Calculation or miscalculation. How far will the thaw in relations between Georgia and Russia go?

The benefits for the Georgian Dream from rapprochement with Moscow are vague and uncertain, while the risks are more than real. But this does not mean that the situation is assessed in the same way by the Georgian Dream itself, which has miscalculations one after another.
Vladimir Putin’s decision to abolish visas for Georgian citizens and resume flights to Georgia surprised many. After all, in recent years everyone has gotten used to the fact that Russia is getting what it needs from its neighbors with a whip, and then suddenly gingerbread came into play.

Moreover, these steps towards Tbilisi, which Moscow called “decisions of a humanitarian nature”, were made, apparently, without prior coordination with Georgia and are presented as a disinterested gesture of goodwill.

However, in reality, such an invitation to improve relations puts the Georgian leadership in a very difficult position. Now the ruling Georgian Dream party needs to somehow respond to the Russian proposal. Moreover, to react in such a way as not to fall under the criticism of the opposition and not to deprive Georgia of a European perspective, without getting anything worthwhile from Moscow in return.

Criticism of “Dreams”
The risks for the Georgian authorities associated with Russian gestures are already making themselves felt. Putin’s decrees and the positive reaction of representatives of the Georgian Dream to them mobilized against the ruling party not only its opponents, but in general a significant part of the political class of Georgia. President Salome Zurabishvili, who was elected with the support of Mechta, condemned the Kremlin’s decisions, calling them a “provocation.”

The opposition also opposed the resumption of air traffic and the abolition of visas. The United National Movement (UNM), the main opposition force, held a rally in Tbilisi, where there were accusations that the authorities were turning the country into a “Russian province.” The general message of all claims is that Russia is thus rewarding the Georgian Dream for its anti-Western policy, and the country may lose prospects for integration with the European Union because of this.

The credibility of the opposition’s accusations is somewhat undermined by the fact that the last time Georgia restored air communication with Russia was during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, who founded the UNM. Moreover, this was done in 2010, less than two years after the war in South Ossetia. And in 2012, the same President Saakashvili unilaterally canceled the visa regime for Russian citizens, which was introduced immediately after the break in diplomatic relations in 2008. “We will never close the border for Russian businessmen and tourists, because where business is active, there is no place for tank tracks,” Saakashvili said at the time.

True, both the international context and Russia itself were completely different in those years. Then Saakashvili’s decision concerned only Georgia and its red lines, but now relations with Moscow are a much more fundamental issue. In her statement, explaining the reasons why the resumption of flights and the abolition of visas are “unacceptable”, President Zurabishvili first wrote about the “aggression against Ukraine” and only then about the “occupation of Georgian territories.”

An even greater danger to the Georgian Dream, both in foreign and domestic policy, could be the reaction of the West to Russian initiatives. Polls show that the vast majority of Georgians are in favor of the country’s European integration, while Russia, on the contrary, is considered the main threat. Therefore, you won’t earn votes on rapprochement with Moscow. If excessively active flirting with Moscow leads to the fact that the EU refuses to grant Georgia the status of a candidate country, then this may result in the Georgian Dream losing power in the parliamentary elections in 2024.

The first reaction of the Georgian authorities to the Russian steps was clearly not to the liking of both the EU and the US. Brussels and Washington have spoken quite harshly on this issue, recalling both the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and Georgia’s obligations to its Western partners. But for now, Tbilisi seems to be hoping to strike a balance—taking advantage of the Kremlin’s gestures while not crossing the West’s red lines. For example, representatives of the Georgian Dream assured that only those Russian airlines that are not under sanctions will be able to fly to the country.

Benefits of convergence
But the Georgian Dream has few objective reasons to move further along the path of rapprochement with Moscow. Yes, pragmatic relations with Russia and avoiding confrontation were one of the program principles of this party from the very beginning. However, the Georgian Dream has already received the main benefit from the appeasement policy – Tbilisi was recognized as not hostile to Moscow. Further movement in a pro-Russian direction will add tension to relations with the West and indignation at home, and the benefits that Moscow is ready to offer will be dubious.

