The August 2008 war, events in Ukraine and role in Syria have raised concerns in the west that Russia seeks to reshape the post-Cold War international system and regain once lost positions around the world. “Deterring” Russia has become a crucial issue for NATO and its allies. But Georgia, where Russia is a crucial pillar of both domestic and foreign political narratives, has taken on this topic to a whole new level.
Russia may be actively involved in the Georgian economy, but our foreign policy narrative represents Russia as an existential threat. With Georgia’s status as a “beacon” of democracy in the South Caucasus taken as standard, the country finds itself under a continuous phantom threat from outside.
This is where Georgia’s domestic political narrative comes in. Ever since Mikheil Saakashvili divided society into “patriots” and “non-patriots” in the post-revolutionary years, the Georgian state has publicly searched for “enemy agents” in the form of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth columns” — these groups are “traitors” who try to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and aspirations to become a member of the civilised world.
Indeed, these exact terms have been used to abuse, oppress and libel various Georgian opposition groups and political parties by the political elite. Fast forward to 2016, this tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society and the country’s strategic partners.
In fact, there is no clear definition of Georgia’s “pro-Russian” phenomenon. Instead, there are various interpretations that make it easy to deploy this term against “undesirable” elements and thus legitimise the use of questionable methods against them.
Saakashvili’s rise, fall and rise again
Russia’s involvement in its southern neighbour’s political life is an old story. During the 1990s, the Russian state contributed to the unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separatist regions recognised by Russia) and Georgians were fully aware of that.
Still, there was no public obsession with Russia in Georgia. Russia wasn’t the focus of discussion locally or internationally. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003, did not push the idea of Russia as an enemy, instead trying to maintain good relationships with both the west and the north.
Everything changed dramatically after the Rose Revolution in 2003. The newly elected political trio of Mikhail Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze assured the international community that they will put the state on a democratic “path”. After the death of Zhvania in 2005, Saakashvili and his political team in the United National Movement (UNM) became the undisputed leaders of Georgia. Saakashvili tried to “restart” Georgian-Russian relations, but failed.
After the events of August 2004, when Saakasvhili’s government clashed with separatists in South Ossetia’s Tskhinvali region, it became clear that there was little ground for political dialogue between Georgia and Russia.
At the same time, the situation in Georgia itself also became more strained. Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian attitudes gave way to a political system with a “firm hand” and one dominant political party in parliament. Lacking balance, Saakashvili’s government made a few critical mistakes. By 2007, Saakasvhili’s popularity had seriously declined, which was reflected in a permanent protest that gathered thousands of people.
It was obvious that Saakashvili’s enormous support had melted away. In November of that year, Saakashvili ordered the dispersal of this peaceful protest, which led to mass riots, the closure of opposition TV broadcaster Imedi and the declaration of an emergency situation.
After Saakashvili was forced to resign and announce new presidential elections, it was clear Saakashvili was in need of a new political campaign that could consolidate Georgian society around him and legitimise his actions. He found it in Russia.
From November to November
The people who gathered in downtown Tbilisi in November 2007 came out against authoritarianism, abuse of rights and corruption. But prominent figures from UNM initially labelled it as a “pro-Russian rally” that aimed to dismantle Georgia, its sovereignty and overthrow the democratically elected pro-western government.
Saakashvili told local news agencies that “high-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this”. Givi Targamadze, the former chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, warned protesters that the government would not let the Russian flag be raised on Rustaveli avenue, Tbilisi’s central thoroughfare. Moreover, Targamadze argued, the participants of these events would “drown in blood”. This was the first case in which a high-ranking Georgian official directly accused a foreign country of an attempt to overthrow the government.
Later on, under the direct patronage of the government, Georgia’s Public Broadcaster released a documentary called From November to November, in which Nika Gvaramia, Georgia’s then deputy state prosecutor, argued that Georgian opposition forces were in a direct contact with the Russian security agencies.
Step-by-step, and using “secret recordings”, Gvaramia explained that the leaders of Georgia’s main opposition forces, such as Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party, Giorgi Khaindrava of the Equality Institute, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leader of the Freedom Party and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labor Party, directed the 2007 protests under the guidance of foreign agents. From November to November thus introduced the concept of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth column” into Georgia’s domestic political culture, justifying the government’s actions as a “necessary evil”. Despite these allegations, no one was arrested or with treason or the organisation of an attempted coup.
Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”. As Koba Turmanidze, the director of Caucasus Research Resource Center, argued, an openly “pro-Russian” position could provoke a “harsh response”. This “response” was revealed several years later on 26 May 2011, when protesters led by Nino Burjanadze in Tbilisi were accosted by security officers and brutally beaten. Four people were later found dead.
The government called this protest “pro-Russian”, and easily justified its actions while members of Georgian society — afraid of the same fate — turned a blind eye to this “punitive” operation. By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”.
Even though Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution government tried hard to stay in power, it lost parliamentary elections to the “pro-Russian” political party Georgian Dream in 2012.
Saakashvili’s attempts to represent Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarchic leader of Georgia’s opposition movement, as a close ally of Vladimir Putin failed. As soon as these “agents of foreign states” came to power, they assured Georgian society they would normalise Georgian-Russian relations.
But while there were hopes that the new government would dismantle the dubious concept of “pro-Russian forces”, Georgian society was deceived. Saakashvili’s legacy remained strong. Just like UNM in the past, Georgian Dream slowly haemorrhaged support thanks to its frequently illogical and ineffective reforms in various fields, including the extremely sensitive judicial and electoral systems. And on top of that, the failure of the Georgian-Russian “reset” intensified dissatisfaction among the electorate, on the one hand, and positions of anti-Russian groups, on the other.
By September 2015, one year before parliamentary elections in October 2016, and in the wake of Georgian Dream’s falling approval ratings, Russia became relevant again. In a BBC interview, Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s defence minister at the time, urged western states to support Georgia on its way toward NATO and EU integration — otherwise pro-Russian forces would be represented in the new parliament. Funnily enough, it was a colleague of Khidasheli’s who appeared in the secret recording with a Russian intelligence operative in From November to November that “proved” Russia’s involvement in the November 2007 events.
It is a paradox that Tina Khidasheli, an active participant of the “Russian-led” events in November 2007, began a search for “Russian spies” among opposition members in the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. Nowadays, both the government and opposition use the concept to corral votes and marginalise one another other.
For instance, take July’s OSCE parliamentary assembly annual meeting in Tbilisi. During the session, OSCE members should have voted for a new president. The UNM presented its own candidate Gigi Tseretely, while the ruling party opposed. By the end of the day, the dispute was not about Tseretely’s candidacy, but rather about which side was cooperating with the Russian delegation. It should be noted that while the Bush administration was previously keen to trust Saakashvili on “pro-Russian forces”, nowadays, it is a less popular topic abroad.
Russia is both an important trade partner and a threat to Georgian security, but Mikheil Saakashvili managed to transform the country into a popular political method to marginalise his political opponents and oppress them.
Now, two months before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, which is unable and unwilling to crack down on opponents, is also using the concept to consolidate the electorate.
So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.