While leaning West, Georgia government tries to appease Russia

In the meantime, angered by a perceived lack of action from their government, some Georgians have taken matters into their own hands. On July 14, a group of journalists took down and trampled one of the South Ossetian border signs near the village of Khurvaleti, replacing it the following day with a Georgian flag. On July 18, several thousand people gathered outside the government administration building in downtown Tbilisi for a rally organized by opposition media and NGOs under the slogan “Stop Russia.” In a series of speeches, opposition activists and academics denounced government weakness in the face of what they termed the Russian occupation, accusing President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s administration of abetting the rise of pro-Moscow forces in Georgia.

In comments to news agency Civil Georgia, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed the protest as a gathering of opposition-minded “idlers.” Yet the demonstrators echo a refrain that has become common of late. EU flags hang outside government buildings across Georgia, indicating its proclaimed pro-Western aims, but many observers feel commitment to that course is slipping because of disillusionment with European and U.S. promises and an intensifying soft power offensive from Moscow. The launch in May of Kremlin-owned news agency Sputnik’s Georgian-language service, expanding the outlet’s already significant international reach, coincides with statistics showing a doubling in public support in Georgia for membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, at the expense of the EU.

The opposition UNM party, a grouping founded by Georgia’s staunchly pro-Western ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, slams the incumbent Georgian Dream coalition for overseeing a steady erosion of the pro-Western course that UNM advanced during its time in power. According to Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP and senior figure in UNM, the administration is knowingly facilitating pro-Russian groups in the country.

“In 2012, Georgian Dream campaigned on a promise of improving relations with Russia, and a practical example is its conduct toward Ukraine. [Ukraine] is an opportunity for Georgia to elevate the issue of its own occupation, to highlight the obvious link between what are essentially two manifestations of the same problem. [The government] is doing the opposite of that,” he said.

An oft-cited example of Georgia’s commitment to NATO has been its contribution to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, which tiny Georgia has backed with more troops per capita troop than most nations in the military alliance. But with full territorial control one of the security bloc’s membership criteria, failure to agree on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — a process inevitably involving dialogue with Russia — is likely to continue stalling Georgia’s accession talks. Some observers doubt NATO’s commitment to bringing Georgia into the fold.

The country’s administration appears well aware of that. Tedo Japaridze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee, denied that the government has made any shift in its pro-Western orientation but was quick to stress the lack of a viable alternative to dialogue with Moscow.

“We’re realistic. We understand that we live in this region and we cannot change our geography. We’re still committed to integration with Western structures, but we don’t want to scream about it or poke our fingers into the bear’s eyes,” he said, referring to Russia.


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