The Georgian Dream government has attracted widespread criticism for what many — both at home and abroad — regarded as their half-hearted stance during Russian aggression against Ukraine. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s clear-cut rejection of joining international sanctions against Russia and alleged obstruction of a group of volunteers to fly to Ukraine were among controversies that boosted massive pro-Ukraine protests in Georgia. The move further led President Zelenskyy to recall the ambassador from Tbilisi for consultations.
In light of seemingly deteriorating relations between Tbilisi and war-torn Kyiv, Civil.ge asked experts and former officials to assess the government’s steps in this regard and offer their views on how the authorities could proceed.
Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s Former Defense Minister
Tina Khidasheli describes the current political stance of the Georgian authorities towards the Russian aggression as “the biggest mistake the government can make now,” saying they fail to acknowledge that outcome of the developments in Ukraine directly affects Georgia. “We’ve already witnessed this yesterday in a resolution of the European Parliament, which did not even discuss Georgia.”
According to Khidasheli, there are many things Georgia and its government can do in the current context, and new tasks emerge as the situation rapidly changes. “The government needs to act now – within the next 24, 48 hours – not to allow the closure of the process on the EU integration path.” Aside from making an official membership application, Khidasheli reckons Tbilisi needs to get rid of the uneasiness of relations that emerged after the ruling GD party withdrew from the EU-mediated April 19 agreement and disregarded some of the commitments. She says the GD has to re-commit to the provisions of the April 19 deal “to demonstrate to Brussels that we are reliable partners.”
Khidasheli lists a number of practical steps Georgia can take, including providing humanitarian aid, declaring an open refugee policy, or offering Ukraine effective cybersecurity support to properly demonstrate support for Ukraine.
She says “nobody is asking [from Georgia] to come up with new sanctions – there is neither expectation nor logistical capacities for that.” Calling Prime Minister’s statement about not joining sanctions “funny,” Khidasheli said Georgia already joined sanctions to a degree.
“In international organizations, the UN or the Council of Europe, we vote in favor of Ukraine and it was clear from the beginning that we’d be doing so; also, VTB bank [owned by the Russian state] has been sanctioned and the National Bank of Georgia has issued the order to sanction it,” says Khidasheli.
“But we need to talk about what we are going to do anyways instead of denying joining sanctions. What does this even mean if not Garibashvili fulfilling his political duty before Kremlin?”
Giorgi Kanashvili, Peace and Conflict Specialist
“Fear and apathy” are the two words to describe the statements and moves by the Georgian authorities, says Giorgi Kanashvili. He thinks that authorities have been passing wrong messages to their own population, Ukrainians, and the international community. But the expert says the government stance does not represent the attitudes of large parts of the Georgian public who have been supporting Ukrainians “morally, financially, and physically” since 2014. The rest in Georgia who agree with the government’s rhetoric do so over “fear and traumas that exist towards Russia,” Kanashvili argues.
Under such conditions, he thinks that “the government, which has a responsibility – and these [conflict] processes can really resume here in a day or two – should not be sowing fear and apathy” through their statements about imminent threats from Russia instead of cheering people up.
Kanashvili also directs his criticism towards the opposition for instrumentalizing the process when demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister or the government. “I cannot understand how the change of government is to take place when there is a war going on, the enemy is at your door and you go ahead and schedule [elections] and lead a campaign.” Recalling Maidan developments, he warns that “the opposition seems to have forgotten what the pretext of [Russian] invasion in Ukraine in 2014.”
Instead, the expert is advocating for a “whole society approach” when the domestic actors put their differences and pursue a common policy, with the government having lion’s share but the opposition, too, taking responsibility. Even though “it may sound delusional,” Kanashvili suggests the authorities may have declared a moratorium on domestic issues as long as the war is going on in Ukraine, invited opposition and various stakeholders to cooperate in different frameworks, or even offered interim positions to opposition representatives in the government or special structure created for this purpose.
“This would have made each next step more legitimate,” Kanashvili says. He argues that the opposition would agree, like in the case of President Zurabishvili’s “National Accord” process where rival parties eventually sat down to talk.
“In the worst-case scenario, we may have to choose between war and capitulation, where both decisions are very hard to make and if I were a Prime Minister, I would have tried to share this responsibility with the entire political spectrum,” says Kanashvili, advising the government to move towards consensus-based policies.
Paata Zakareishvili, Georgia’s Former Minister of Reconciliation
Paata Zakareishvili negatively views the government’s stance, arguing that among many concerned countries in the world, Georgia is most affected by the Ukraine developments. “Georgia is the only country which has already endured the aggression currently taking place in Ukraine,” he says.
Through such policy, “the Georgian government confirms to Russia that its 2008 military action was justified and Russia achieved its goal,” says the former Minister, comparing the results with those of two wars in Chechnya. “These operations confirmed for Russia that if you punish the disobedient people, they stop being disobedient,” he notes. According to the expert, Russia achieved scared Georgia, a disabled country from which it won’t expect problems, and went to attack Ukraine in the hope to achieve similar results.
“This is not a pro-Russian policy. This is a Russia-achieved policy.”
Zakareishvili says that the key objective of the Georgian Dream government is to cling to power without having functioning democracy, institutions, that makes their interests and those of the Kremlin overlap: “Russia is the only state which will tolerate [in Georgia] any kind of rule but the democratic one – be it shadow rule or informal rule.”
While Zakareishvili does not expect any right moves from the GD authorities, he believes that the country should be clear in its resolutions, to call it “Russian aggression” which itself had endured, and call on the world to consider EU-NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia. “If all this time our western partners were saying that they could not take bold steps about membership because Russia could start a war, now Russia has started the war.”
The expert also thinks that Georgia should be joining – at least verbally – Western economic sanctions, close the airspace which he says has been closed by Russia anyways, referring to Putin’s direct flight ban to Georgia. He also lists other symbolic moves, such as the President of Georgia arriving in Ukraine, perhaps relatively safer Lviv to reaffirm the support of the Georgian people. Should it come to any agreement after the war, Zakareishvili finds it necessary for Georgia to remind the world that Russia has been violating the six-point agreement signed after the 2008 August war and advocate for Russian troops to leave Georgia.