What gives the European perspective is understandable. Loyalty to her at least increases the chances of the Georgian Dream to stay in power. But what can Moscow offer the Georgian Dream?

Most of all, the Georgian side is interested in concessions on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues. But so far there are no signs that Russia is ready for this. The last round of the Geneva Discussions – a format of negotiations between Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia, which also involves Russia, the United States and international organizations – took place in early April. It once again led to nothing but an acknowledgment that the parties “continue to exercise restraint.”

Moreover, in the case of Abkhazia, not everything depends on the will of the Kremlin. Over the past few months, relations between Moscow and Sukhumi have not been cloudless. There are enough long-standing contentious issues between them, such as a ban on the sale of land and real estate to Russians. And at the beginning of last year, when Sukhumi, under pressure, nevertheless agreed to transfer the state dacha in Pitsunda to the ownership of Russia, this caused such a wave of protest that the Abkhazian parliament has not yet ratified the decision. Even Moscow’s direct threats to stop aid to Abkhazia and close the military base have not helped so far.

Another possible argument in favor of closer cooperation with Moscow — and one that the Georgian authorities are willing to resort to — is economic benefits. Georgia has been experiencing an economic boom since 2022. It is indeed directly connected with Russia, but it happened without any friendly steps from Moscow. The past year has shown that it is possible to extract dividends from Russia’s position without assuming additional obligations.

Last year, Georgian GDP grew by a record 10.1%. The main reasons for the boom are the mass relocation to Georgia of tens of thousands of Russians fleeing the war and mobilization, as well as the growth of remittances from Russia. They increased fivefold and, together with income from tourism and export of goods to Russia, reached almost 15% of the country’s GDP. For comparison: in 2021 this figure was only 6%.

Miscalculations and miscalculations
The partnership with Moscow, in addition to general toxicity, has another flaw. In the history of Russian-Georgian relations since the collapse of the USSR, it is difficult to find a long period of sustainable partnership. There have been everything from trade embargoes to war, and in the past Georgian Dream has tried to establish more or less stable relations with Russia, but without much success.

One of the most recent and most frustrating attempts occurred in 2019. The Georgian authorities then received the Russian deputy Sergei Gavrilov in parliament and even put him in the speaker’s chair. But instead of gratitude, Moscow was indignant at the behavior of the opposition protesting against this and stopped air traffic with Georgia.

It is possible that something similar could happen again. For example, now certain representatives of the Georgian opposition are promising to give a “warm welcome” to Russian tourists who will arrive in the country on the first direct flights. Who will undertake to predict Moscow’s reaction if it comes to unpleasant incidents?

As a result, it turns out that the benefits for the Georgian Dream from rapprochement with Moscow are vague and not guaranteed. While the risks are more than real. But this does not mean that Georgian Dream itself views the situation in the same way. Lately, the party has made one miscalculation after another, and these mistakes turn out to be completely unnecessary, without understandable logic and with grave consequences.

Here we can recall the March attempt by the Georgian authorities to adopt a deliberately odious law on foreign agents, from which the Georgian Dream did not gain anything, but thoroughly damaged its reputation in the West and within the country.

Or a new scandal last week, when Georgian Dream withdrew from the Party of European Socialists, which has the second largest faction in the European Parliament and 9 of the 27 members of the European Commission, on whose recommendation Georgia’s EU candidate status depends. The reason for the break was that European socialists criticized the speech of Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili at a conference of conservative forces at Viktor Orban in Budapest.

So, despite all the objective restrictions and obstacles, it cannot be completely ruled out that the Georgian Dream will take the risk of making another dubious deal – this time with Moscow. Another question is how long in this case the party will be able to remain in power in order to continue such a course.

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