A Ukraine-style uprising could lead to another bloody war
Huge protests against a now-dropped law in Georgia that would have obliged foreign-funded entities and individuals to register with the state were quickly compared to Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution. For some, images of water cannons and tear gas being turned on civilians waving EU flags illustrated another clear moral conflict, with a pro-Western populace desperate to throw off the yoke of a Putin-friendly government.
There may be truth in such portrayals, but there is danger too. EU diplomatic sources see the situation in Georgia as a complicated picture in which there are no easy answers, but a real risk of bloodshed.
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Georgia’s continued relations with Russia are widely attributed to the self-interested motives of its ruling elites. The Georgian Dream party is suspected of currying favour with Moscow by, among other tactics, helping Russia bypass EU sanctions, with investigations showing Russian goods making their way via Georgia into Turkey and then to Bulgaria under false papers. Georgia has, meanwhile, seen booming imports of EU goods that suspiciously outstrip apparent domestic demand since the imposition of sanctions on Russia.
Georgian Dream shows little sign of wanting to cut Russia off economically, but its choice between the West and Russia is by no means a simple one. Geographical and demographic realities favour at least a degree of balance; Russia is Georgia’s second largest trading partner after Turkey, and its dominant market for key industries such as wine and tourism. This arguably puts Georgia in an impossible situation, as cooperation with the West or Russia becomes an either/or choice.
The leaders of Georgian Dream are keen to point out that this dilemma is set against a real risk of war. Russian troops are stationed in breakaway regions just 40km from the capital Tbilisi — following the pro-Western protests, Russia ominously warned of “provocations” in those breakaway regions. Just this week, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili declared that he had been poisoned.
Perhaps for all these reasons — coupled with dubious electoral and judicial reforms pursued by Georgian Dream — the widespread pro-Western sentiment behind last week’s protests doesn’t yet translate into a coherent political challenge to the current government. With opposition parties riven by their own controversies and historical baggage, there’s a sense in diplomatic circles that the country’s only realistic route towards an unequivocally pro-Western regime may indeed be a Maidan-style revolution. And there’s acknowledgment that given Georgia’s unique circumstances, such a revolution may be bloody.
But with Russia already committed to waging war in the region, a “Maidan 2.0” in Georgia would carry enormous risks. Conditions exist for the Kremlin to claim justification for new military action. Russia has already portrayed these protests as an “attempt to change the government by force” orchestrated by the USA. Russian-controlled breakaway regions provide ready-made positions for a military assault at Tbilisi. And, crucially for propaganda purposes, Georgia hosts a large and unintegrated Russian expatriate community which has grown significantly since the war in Ukraine began. These people may be seen as ripe for “liberation” in another illegal war of aggression.
In this context, onlookers hoping that unrest in Georgia marks the start of a Ukraine-style pro-Western revolution should at least consider that, while current ties with Russia are cause for significant concern, forced and sudden regime change could lead to another brutal war being unleashed by a cornered and jealous Putin.