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Europe’s fate rests on Georgia It offers Russia precious access to the Black Sea

A nation fighting for survival. Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP/Getty Images

A nation fighting for survival. Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP/Getty Images


May 20, 2024   6 mins

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the foreign policy of Georgia’s ruling party has been nothing short of schizophrenic. For years, Georgian Dream has been flirting with both the European Union and paradoxically with Moscow, Georgia’s age-old enemy which invaded the country in 2008 and still occupies 20% of its territory. But in light of the deep geopolitical cleavages that have emerged since 2022, such a delicate balancing act was always bound to fail.   

At times, Georgia has appeared committed to closer ties with the EU. In December 2022, along with Azerbaijan and EU members Romania and Hungary, it signed a momentous deal to build an electric cable running 1,200km under the Black Sea as part of a project that would reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian oil and gas. A year later, in December 2023, Georgia was granted candidate status by the EU, which then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, a member of Georgian Dream, hailed as a “historic victory”.

Yet despite its ever-closer ties with Europe, Georgian Dream, whose party chairman is a Georgian oligarch is closely linked to Russia, has simultaneously been soft on Moscow since the war broke out. In February 2022, it refused to join Europe in imposing sanctions on Russia when it invaded Ukraine. Georgia went on to become a key conduit for Russia-bound goods, playing a crucial part in helping Russia’s economy weather Western sanctions. It welcomed Russia’s suspension of a flight ban to Georgia in 2023, and repeatedly accused the West of trying to draw it into the war in Ukraine.

Now, Georgia Dream appears to have made its final choice. Last Tuesday, after weeks of some of the largest protests Tbilisi has ever seen, the party passed a highly controversial foreign agents law, under which any NGOs or media outlets receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas would have to register as “organisations serving the interests of a foreign power”. The law would effectively force certain political groups opposed to Georgian Dream to register as foreign agents or face large fines, and although Georgian Dream has maintained the law is about transparency, its leaders have already suggested it would be used to shield Georgia from Western liberal values. The vote was preceded by a brawl in Parliament; afterwards, raging protestors besieged the building. On Saturday, Georgia’s pro-EU President Salome Zourabichvili said she had vetoed the law, but her opposition will very likely be merely symbolic — Georgian Dream is anticipated to override the veto as soon as later this month.

Protesters have compared the law to Russian legislation used by the Kremlin to punish dissenters and force opposition non-profits to close. Many fear it will be used to the same ends in Georgia. But according to Inal Khashig, a journalist and political commentator from Abkhazia, one of the two Georgian regions under Russian occupation, it is what the law symbolises that is most concerning: “Few people understand, but the Law on Foreign Agents has a certain sacred meaning for the Kremlin,” Khashig wrote on Telegram. “This is a kind of oath of allegiance. Something like Kipling’s ‘you and I are of the same blood’.”

If the law stands, and Georgian Dream escalates its crackdown on protestors using state-backed campaigns of intimidation, police violence, and armed thugs it has already unleashed on crowds over the last few weeks, Georgia will end up ostracised by Europe and the US and find itself steadily pulled back into Moscow’s orbit. This scenario risks threatening not only Georgia, but the whole of Europe, disturbing security and trade across Eurasia as well as EU energy politics and even the war in Ukraine. 

The consequences would be no less dramatic if Georgian Dream were to capitulate and rescind the law. Without such a powerful cudgel, the party would probably lose power in Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, pathing the way for a full-scale westward tilt and eventually EU and perhaps even Nato membership. From the Kremlin’s perspective, this would be almost as serious as Ukraine joining the alliance.

The stakes of Georgia’s protests could hardly be higher, and will almost certainly cause ripple effects across the Black Sea region, which, since February 2022, has become a major and violent theatre of the war in Ukraine. Nearly from its start, Russia’s war in Ukraine has hampered its ability to project power in the Black Sea. By late 2022, Russia’s Black Sea fleet had been assailed by Ukrainian missiles and drones, while its vulnerable Kerch Strait Bridge, the only connection between occupied Crimea and mainland Russia, was constantly under assault. 

Moscow found itself increasingly vulnerable in a Black Sea region surrounded by hostile Nato and Nato-allied states — with the exception of Georgia and a stretch of occupied Ukrainian coastline. It soon deemed its long-time naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea to be too exposed to Ukrainian attacks to house its Black Sea fleet, and in late 2023, it announced the construction of a new base on the coast of occupied Abkhazia, just 30km from the border of Georgian-controlled territory. Georgian Dream was in no position to meaningfully oppose the move, and despite all its talk of the West trying to drag Georgia into the war in Ukraine, it was Russia that was seemingly bringing the war to Georgia’s doorstep. Since the base’s announcement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made no secret of the fact that the Ukrainian military would continue to target the Russian navy even in Abkhazia.

