Georgia, never particularly politically stable, has once more been thrown into turmoil. Coup allegations, media restrictions, and a surge of bitter partisan infighting—all under the shadow of a persistent Russian threat—have created a sense of foreboding. The conventional wisdom blames the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition for creating a political crisis to destroy the opposition United National Movement. That view seems to be affirmed by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s recent statement that the UNM has “no right to remain in politics," and by the state’s ongoing dismantling of the pro-UNM Rustavi 2 television station. But GD’s machinations are only a narrow subset of a much broader problem afflicting Georgia ahead of parliamentary elections in 2016. And here, a massive increase in Russian influence operations is key.
The GD, which came to power in 2012 in a shock landslide victory over an increasingly authoritarian incumbent, UNM, is weakening. A recent poll by the National Democratic Institute revealed that the coalition’s approval rating had fallen to new lows; of likely voters, only 14 percent said that they would vote for GD. Meanwhile, the UNM, which took power after the peaceful 2003 Rose revolution and build a Western-oriented but relatively illiberal state, is still toxic.
At the same time, pro-Russia elements in Georgian politics and society, such as onetime Speaker Nino Burjanadze and populist upstarts in the Alliance of Patriots, are gaining ground. Helping them is extended economic malaise and increasing public despair about the broken promises of Euro–Atlantic integration. Georgia has met or exceeded almost every benchmark for NATO membership, but continues to be stonewalled in Europe over fears of Russia’s reaction.
In all this, Moscow senses an opportunity to boost its local allies at the expense of GD and the UNM. And GD and the UNM, both largely pro-West but ruinously at odds, are taking the bait.
In October, Vladislav Surkov, a personal adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited the Moscow-backed Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia in one of his periodic visits to the growing list of pro-Moscow satrapies. The region’s de facto government subsequently announced that it was planning a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, which triggered an international firestorm. The prospect of Russia devouring yet another piece of territory was appealing to few.
Yet the annexation of South Ossetia makes little sense for Moscow. Formally integrating the region into Russia would confer few, if any, actual benefits. Russia already garrisons thousands of troops there, and Moscow enjoys near-total control over the breakaway statelet. Formally taking the territory would not give Russia any additional military advantages. It would, however, expose Moscow to further international condemnation and economic sanctions, and it would almost certainly sabotage the political gains that pro-Russia forces have been making in Georgia. Polls consistently show that Georgians strongly reject independence for, or the Russian annexation of, its separatist regions.
What’s more, by annexing South Ossetia, Russia would take away its key point of leverage over Georgia and its population. For Russia, the threat of annexation has been a convenient and periodic tool for stoking domestic political acrimony in Georgia; such threats appear to highlight the failure of Georgia’s pro-West orientation while adding credibility to anti-Western groups’ claims to a special negotiating position with Russia.
Surkov—and the Kremlin for that matter—care little for South Ossetian pretenses regarding self-determination. And previous calls by the South Ossetian regime to integrate with Russia have consistently fallen on deaf ears in Moscow, where policymakers prefer the opacity of the status quo. Surkov’s visit to Tskhinvali thus did not signal a shift, rather it was permission for the separatist leadership to raise the question of annexation as a means of influencing Tbilisi.
South Ossetia is only one element in Russia’s strategy. In mid-October, a website called “Ukrainian Wikileaks” publicly released footage of systemic rape and torture in Georgian prisons under the UNM’s tenure. A similar video, leaked in Georgia weeks before the 2012 parliamentary elections was a momentum-building event ahead of GD’s landslide electoral victory. However, Ukrainian Wikileaks is neither Ukrainian nor Wikileaks. Instead, the website is apparently hosted on Russian servers, stoking suspicion that the leak is part of a Russian propaganda operation to provoke a domestic political crisis in Georgia ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
Days after releasing the torture footage, Ukranian Wikileaks released a transcript of an alleged conversation between senior UNM official Giga Bokeria and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now the Kiev- and Western-backed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. In it, the two men seemed to be discussing plans for violent confrontations with the government in a bid to unseat GD from power. It was initially thought that Russian intelligence had manufactured the transcript (why would anyone discuss coup plans in Ataturk Airport?), but subsequent developments suggested that the conversation might have been genuine, and intercepted and leaked by Russian operatives.
The videos and transcript fit nicely into an ongoing battle between GD and UNM over the fate of the Rustavi 2 television broadcast network, which is embroiled in a lawsuit, with former part-owner Kibar Khalvashi. Khalyashi claimed that his shares were improperly liquidated during the UNM’s tenure. The claim is a credible one, since, during UNM rule, Rustavi 2 had become—like much of the media during that era—an extension of UNM rule. Control of the station was frequently transferred among a variety of characters linked to senior UNM figures.
