First and foremost, Georgians are alarmed by Russia’s heinous aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine has always been one of Georgia’s most beloved and closest partners, and the country’s sense of unity has even grown in recent years as a result of the common enemy’s aggression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reawakened painful war memories in Georgians, and this war is more hurtful for Georgians than for some European and other states that have not faced Russian aggression in recent years, or decades. The recent polls clearly show Georgians’ attitudes toward Russia-Ukraine war, according to the polls, 87 per cent of Georgians believe the war in Ukraine is “their war as well.” Almost all respondents believe that current events in Ukraine are directly or indirectly related to Georgia (96 per cent). Additionally, more than 88 per cent of respondents want Ukraine to win the war. Also, 91 per cent of the population thinks that the attack on Ukraine by Russia is a war crime.
Georgians are feeling challenged for a myriad of reasons. To begin with, the Georgian government is a source of embarrassment for many Georgians. Georgians presume that the prime minister’s remarks about not joining the sanctions against Russia are shameful, and as a result, demonstrators are even calling for his resignation. Georgians are also enraged by some local politicians who have made irrational statements about the war. For example, one local politician told a journalist that he does not know who started the war, because he is not an expert in this area. Others are outraged that some Ukrainian politicians (including President Zelenskyy) have the temerity to criticize the Georgian government during a time of Russian aggression. The Georgian public has reacted angrily to all of these totally inadequate comments.
It is worth noting that Georgians have shown the greatest sense of solidarity since the onset of the full-scale war; Georgia was the first country to organize a massive demonstration. Protests in Tbilisi’s main streets, and even in other cities, became a daily occurrence for Georgians. Furthermore, Georgians organized various funds to assist financially Ukrainians, send needed items, and even donate blood for injured people. Additionally, so many Georgian volunteers were fighting against Russia in Ukraine in the recent years and this new wave of the invasion increased the number of Georgian fighters in Ukraine.
During this war, every day is a “test” for Georgians. A few days ago, Russia decided to lift partial sanctions on Georgia, primarily on dairy products, which sparked further outrage among the public and opposition parties. The Russian Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision Service (“Rosselkhoznadzor”) has approved the import of dairy products into Russia by 15 Georgian companies. On March 6, this information was widely disseminated in Russian state media. According to the Russian side and the Georgian government, this decision was reached after years of negotiations. The official Kyiv quickly responded to this decision, telling the Georgian government that trading with Russia would be “a stab in the back” during this tragic war. The Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Ruslan Stefanchuk addressed the Georgian deputies 🙁 Not people, because he is aware of the support of Georgian people)
“How did it happen that today, in the midst of Russia’s war against your brotherly Ukraine, you decided to develop trade with a country that attacked both us and you? Is Russia’s decision to ease sanctions pressure on Georgia a gratitude for the fact that official Tbilisi does not want to fully support Ukraine? Is the lifting of sanctions against 15 Georgian milk producers really worth our thousand-year friendship, our long-term joint struggle, our common aspirations?”
It is not a lie that Georgia’s government was negotiating these issues with Russia, but Russia’s lifting of sanctions is a clear attempt to “play with Georgians’ nerves”, using the “Georgian card” against Ukraine, and causing the division among the close partners. Some pro-Russian and underrepresented opposition politicians made statements about the possibility of “restarting” economic relations with Russia; the Ukrainian government and some public figures should not even react frustratingly to these comments, these reactions are not worth it, because these politicians are too marginalized in Georgia, they do not represent Georgian public opinion, and they lack the power to change Georgia’s course. The main opposition parties, which are not government allies, strongly support Ukraine and have reacted angrily to the lifting of sanctions. The opposition party Droa has expressed outrage over the Georgian government’s “secret” talks with Russia:
“Instead of leading Georgia to support Ukraine in a war of attrition, the Georgian Dream is not only making damaging statements, attacking the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but also secretly negotiating with the Putin government, which has committed a number of crimes against humanity. We believe that such negotiations with Russia, which is in economic isolation, is another treacherous step by the government”.
It should also be noted that the majority of Georgian companies have already stated that they will not re-establish economic ties with the Russian market. Simultaneously, Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov, whose visit to Georgia on June 20, 2019, caused the unrest during the so-called “Gavrilov nights” in Tbilisi, stated that Russia is ready to resume flights to Georgia. It is simply to state that Russia took advantage of the situation to cause polarization in Georgia and the division of Georgia and Ukraine; for the general public, this is yet another provocation from Russia, this is not a surprise.
The increased Russian influx is another source of concern for Georgians; as a result of the sanctions, thousands of Russian citizens are looking for “a new home”. The majority of Russians interviewed by Georgian media stated that they left Russia for security reasons and that they are opposed to the war and Putin’s regime. In addition, Belarusians make up a significant portion of the influx, and they all have similar reasons for fleeing the country. Male refugees also claim that if they did not flee, the Lukashenko regime would force them to fight against Ukraine. It is difficult to state if they are telling the truth, but the Georgian government claims that everything is under control and that Georgia is the region’s only “island of liberty”, which is why they are accepting refugees. Georgians are outraged, believing that Russians should remain in Russia and protest against Putin’s regime, and that Russians who are even unaware that Georgia is occupied by Russia should not seek shelter in Georgia. The general public is concerned that these Russians will pose a security threat to Georgia, and that Russia will use the well-worn and old- fashioned narrative of “protecting Russian-speaking minorities” to launch another attack on Georgia.
More and more people are expressing their displeasure with the influx of Russians on social media; some Georgians refuse to rent their homes to Russians; and in general, people are attempting to show Russians that they are not welcome in Georgia. Restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, and shops post notices on their windows reminding customers to respect Ukraine’s and Georgia’s territorial integrity when using their services; some organizations do not even serve Russians. Such a harsh reaction is understandable; Georgia is still occupied by Russia, and the people have reasons to be angry; however, the government is concerned that the people may turn violent. This fear is not irrational; Russia has the capability to use such a scenario. Furthermore, people are signing petitions and urging the government to end visa-free travel with Russia in order to avoid any more Russians in the country.
Lastly, it should be underscored that another challenge for Georgia is Russian officials’ statements about the US-funded Lugar Lab in Georgia. The Lugar Lab has been the main target of Russian propaganda in recent years, and Russian officials, even during the war with Ukraine, still have time to spread disinformation against Georgia, claiming that Ukrainians and Georgians are working on biological weapons. They even said that that the African Swine Fever (ASF) was bred in the Georgian facility. Igor Kirillov, chief of Russia’s radiation, chemical and biological protection force, said:“We believe that the 2007 ASF strain with increased contagiousness was engineered in Georgian biolaboratory run by the Pentagon.”