Dispatch – February 28/March 1: Averting Shame

Georgians Shameful of Government’s Ukraine Stance – Gov’t Defends Passivity Citing Risks and Responsibilities – President’s Lonely Crusade to Voice Country’s Support

The war is raging elsewhere, and bombs are falling far from Georgia, but government leaders appear like they are the ones to have to seek shelters and hide. And in those short moments when they get out of their shell, many wish they’d had kept their silence. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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ATTABOY Georgians, terrified by Russian aggression but inspired by the courage and resistance of Ukrainians are showing, have a hard time tolerating what they see as the government leaders’ inadequate, timid response to the ongoing war. Aside from some supportive tweets authorities did not look very enthusiastic about showing solidarity for Ukraine in the first days of the war. Protests had already followed Prime Garibashvili’s self-confident, nearly proudly-sounding remarks on February 25 about not joining Western sanctions against Russia, while the ruling Georgian Dream party had also refused to hold an extraordinary parliamentary session on the matter despite President’s greenlight. Thus, alongside the supportive messages for Ukraine, calls for “traitor” Garibashvili to quit were also heard in massive rallies that have been held in Tbilisi and elsewhere in Georgia since the war broke out.

ANOTHER GO But after it became clear that Ukraine was doing well averting the attack and the international community reached an unprecedented unity to help the invaded country out and punish the aggressor, some in Georgia hoped the ruling party leadership would come to its senses and turn to less shameful rhetoric. The opposite happened: “The capital of Ukraine is being bombed and we see that there is nobody to stop this and let us say directly that sanctions are not effective means,” Garibashvili said on February 28 defending his earlier position in his usual parental tone (which reminded of his recent similarly skeptical remarks about how vaccines do not work against Omicron variant). Responding to opposition criticism, he also reiterated his dissatisfaction with the former government’s handling of the 2008 war.

LEFT OUT This did not bode well with the general public, including among many of those who were not necessarily quite hawkish about relations with Russia: lots of people feel ashamed about government reactions as Ukrainians give their lives against the common enemy. And as reports about Ukrainian appeal to fast-tracked EU accession arrive, there are also worries that Georgia, through its reserved approach, may be missing the one-time opportunity to make rapid firm gains in its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

LET MY PEOPLE GO And neither was that all: late on February 28, dozens of Georgian volunteers who have organized to arrive in Ukraine to assist the country to fight off the invaders, complained about the government not allowing a private jet for their transfer into the country. Eventually, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal had to call on PM Garibashvili in his tweets to allow the volunteers to fly to Ukraine.

EXCUSES The government has been justifying its overly reserved stance with the responsibility to protect its population in the face of real threats of the occupying force which is capable to inflict immediate harm to the country. Foreign Minister Davit Zalkaliani, who’s been on phone talks with European diplomats to discuss the developments in Ukraine, similarly defended the government’s position, even citing EU High Representative Josep Borrell talking about threats for Georgia. But critics do not favor this stance, worrying that the ruling elites are either Russia’s pawns or cannot let go of the identity as the more peaceful political force that they’ve been building for years.

EVERY LITTLE HELPS? In the meantime, authorities showed some initiative to send a hundred tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine but still managed to meet criticism as stickers on cargo read “Government of Georgia”- which, observers have pointed out, is in contrast to other countries which generally identify “people” of respective nations as senders. Also, after the initially controversial statement that appeared supportive for the Georgian branch of the Russian state-owned VTB bank amid sanctions, the National Bank of Georgia reaffirmed its compliance with sanctions and stressed it had instructed the financial institutions to adhere to the rules (read more here). The government also said it would take care of Ukrainians stranded in Georgia.

But for many critics, this is not enough. Several opposition parties and activists called for Georgia to also shut its airspace for Russia and bar its state media and local pro-Kremlin networks from broadcasting in Georgia. But so far, it looks less likely for Georgian authorities, who keep citing both security and economic risks for a country as vulnerable as Georgia, to turn to more assertive measures.

LONEWOLF Back in 2018, when Salome Zurabishvili was a ruling party-backed presidential candidate, she faced a rare storm of criticism and hate for what her critics perceived as spreading Russian narrative about the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Less than for years later, as a President, she appears to be the last hope for many Georgians to be properly represented internationally as they are desperate to get rid of the “shame” they believe Garibashvili’s remarks have brought on the country. Since the outbreak of the full-scale war, the President – with little official powers she has – has tried to assume leadership to make Georgian voice heard amid the Russian aggression and possibly engage in international efforts to address the crisis.

POWER OF POWERLESS In her lonely crusade, Zurabishvili seems ready to go to the lengths (literally) to counterbalance Tbilisi’s passivity: having started with active Twiplomacy and phone talks with world leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself, she now headed to Europe to directly engage the leading powers and advocate for Ukrainian and Georgian causes. Having met French President Emanuel Macron in Paris on February 28, she travels to Brussels on March 1. But the key highlight was her Monday video address where she reiterated firm support for Ukraine on behalf of the Georgian people, hinting she did not want her country to be seen otherwise.

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life.