With few good alternatives, Russia would happily take advantage of a solidly Russia-aligned Georgia to strengthen its position along the Black Sea, potentially even building naval and air bases on sovereign Georgian territory. This could broaden the war into the eastern reaches of the Black Sea and Georgia itself.

Georgia is not only an appealing ally from a military perspective, but also from an economic one. It lies at the heart of the Middle Corridor, a group of trade routes that connect Central Asia to Europe via the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus, whose potential is only beginning to become apparent. As Russia has been cut off from Western trade networks and maritime trade through the Red Sea has plummeted following the Houthis’ attacks of cargo ships, the Middle Corridor has grown increasingly attractive — not only does it bypass both problem areas, but planned railway modernisations will make it markedly faster than either of the two other routes in the next three years. It’s one of many reasons why the West wants to keep Georgia in its camp. 

Another is the new Black Sea submarine cable. In order to limit its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, the EU has embraced Azerbaijan and its abundant Caspian oil and gas reserves and the cable intended to transport Azeri energy to Europe would have to run through Georgia. According to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, not only would these new energy sources be used to enhance access to power in the Western Balkans and Moldova, both arenas in the West’s war of influence with Russia, but they could also aid the future reconstruction of Ukraine’s war-damaged energy infrastructure.

Both the Middle Corridor and the Black Sea cable project depend on Georgia remaining free from Russian domination. If, however, Georgia capitulates to Moscow, it could become a pariah in the eyes of the West and find itself chased out of the American-led economic market, nullifying the appeal of both the Middle Corridor and the cable. European energy deals with Azerbaijan would suddenly be imperiled, threatening the last decent option the continent had to maintain its energy needs, while EU trade with Central and East Asia would become more arduous and expensive than ever. Only Russia would stand to gain, as it would effectively exercise control over every significant overland trade route from Asia to Europe.

“An EU-aspiring Georgia that might eventually join Nato would necessitate a wholesale reorientation of Russian forces in its south.”

Yet Russia has stayed relatively quiet in recent weeks. Although Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has vocally supported Georgian Dream’s effort to pass the foreign agent law and expressed Russia’s interest in a “stable and predictable” Georgia, he has scoffed at the suggestion that the law has anything to do with Russia. So long as Georgian Dream stays the course and incorporates Georgia back into the Russkiy mir, the Russian world, Moscow has few reasons to devote much attention to it at a time while its focus is on Ukraine. 

That would, however, change dramatically if Georgia were to gaze westward again. An EU-aspiring Georgia that might eventually join Nato would necessitate a wholesale reorientation of Russian forces in its south. This would be particularly significant because forces in the Caucasus region near Georgia are under the command of Russia’s Southern Military District, which is also tasked with maintaining the occupation of Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. With potential Nato troops on its southern doorstep, the Southern Military District would be stretched to its limit and Russian forces would be spread thin at a time when they can least afford it.

But Georgia’s destiny is also highly symbolic. Having emerged as a promising young democracy, Georgia’s transformation into a Russian puppet state would be a devastating loss for the cause of global freedom. The good news, however, is that in Georgia, popular protests have historically had power — a similar wave of dissent forced Georgian Dream to withdraw the same foreign agent law in 2023. Now that the law has been passed, the task before the Georgian people is a far more difficult one. Any protestor in Tbilisi will tell you that they are fighting for the survival of their nation — but the truth is that riding on their shoulders is the fate of millions of others across the Eurasian heartland.


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago

“The party passed a highly controversial foreign agents law, under which any NGOs or media outlets receiving more than 20% of their funding from overseas would have to register as ‘organizations serving the interests of a foreign power’.”
Actually, could we borrow that? I kind of like it. How about adding a stipulation if more than a quarter of your funding comes from governments, you’re not a “nongovernmental organization” and will be treated as nothing more than a government funded lobbying group? I’m sick of the NGO hustle.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Totally agree. Far from promoting democracy, these NGOs are a cancer, eating away at democracy.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Depending on where you live, odds are that law is already on the books.
It’s just further proof of Putin’s uncanny and all-pervasive power to undermine western civilisation!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The law doesn’t only cover “registration” (which would be entirely appropriate), it also has some pretty sinister clauses that would de facto allow the government to shut down NGOs it does not like. A good example of the perils of commenting on a law you haven’t read.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I would like to read the text,in English. I know, Google.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Since NGOs are typically funded by govts, biting the hands that feed them might not be the brightest move to make.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

What about Russian-funded NGOs in Europe or the US?

Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Like many I thought the law did not sound unreasonable and, personally, I don’t think NGOs should be allowed to get any of their money from governments.

