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Why Georgia Brings Out Putin’s Insecurities

Moscow's overreaction to protests in Tbilisi is a classic geopolitical story.

Protesters in Tbilisi (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

Emotions are running high in Georgia’s capital, where protesters over the weekend took to the streets for a sixth day in a row. Violence broke out late last week, as citizens unhappy with the ruling of the Georgian Dream party were spurred into action by the appearance of a Russian official in the Georgian parliament. The exceptional violence with which the protests were suppressed made headlines worldwide. But beyond the troubling casualty figures—240 people wounded, two blinded, and 53 still in the hospital—lies an equally momentous geopolitical story: For as Russia, too, reacted to the protests, its disproportionate response to its neighbors’ internal affairs hinted at Vladimir Putin’s insecurities about his own regime.

On June 20 at an inter-parliamentary assembly on Orthodoxy, Sergei Gavrilov, a member of Russia’s communist party, found himself in the speaker’s chair at the Georgian parliament. The image prompted thousands to take streets. Protesters demanded that the people responsible for funding and hosting Russian representatives in Georgia—which fought a war with Moscow in 2008—be held accountable. In response to the outpouring of frustration, both with the Kremlin and with unaccountable authorities at home, the Georgian government ordered the riot police to disperse the demonstration. The crackdown lasted for hours, police shooting rubber bullets. The next day, the heavy-handed response prompted people to take the streets once again, calling for the resignation of the interior minister.

Georgia’s informal ruler, Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch whose wealth totals almost half of the country’s GDP, seems to hope that popular anger will fade if he replaces appointed officials—a move used on many occasions, and which may not work this time. But Russia’s response has been equally notable.

In the wake of the incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned Russian citizens and airlines from flying to Georgia, and ordered those currently in Georgia to return to Russia. The response was reminiscent of Moscow’s response to the “EuroMaidan” protests in 2013 in Ukraine, which the Kremlin suggested were the product of a fascist junta. Again last week, Putin accused protesters of Russophobia. Unlike Ukraine, however, where Moscow justifies its continued intervention by saying it is protecting the country’s Russian-speaking population, Georgia has no significant population of Russian-speakers; Moscow has instead put Russian tourists at the center of its response. Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, criticized Georgians on June 21 for not upholding “hospitality praised over the centuries.” Then she went on to reiterate Russian tropes about the people of the Caucasus regions calling Georgians “primitive.” 

The Caucasus has always been something exotic, foreign, and backwards in the imagination of Russian “tourists,” from Tolstoy to Pushkin, Lermontov, and later, filmmakers and writers in the Soviet Union. In Soviet Russia and persisting in the present, stereotypes about Georgians have been similar to those held against the Italians in the United States: emotional people that dance, sing, bake pizza, and engage in the occasional mafia activity. Russian images of Georgia tend to focus on food and culture: Khachapuri (cheese bread), Khinkali (dumplings), Saperavi (Georgian wine), and “Suliko” (a popular Georgian song in Russia).

The romanticized image contrasts starkly with the reality of Georgia as a partially occupied country, with Russian tanks 30 kilometers from the capital. Since the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Russia has occupied twenty percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory and recognized Georgia’s two breakaway regions as independent states.  

Despite the harsh reality on the ground, Russia has tried to promote nostalgia in Georgia for a shared Soviet culture, heritage, and history. Russia’s narrative calls for “Orthodox friendship” and describes the West as disinterested in the fate of the local population. Russia-influenced media coverage has positioned the country as a source of conservatism and virtue—an alternative to Western liberalism—and posed Putin as a moral leader defending religion and family values. 

The Kremlin has long perceived the spread of democratization in its region, EU and NATO enlargement, and the overthrow of the Yanukovych presidency in Ukraine as possible threatsforms of encirclement by the West. The so-called color revolutions of the early 2000s were viewed as a Western project, strengthening Putin’s determination to stand up to what he sees as external intrusion in Russia’s neighborhood. Worried about the costs that the next democratic revolution might impose, the Kremlin started setting up a web of think-tanks, media outlets and networks of academics in the former Soviet Union, including Georgia, which were soon joined by an active media campaign. Tbilisi has been an incubator for such influence campaigns through disinformation, as well as through the Orthodox Church and “civil scoiety” groups. The inter-parliamentary assembly on Orthodoxy that Gavrilov took part in was one such one example.  

Up until recently, things were working out for the Kremlin in Georgia. Pro-Russian movements were on the rise, and some pro-Putin politicians even made it to the parliament. The Georgian government has been careful not to anger pro-Russian groups at home, since it sees them as allies when necessary. Georgian authorities have been notably lenient with pro-Russian activists like Levan Vasadze, who recently called for violence against LGBTQ demonstrators in Georgia’s first-ever Pride event. Ivanishvili has walked a thin line in recent years, to Russia’s advantage: courting the Kremlin and its supporters in Georgia, but also trying hard not to antagonize Georgia’s overwhelmingly pro-Western population. The recent protests have unsettled that balance. And that seems to be what has bothered the Kremlin, which has resorted to punitive moves before (for example, embargoing Georgian and Moldovan wines in 2006, halting gas supplies to Ukraine) when it perceived Russian influence in neighboring countries to be slipping. 

The communist member of parliament who set this all off means nothing to Putin—nor are the demonstrations fully about Moscow. But Moscow, which has invested in slowly moving Georgian politics in its favor, took a hit from regular Georgian citizens last week, who made their discontent heard. And it taps into one of Putin’s fears: that one day he will be confronted by his own citizens. Ultimately, the decision to ban tourists, in addition to being a punitive move for Georgia’s tourism industry, serves to prevent Russians who travel there from understanding the country beyond its food and wine; Georgia is a vibrant society, where such protests—for now, at least—can break out spontaneously, an expression of popular will. It’s a form of democratic expression apparently both Putin and Ivanishvili fear.