Khalvashi’s fate with the station appeared to rise and fall with the fortunes of the ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who was once seen as a Saakashvili protégé but later clashed with the president, resulting in a slew of corruption charges and Okruashvili’s flight to France, where he won asylum. With Okruashvili on the outs, Rustavi 2 ownership was again transferred.
With the UNM out of power, Khalvashi filed a lawsuit against Rustavi 2 in an effort to recoup his losses. During the course of litigation, a Tbilisi City Judge ordered the freezing of various Rustavi 2 assets—but denied requests to freeze bank accounts—until a verdict was reached. Although court injunctions or asset freezes are not unusual during property disputes (they prevent companies from ferreting assets out of the country), the Rustavi 2 leadership claimed that the move was an attack, spearheaded by GD, on media freedom. The network maintains close ties to UNM leaders and has been a fierce and persistent critic of the GD government.
Eventually, the court ruled in favor of Khalvashi and ordered the company to hire interim management. What may have begun as a legitimate attempt to redress UNM abuses was now seen as an example of GD’s attempts to destroy the UNM, and the fallout threatens to consume the entire country. At the same time, the case also appears to be yet another fulcrum for Russian influence operations. In late-October, new recordings were released on a Ukrainian website, this time of phone calls between Saakashvili and Nika Gvaramia, the current head of Rustavi 2, and another between Saakashvili and Bokeria. Gvaramia and Bokeria acknowledged the calls as authentic. In one, Saakashvili counsels Gvaramia to embrace violence as a means of challenging the GD government in the event of an adverse court ruling on Rustavi 2. In the other, he discusses the matter with Bokeria. Again, the leaks were timely. The same Russia-connected sites were involved as in the previous leaks, making it possible that the conversations were intercepted and released by Russian intelligence.
It is helpful to Russia that the Georgian political factions are playing right into its strategy. The GD government, animated by a visceral and all too public hatred of the UNM, has seized upon the recent revelations as an opportunity deal blows to the UNM by crushing its chief media arm and investigating its principals for conspiracy to overthrow the government. And senior elements of the UNM leadership, still unwilling to admit to its record of abuse while in power, appear to embrace violence as a means of recovering political power. As a result, Georgia is staring at a future full of extended political turmoil. Protests are increasing, and Tbilisi’s civil society has sounded the alarm on deteriorating media freedom. Meanwhile, in the ongoing frenzy, Russia’s looming role has been forgotten.
But the main beneficiaries of Georgia’s political battle are Russia and its local proxies. This is borne out in the polls. Just under one year away from the October 2016 parliamentary elections, expected vote shares for both GD and the UNM are locked in the low- to mid-double digits, according to the latest figures. For GD, that is down from over 60 percent of the vote when the party put Giorgi Margvelashvili into the presidency in 2013. And the UNM—despite its organizational prowess, robust public relations apparatus, ideological core, and steady funding—has proven incapable of translating growing disaffection with GD into support, likely due to lingering public anger over abuses committed during its own rule.
Meanwhile, a coterie of openly pro-Russia and anti-Western parties has emerged over the last several years from the political margins. And they are increasingly politically competitive, garnering almost 15 percent of the nationwide vote in the 2014 local elections, and are buoyed by timely injections of massive funding. Nino Burjanadze, whose Democratic Movement–United Georgia coalition increasingly echoes the “Eurasianist” Kremlin court ideology, regularly pays visits to Moscow to confer with senior Russian leadership—an unusual honor for an opposition leader in a small country. And the media wing for the anti-West Alliance of Patriots, Obiektivi TV, has reportedly brought in unusually high advertising revenue from undisclosed sources, which many attribute to various Russian intermediaries. And this past spring, a poll by the National Democratic Institute showed that some 31 percent of Georgians favored joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union over the European Union, a number that continues to edge upward as ordinary Georgians tire of what they see as the dangerous charade of their country’s Euro–Atlantic quest.
Russia’s role in Georgia’s political crisis cannot be understated. Moscow rattles the saber in South Ossetia, leaks compromising evidence of UNM intrigue, and seeks to goad the politically besieged GD into lashing out. With Georgia’s major pro-Western parties mutually discredited and in disarray, Moscow hopes to lay the foundations for the rapid ascent of its allies, who offer conservative social values, political stability, and perhaps even the possibility of reunification with some of the separatist regions. To many ordinary Georgians, that’s an increasingly attractive proposition.
For the West, the challenge now is to avoid being drawn into bear trap of Georgian partisan politics and to fully recognize Moscow’s role. For Georgians, this latest round of controversy should underscore the degree to which Russia has used GD and the UNM’s mutual hatred to advance its interests in the country. Since 2008, Georgians have learned to tread carefully to avoid, to whatever extent possible, another war with Russia. Now it is time to embrace political sobriety, or Russia will be in a position to finally finish what it started the very moment Georgia left the Soviet Union.