Georgia’s society known for its culture of protests from the 19th century annexation by the Russian empire, through the revolutionary period, to the Soviet period in the fifties and eighties, has reacted over the past few months to the Moscow provocations again.
Back in the days of Shevardnadze’s mandate from 1995 to 2003, and more resolutely after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has clearly outlined its path towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, that followed strong protests and obstructions on the part of Kremlin which still considers Georgia their backyard, together with the whole Transcaucasia including Armenia and Azerbaijan. That is why Russia played the ethnic tensions card since the beginning of the war and used fear and emotions of ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians to occupy about twenty percent of Georgia’s territory
Feeling of a military threat constantly present
During the August war in 2008, Russians demonstrated their force, and since then they have been constantly harassing the Georgian citizens in the border areas by frequently arresting and sometimes murdering civilians of the Georgian nationality. Normal everyday life in Georgia, economic growth, strengthening of democracy and reforms often fall into the shadow of the fact that only 40 kilometers from the capital Tbilisi is located the Russian military base, established without the consent of the Georgian government. Unlike Georgia, the Armenian fear of the Turkish and Azerbaijani aggression keeps the base in Gyumri present in the tri-border area between Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. That is the reason why Georgia is naturally in the state of a constant military threat from the increasingly aggressive neighbor.
On the other side, sharing a common religion with Russians, having numerous Georgian diaspora situated in Moscow, and cultural and other ties, often lead to attempting to relativize the fact that Russia occupied a part of Georgia’s territory. Georgia used to be the major summer resort of the Soviet Union, the access to the warm sea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia went through a period of painful transition, but after its recovery in 2004, it has become again the main foreign tourist destination of the Russians. Numerous Russian opposition parties’ members were in hiding there during the Saakashvili rule in Georgia
Change of course
After the change of power in 2012 and 2013 and the arrival of the party of a businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, the course towards Moscow has been dramatically changed; economic and even political relations have been thriving. An example of this was this year’s Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) based in Athens, which was established in 1994 and in which work is engaged Montenegro with Strahinja Bulajic from the DF party, as its current member. The Assembly met in Tbilisi and paradoxically, it was chaired by a Russian communist Sergei Gavrilov, member of the Russian Parliament. The very presence of Gavrilov in Tbilisi, as someone who aggressively supported the occupation of Georgia’s territories in 2008, caused unrest among the public.
The photo of Gavrilov sitting in the chair of the speaker of the Georgian Parliament, as well as the photo of the Russian Duma’s branded folder next to the chair’s microphone in the main hall of the Parliament which were published on social networks, were enough for the opposition MPs from Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) to make a scandal in the Assembly and provoke disorder. Then, gathered protestors almost lynched Gavrilov on his road to the airport.
Eye patch – the symbol of protests
Increasingly active Russian interference in Georgian politics, Sputnik’s presence in Tbilisi, the Russian support to the extreme right movement, as well as spreading disinformation on the U.S. Army running a biochemical weapons laboratory in one of the suburbs of Tbilisi, resulted in the progressive Georgians losing patience and going out to protest.
After several cases of police brutality, the protests spread and numerous NGO activists supported the revolt. One demonstrator losing eye made an eye patch the symbol of the protest, demanding resignation of the interior minister and end of the tolerant policy towards Russian politicians who support the occupation of Georgia’s territory.
The Russian media immediately launched the campaign of characterizing protests as an outbreak of Russophobia and ethnic hatred, while the staged attack on the crew of the government’s TV channel Rossiya reached front pages of the Russian pro-government media. However, at the protests, many Russians could be seen on social networks joining the protestors, following many Russian opposition media reporters such as Dozhd, who freely reported in Russian from the central point of the protest, without anyone threatening their security, but on the contrary.
Official Kremlin’s reaction – boycott
Soon after the beginning of the protest, the first official reaction of Kremlin followed. All commercial flights to Georgia were banned, right before the beginning of the tourist season. In this way, Moscow sought to harm the Georgian economy. Very soon, the Georgian wine became not acceptable for the Russian standards, just like our Vranac during the Montenegrin NATO accession in 2017.
Interesting is the way in which the neighboring Armenia and Belarus took advantage of the situation. The Yerevan airport was offered as an alternative, while on social networks was posted an unofficial advertisement of the Belarus airline Belavia with the slogan: We take you to the countries your President is arguing with, following the connecting flights from Moscow via Minsk to Tbilisi, Kyiv, and Kharkov.
In addition, the Georgian activists launched the #spendyoursummeringeorgia campaign, which is still active and which is an excellent platform for exchanging impressions from their earlier trips to Georgia, with photos of incredibly beautiful landscapes, cuisine, and culture in general of the country.
Reckless or planned act?
Soon after the mass protests, the opposition Rustavi2 television saw the Georgian journalist Giorgi Gabunia, author of the political show P.S. (Postscriptum), starting without any reason his show in Russian and talking about the Russian President and deceased members of his family with lot of obscenities. The reaction of the Georgian society, which according to some was staged, was surprising for many. Although Putin is considered an occupier, such level of public discourse even when it is directed to an enemy, has no place in Georgian culture.
It is questionable whether something like this was expected, but it is unusual that protestors appeared in front of Rustavi2 television demanding the discharge of the journalist and the resignation of Nika Gvaramia, Rustavi2 TV director. Reckless, and according to some maybe planned, this act of Giorgi Gabunia led the Prime Minister and the President of Georgia to the situation of apologizing to someone who does not deserve it at all.
The journalist was fired almost immediately, and in July the court in Strasbourg reached the immediate verdict by which the Rustavi2 was returned to its previous owner, who announced the dismissal of Gvaramia. Many doubted that Gvaramia, knowing about the inevitability of such court decision, designed the strategy in advance to maintain his position in the TV station. If so, it is inapprehensible why the man was ready, because of his personal interests, to undermine his country’s position in a very complicated relation with the aggressive neighbor he often criticized.