What was missing from this article was any details as to why this law would be bad.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

What’s wrong with that? The Open Society has destroyed vast tracts of the US on multiple levels and should have been shut down. Our liberal democracies are very weak and have been hijacked by extremists in the guise of NGOs.

Steve White
Steve White
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

At stake is either Georgia will maintain sovereignty or become a US hegemon puppet sending it’s sons to die so the Victoria Nuland type of NeoCons can feel like this one will be the “game changer” they are looking for in the long list of potential “game changers”.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 month ago

How many divisions does the EU have?

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago

 â€œProtesters have compared the law to Russian legislation used by the Kremlin to punish dissenters and force opposition non-profits to close.“

Yes, but supporters of these Georgian laws point out that they also draw heavily from, and are very similar to, legislation enacted in…wait for it…the USA. What is it about the threat of foreign NGOs in the US that isn’t the case in Georgia Mr Kranz?

As for Georgia ‘gazing Westwards’ that might seem nice, but then they were gazing Westwards in 2008 when they started their war with Russia (as confirmed by an EU report). If there hadn’t been all the RAND, CSIS and other Neocon nutjob think-tanks blandly discussing using Georgia to ‘overextend’ Russia over the last two decades then I might be more open to the view that these NGOs are all the very best of people doing the very best things for the Georgian population – but the bitter experience of Iraq, Libya, Syria and beyond give us absolutely no reason to be generous to them now.  

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 month ago

Can we stop being melodramatic and spread falsehoods?

Moscow … which invaded the country in 2008

The EU’s own investigation determined that Georgia started the war in 2008. Then-president Saakashvili, emboldened by G W Bush’s embrace of Georgia, started the shooting, confident the US would ride to his rescue. True to form, the US didn’t, and Russia withdrew after inflicting a painful lesson.
One has to admire Putin’s long reach. The Georgian law is modelled after the US FARA, passed in 1938, and is on the books in the EU as well. It is a very common and common-sense piece of legislation. Why Putin would want one in Georgia is a mystery, since it would reveal the extent of Putin’s pernicious influence in the country. But I’m sure that Putin, master of three-dimensional chess and consummate KGB-trained plotter of the callow West’s downfall, has it all figured out!
In the meantime, draconian censorship laws proliferate in Europe.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

I lived in Georgia for six years and wrote my PhD on the country.The author writes that “riding on their shoulders is the fate of millions of others across the Eurasian heartland.” Well, no, it isn’t. What is at stake here is the future political alignment of a beautiful country with high symbolic value that is however very small and has very limited strategic significance.
The strategic value of Georgia (to both Russia and the West) has consistently been overhyped. For example, excluding Abkhazia which is already in the Russian camp, Georgia’s Black Sea shoreline is extremely short. The Caucasus mountains divide it from Russia, so Georgian NATO membership poses far less of a threat to Moscow (literally) than Ukrainian NATO membership does.
Georgia does act as a corridor for transit routes and pipelines, but these all also require active cooperation from Azerbaijan, which has arguably moved far closer to Russia than Georgia in recent years. This does not seem to have endangered any of these projects, whose % contribution to European energy supplies are and will remain miniscule.
(Does anyone remember the years when the West convinced itself that Afghanistan was strategically significant?)
As for the supposed “devastating loss for the cause of global freedom”, let’s zoom out. Georgia’s population is around 4 million. Contrast that with the ongoing slide into authoritarianism by India with its over one billion people.
What happens in Georgia does matter – but largely only to Georgians.

Peter Buchan
Peter Buchan
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Well put – and refreshing to have such deep and cogent analysis (for a change).
There is a perspective that “meta-data is (often) more useful than data”. Set against this simple observation:
An analysis of ONLY the main article headings and sub-headings on UnHerd stand testament to the emotionally driven, un-anchored and (often) ahistorical perspectives held across the West in general, and the Anglo-sphere “5-Eyes” countries in particular. Oh, the hand wringing!To wit: even just this edition of UnHerd has 2 competing hair-on-fire propositions: Europe’s future will now seemingly be determined either by Hungary or Georgia. Well, which is it?
Whatever the case, Georgia seems to be on the brink of its – second – “Maidan moment”. These idealistic, haute morality, haute politico-couture (yes, I made these up) Western interventions have proven so very…useful…for “target nation states”, haven’t they?

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter Buchan

Deleted

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Agree, the article sounds more like agenda driven western interference and pro NATO expansionism. No wonder Russia gets paranoid, the agenda is the evertighening encirclement and isolation of Russia . Georgia needs to be very careful here, or they will end up in conflict like in Ukraine, in a geopolitical proxy war, the people will suffer, not the outsiders manipulating them.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Canuck

Neocons gonna neocon


Sayantani G
Sayantani G
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

That comment about India was unnecessary. It’s a silly canard and is not true.
The only ” slide into authoritarianism ” is in fevered and jealous Western MSM fed by Soros.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago

I hope this platform doesn’t go the same way as The Neocon Times (of London), and The Spectator too for that matter.
All the evidence of this article is that if at all possible, Washington will try to disseminate propaganda via every British media outlet available in terms of controlling the destiny of the post-Soviet bloc.

