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Two recent events in Georgia resemble a major political crisis that could drag Russia and the United States into a confrontation. First Nikanor Melia, the leader of the biggest opposition (and former ruling) party United National Movement (UNM) was arrested. Then the prime minister resigned in protest at the arrest, and was swiftly replaced. The Georgian opposition now has its very own political martyr and grounds to hold protests and appeal to the West for support.
Melia was arrested over unrest that broke out back in the summer of 2019 after the ruling party, Georgian Dream, invited a Russian delegation to the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy and allowed the delegation’s head, Sergei Gavrilov, to sit in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s chair.
With the U.S. State Department expressing concern over the arrest of the opposition politician, at first glance, these events may look like yet another clash in the post-Soviet space between pro-Russian authorities and a pro-Western opposition supported by the United States. The reality is very different.
Georgian Dream and UNM, which was founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, have been locked in a vicious power struggle for many years that has seen arrests, political emigration, and revanchism. Yet whatever their differences, the parties agree on a Euro-Atlantic consensus, and share basic values such as the ambition to join NATO and the European Union.
Georgian Dream’s founder Bidzina Ivanishvili and his team have continued the foreign policy course set by Saakashvili. The differences between them were and remain largely tactical and stylistic. Saakashvili staked everything on escalating tensions with Moscow, counting on support from his foreign friends. Ivanishvili’s more pragmatic entourage followed a path of normalizing relations with Russia—at least until 2019—but only with the end goal of joining the EU and NATO. It was a tactic to alleviate the concerns of foreign partners such as Germany and France who had opposed accelerating Georgia’s accession to NATO.
Both Georgian Dream and UNM are prepared to use the “Russian factor” in their battle, and the current crisis is indeed largely a result of its use. Back in 2019, the opposition seized on the sight of a Russian Duma deputy sitting in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s chair to play the powerful patriotic card, and protests ensued. That put an abrupt end to the cautious normalization of relations with Russia. Direct flights between the two countries were suspended once again, and for the first time since the five-day war of August 2008, a Georgian police checkpoint was set up on the western part of Georgia’s border with its Moscow-supported breakaway territory, South Ossetia.
Since the events of 2019, the Georgian authorities and opposition have competed to show who is the bigger patriot and champion of restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Both are prepared to accept the United States as an arbiter in that competition, making Washington a key player in Georgian domestic politics.
The Biden administration has announced that “America is back,” but still, the United States is in no rush to interfere in Georgia’s domestic conflicts. With no doubt that Georgia’s geopolitical orientation is firmly Euro-Atlantic, Washington is content to express concern and call for restraint, while the U.S. ambassador declares Georgian unity to be a key factor in containing “Russian aggression.”
In Russia—both in expert circles and in the corridors of power—the possibility of Saakashvili reentering Georgian politics, never mind returning to power, is seen as little short of a catastrophe. But putting emotions to one side, it’s clear that Georgian Dream’s foreign policy differs little from its predecessor’s. It was Georgian Dream that signed the Association Agreement with the EU (the height of ambition for Saakashvili’s team), negotiated visa-free travel with Schengen Area countries, and confirmed the country’s status as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner of NATO.
For Moscow, the difference between the arrested UNM leader Melia and the new Georgian Dream prime minister Irakli Garibashvili is entirely superficial—especially since Melia is not part of Saakashvili’s inner circle. If Melia ever comes to power, he would be far from certain to share it with Saakashvili, or even to return to the latter’s rhetoric.
Regardless of how the current standoff in Georgia unfolds, geopolitical pivots there are unlikely. Even those parties and politicians who have called for dialogue with Moscow (the Alliance of Patriots and Nino Burjanadze’s United Georgia party) are in favor of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity: i.e., regaining control of the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are currently propped up by Moscow.
The dismal results seen by Alliance of Patriots and United Georgia in the last parliamentary elections (3.1 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively) show that today, the majority of Georgians favor the Euro-Atlantic path of development for their country. That may not always be the case: there is some skepticism with regard to the West. Yet there is no one in Georgia who could be even remotely compared in terms of influence with Igor Dodon in Moldova, or Viktor Medvedchuk in Ukraine.
This factor is what is keeping a lid on the temperature of the geopolitical standoff over Georgia. The main task of the West right now is to prevent both serious civil clashes there and a Georgian Dream dictatorship from taking shape. And that’s less about the supposed pro-Russian orientation of a party or the particular commitment of the new U.S. administration to democratic values than the fact that a consolidated regime that needs no external support could drastically change Tbilisi’s foreign policy priorities. On the other hand, chaos and civil strife are also undesirable, since they are considered fertile ground for Russian interference—especially if the West fails in its role as an intermediary among the Georgian parties.
For this reason, Washington will do everything it can to cut short the current crisis. But even if it is unsuccessful, a repetition of the 2003 revolution is improbable, meaning that the domestic Georgian clashes are unlikely to lead to a confrontation between the global powers.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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