Can Georgia avert another colour revolution?

Russia has kept its military presence in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgian wishes.

| Updated: 14 March, 2023 10:03 pm IST
Georgia has already seen two Rose Revolutions that overthrew a president and a chairman of the government. (file photo)

Georgia, in the Caucasus region, could well be looking at another West-backed colour revolution knocking on its doorsteps. Now, Georgia is accustomed to colour revolutions, having played host to two of them in 2003 and 2004 – the Rose Revolution and the Second Rose Revolution. The first one had resulted in the overthrowing of their elected President, Eduard Shevardnadze – an old Soviet hand, while the second one did away with the chairman of the government, Aslan Abashidze.

The game in the Caucasus region finds its most recent marker in the times that followed immediately after the collapse of the USSR; that could be a good starting point to understand it in the present context. After the Soviet Union crumbled, the USA quickly moved in multiple directions. At one end while they kept pushing the NATO borders of West Europe more and more towards Russia, they moved into the Asian landscape by trying to rope in ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan, or Azerbaijan. These are resource-rich countries. Kazakhstan is the richest energy producer in central Asia, and Azerbaijan – situated by the Caspian Sea – is literally one of the birthplaces of the oil industry.

Kazakhstan soon became the preferred destination of oil giants like Chevron or ExxonMobil; all of them tried to wean their premier Nursultan away from Russia and China. That worked to a fair extent. Though the bulk of Kazakh gas used to be networked to Europe through Russia, their government began talking (subtly or otherwise) about diversifying it through West-backed and sponsored routes. The Ukraine war has raised prospects of the same. As for Azerbaijan, that country witnessed the creation of one of the most complex 11 transnationals (it became 13 later) conglomerates that birthed the BTC or Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, to supply oil from its Caspian coast to the European market.

In comparison, Georgia was not resource-rich, but it had strategic importance. The BTC pipeline travelled through the south of the country from Azerbaijan to Turkey, and during that time, was being projected as the West’s answer to the EU’s dependence on Russia for gas. Shevernadze’s Soviet background and his relations with the newly emerged Russia soon started being viewed as a potential roadblock. A colour revolution was the only solution. The Rose Revolution of 2003 led to his removal.

Saakashvili, the new president, perhaps emboldened by the West’s backing, tried to settle differences with the breakaway region of South Ossetia, by letting his army loose on them. This was in 2008. The result of this ‘blunder’, Western analysts now agree, provided a window for Russia to announce its return to the regional theatre. By 2008, Russia was showing signs of recovery, and Putin took a calculated risk by sending his army to South Ossetia. That war got over in 5 days and left Saakashvili badly mauled. He would quit after 4 years, in 2012.

Since then, the party known as Georgian Dream has been winning elections (2012, 2016, 2020), and have established quite a political hold in the country. Internally alarmed perhaps, the West has now begun focusing on what they had initially overlooked (or dismissed): a Russia connection. The founder of the Georgian Dream Party, Bidzina Ivanishvili is a billionaire who made his fortunes in Russia.

There are a couple of other places of focus as well. A section of the Georgian population does not like Russia. Some don’t like the Russian government, some don’t like the people. And though this dislike/hatred is mostly visible in social media, it does have an impact, especially where reaching out to the rest of the world is concerned. A dozen anti-Russia campaigns on Facebook or Instagram with a few thousand followers/likes, and it gets fairly easy to convince those that matter, that all Georgian people hate Russia/Russians.

To get to the present problem, it all began with the ‘Foreign Agent’ legislation. The proposal under this law is that all NGOs and media houses that receive 20 per cent or more of their annual revenue from abroad could be classified as foreign agents. And that such ‘agents’ would be required to submit full details about their funds, assets, earning, spending and so on; failing to comply could lead to investigation, prosecution, and even arrest.

The first alarm in the Western lobby sounded when there was a realization that this bill is just the same that Vladimir Putin passed in 2012 to enable control of foreign-influenced ‘rights’, ‘social justice’, or ‘movements’ groups. The fact that the USA had passed a similar one in 1938 (Foreign Agents Registration Act) got overlooked. And the tipping point arrived when this draft was presented during its first reading, for it emerged with a comfortable 76-13 majority approval.

Protesters first hit the streets of central Tbilisi. There was a faceoff between riot police on March 7 as the crowd blocked Rustaveli Avenue, and reports of pepper spray and water cannons being used on them began pouring in. Interestingly, the President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili – who openly bats for Georgia’s inclusion into the EU – expressed her anger with the bill. Late on the same day, President Zurabishvili stood in the US and supported the protesters’ demands.

The US, never missing an opportunity to cash in, jumped into the chaos “deeply troubled”, to announce, among other things, March 7 as “a dark day for Georgia’s democracy”. The EU too joined in as the protests went on, with Joseph Borrell stating that bills like these would negatively affect Georgia’s ties with Brussels and its ambitions of joining the EU. Finally, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, expressing concerns that the law would have a “serious chilling effect on groups and individuals working to protect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law”, also contributed their bit to complete the picture.

How justified is this Russia scare? Practically speaking, very low! Georgia had a war with Russia in 2008. Russia has kept its military presence in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgian wishes. Georgian society is fairly anti-Russian and the country does not have diplomatic relations with Russia. And Georgia has expressed its support for Ukraine in the current Russian-Ukraine war. And yet, these facts were bulldozed. The European Council on Foreign Relations has expressed its opinion that the Georgian government “has made a series of moves that seem designed to distance the country from the West and shift it gradually into Russia’s sphere of influence”.

As per the latest update, in a move that would ring a familiar bell (the farmer bill) in the minds of the Indian readers of The New Indian, the Georgian government has announced that it is dropping the bill. While a crisis seems to have been averted, there is no telling when or where the next one is going to come from. With no diplomatic relations with Russia, and a predatory EU losing patience, at this point, Georgia appears to have two choices: to surrender to Brussels’ whim on how the EU bureaucrats decide about its future or get ready for street riots, death and destruction, and an obligatory coup.

 [Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.]

(Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own)

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