Ian Folkins
Ian Folkins
1 month ago

This is a fundamentally silly, hyperbolic article. It is the foreign funded NGO’s trying to foment a colour revolution that are antidemocratic. Why don’t Georgians have the right to self determination like other countries? The NGO’s possess all the usual western obsessions about trying to spread transgender ideology on behalf of Big Pharma. And attempting to join NATO would be path to self destruction, just like it has been for Ukraine.

Andrew Morbey
Andrew Morbey
1 month ago

If you have been following the news, western media have been covering protests in Georgia over a proposed law which critics say is anti-democratic. The law calls for NGOs and other organizations working in Georgia that receive a certain percentage of foreign funding to be registered as foreign agents. Further it is claimed that this law will somehow benefit Russia.
There are several things to note. The protests are largely funded and supported by foreign agents, specifically American and European NGOs and related organizations. There are western voices – recently Francis Fukuyama! – calling for open and explicit intervention in Georgia ‘to save democracy’.  
It must be understood that what ‘democracy’ means in these arguments is a very particular progressive notion of democracy, and that it is the goal of these NGOs and other organisations and the governments and elites behind them to use protest and ultimately financial blackmail to enforce and embed a socially progressive agenda in Georgian society.
The proposed law, by the way, makes no exception for Russian money. Russian funded programs would also be registered. It is important to note how widely – if unevenly – unpopular Russia is in Georgia. Georgians are naturally suspicious of Russia. That Russia is a threat is both very true and in this case a distraction. There is a kind of switch and bait tactic being played by American and European groups in Georgia.
Finally, if you come across someone who thinks that insisting on financial transparency for organizations funded from the abroad is anti-democratic, remind them that American NGOs typically have to report foreign income if they receive funding or generate revenue from sources outside the United States, and must comply with relevant tax laws and regulations, including those related to reporting foreign income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the United States.
An indeed: an American NGO may be identified as a “foreign agent” under certain circumstances, typically in the context of foreign influence or lobbying laws. Here are a few scenarios where an American NGO might be classified as a foreign agent:
Foreign Funding with Strings Attached: If an American NGO receives significant funding from a foreign government or entity with the expectation that it will promote the interests of that foreign entity, it may be considered a foreign agent. This designation could apply if the NGO is perceived as advancing the agenda of the foreign entity rather than pursuing its own Activities on Behalf of Foreign Interests: If an American NGO engages in activities such as lobbying, public relations, or advocacy on behalf of a foreign government, political party, or organization without proper disclosure, it could be classified as a foreign agent. This might include activities aimed at influencing U.S. policy or public opinion in a manner that aligns with the interests of a foreign entity.Legal Definitions: The term “foreign agent” may also have specific legal definitions and implications under U.S. law, particularly in the context of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires individuals and organizations acting on behalf of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to register with the U.S. Department of Justice and disclose their activities and relationships

c donnellan
c donnellan
1 month ago

‘Democracy’ aka the rule of Big Money behind the scenes.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Maybe the Western-focused binary is not the way for every other country. Perhaps Georgia sees a benefit in an “and” approach rather than an ‘or.’ Someone is also going to have to explain why the measure about NGOs is controversial. Those organizations are not the touchy-feely do-gooders their supporters claim them to be. Stateside, NGOs are pocketing billions of American taxpayer dollars to facilitate an invasion of the country.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Who writes these article titles ? Russia already has access to the Black Sea.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Probably AI-generated…

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 month ago

The Georgian opposition parties are being funded from outside the country. No western country would allow that. After witnessing the destruction of Ukraine, it must be very clear to a Georgians that a dalliance with NATO would mean the end of their country.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
1 month ago

My pattern recognition was triggered by the news of “organic” protests in favour of the EU, further confirmed to hear the place is being flooded with foreign NGO’s.

David Stewart
David Stewart
1 month ago

Georgia isn’t even in Europe, it’s on the Asian side of the Caucasus Mountains.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Nothing wrong with that law whatsoever. It’s not remotely controversial 
 Georgia must never join NATO 
 stop antagonising Russia! Stop it!

Russia is not our enemy but the warpig neocons in DC want them to be thought of as such partially to continue to milk the tax base but eventually to bring down Putin in order to access Russian commodities on our terms. Then break the country up. Job done. Game over.

The US will be responsible for 1 million Slavs deaths by the time the Ukraine war is over, they must not be allowed to repeat that in Georgia.