolution's text was the main subject of criticism from Georgian civil society, opposition and media.


Opposition parties allege that the GD is playing the Russian game, afraid of mentioning Russia and adopting the resolution full of dubious statements, such as "military escalation in Ukraine" and "war in Ukraine". Most surprisingly, given the obvious similarities with the situation in Georgia and Russia's occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, one would have expected parallels with Georgian occupies regions. However, GD's resolution said nothing of the Russian activities in Georgia and Russia's demand that NATO does not expand to Ukraine and Georgia. As expected, therefore, the GD adopted the resolution unilaterally, without the opposition's endorsement.


The idea of the pro-Ukrainian parliamentary motion was first proposed by the MPs from Giorgi Gakharia's "For Georgia" party, who put forward a draft resolution "on the developments in Ukraine" in December 2021, however, GD did not follow up with the parliamentary debate. On January 24, parliamentary opposition parties (United National Movement, Lelo, Strategy the Builder) proposed their draft resolution on Ukraine and Georgia's NATO aspirations and called on Government to conduct a joint visit to Ukraine. European Georgia (EG), the only major opposition party, which continues boycotting the Parliament slammed colleagues from the opposition for even engaging in the discussions over the Parliamentary resolution with the GD. In turn, EG staged a symbolic protest by projecting the Ukrainian flag on the building of Russia's former embassy in Tbilisi (Georgia and Russia have had no embassies or diplomatic ties since 2008) on January 26. Russian Foreign Ministry quickly responded, alleging that the embassy building's electricity was cut deliberately and called on GD to prevent such acts in the future. Georgian Government maintained silence throughout the process.


Most deafening of all has been the silence of the Prime Minister of Georgia - Irakli Gharibashvili, who is viewed as an avatar of the informal ruler Bidzina Ivanishvili, his former boss in the private sector. During his previous spell as PM in 2014, Gharibashvili famously declared on BBC that Russian annexation of Crimea was "absolutely different" from the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, spurring a wave of criticism from the opposition and civil society that Georgia was deliberately de-linking Russia's actions in occupied regions to Ukraine from the actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This time Gharibashvili avoids any questions on Ukraine and remains deliberately silent on Russia's possible aggression.


In recent years GD leaders have chosen controversial positions on Russia, declining to join the sanctions imposed by West, inviting Russian Duma MP Sergey Gavrilov to Georgia in June 2019, and recently notoriously refusing the entry to Georgia for key allies of Alexey Navalny, like Lyubov Sobol and Dmitry Gudkov. This cosying to Moscow is coupled with ever frequent confrontations with the EU and the US. Over a dozen letters and statements of concern have been addressed to Georgian leaders in the last two years on the topics of a politicised judiciary, persecution of political opponents and erosion of democratic institutions. In a famous confrontation last year, the Georgian government refused to take the EU loan, which Brussels linked with the judiciary reform. This time around, the newly appointed speaker of Georgia's Parliament Shalva Papuashvili refused to meet with the prominent members of the European Parliament, who were poised to visit Georgia on January 21-23 for the official Jean Monnet Dialogue. Angered MEPs issued a letter, condemning such a disrespectful act. GD members in return retaliated by accusing MEPs of using "groundless and unfair" rhetoric.


While Tbilisi continues to pursue the morally weak and pragmatically unsound silence on Ukraine, pro-Russian forces in Georgia are gaining strength, capitalising on the looming Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Patriot's Alliance, whose links with Moscow and financial backing from Kremlin were exposed in 2020 came back from one year of political hibernation and started a campaign that Georgia should declare neutrality and non-alignment. Patriots' Alliance united the anti-Western political and other organisations into a "Unified Front of Georgia's Patriots", which will push through the Kremlin's demand that Georgia abandons the European integration path. A few months ago another pro-Russian group - Alt-Info also turned into a political party. Their propaganda media outlets, like Alt-Info TV Channel, have been extremely active during the recent weeks, actively "exposing" Western inability to help Ukraine and the legitimacy of Moscow's actions. They have also decried the Parliamentary resolution, often arguing that everything was Ukraine's fault, who did not implement Minsk agreements.


Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Ministry, as if responding to Patriots' Alliance demands, issued a statement on January 21 expressing hope that Tbilisi draws lessons from the past and pursues "more balanced policy towards Russia". Moscow also reiterated that the resumption of direct flights between Georgia and Russia was conditional on "stopping the Russophobia campaign and eliminating threats to the security" of Russian citizens in Georgia. Foreign Minister Lavrov then on January 29 engaged in a long tirade against the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian journalist Giorgi Aptsiauri, who reported to Euronews the security and humanitarian situation near the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia. Lavrov expressed discontent with the journalist not embracing the Russian narrative, on how the successive Georgian Governments starting from Gamsakhurdia in the early 1990s discriminated against ethnic Ossetians and other minorities.


As the situation around Ukraine drags on, Georgian politicians are looking for concrete ways how to engage Tbilisi even more. The concern is growing in Georgia that as Western support towards Ukraine grows and various strategic alliances, like the one among the UK, Poland and Ukraine are formed, Georgia is being left out and is missing on an opportunity of a lifetime. Giorgi Kandelaki from the EG called on the government to conduct a high-level visit to Ukraine, but the request fell on deaf ears. Opposition leaders. Mikheil Saakashvili, meanwhile, published a Facebook post from the Rustavi prison, outlining possible scenarios of Russia's actions in Ukraine and predicting that as the stand-off between Kremlin and West becomes protracted and when, finally, Russia's war plan collapses, Moscow and Putin will pay a high price for it.


The bottom line from the Georgian saga on Ukrainian support is that GD has once again demonstrated that they prefer to conduct, what they consider to be, a "pragmatic" "non-angering "policy towards Russia. As a policy, however, this approach is short-sighted, since by being passive and silent, Georgia is missing an opportunity to draw the international community's attention to the problems of Russia's occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These regions, which are fully controlled and militarized by Russia can easily be annexed and fully reintegrated by Moscow in the nearest future. There are overwhelming signs in Abkhazia that current leadership has bet heavily on Moscow, allowing Russians to buy land, acquire Abkhaz passports and even purchase electric grid, one of the few areas of local infrastructure, not entirely controlled by Moscow. Installation of a pro-Russian de facto “foreign minister” Ardzinba (former colleague and ally of Surkov) and his attempts to cut off any dialogue between Abkhaz and Georgian civil society organizations and limit confidence-building projects supported by the EU give a good preview of a direction that Russia's domination of Abkhazia is taking. Moreover, active deliberations regarding the adoption of the "Law on foreign agents" (directly from a Kremlin playbook) make it highly probable that after March 2022 de facto parliamentary elections, Moscow might try to fully assimilate Abkhazia, or at least make the process irreversible. Therefore, any silence on Russia and Ukraine today risks Ukraine's and Western partners' silence on Georgia's Russian problems tomorrow.

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