Until very recently, Moscow never really bothered with the carrot and mainly relied on the stick in relations with its defiant former vassal to the south. Over the last three decades, Russia lobbed an occasional bomb into Georgia's backyard, hit it with trade sanctions and even launched a full-out war. All along, Tbilisi steadily looked toward the West for protection from its abusive ex.
Now, for the first time in decades, the Kremlin is batting its eyes at Tbilisi, leaving little gifts at Georgia's door. Tbilisi insists nothing can distract it from the goal of tying its future to the EU, but it is not exactly throwing the gifts back at Russia either and this feeds claims that the two are in an open relationship.
As the latest lagniappe, Russia opened its classrooms to Georgians for free. As of September 1, all Georgians can apply to study in Russian universities and the Kremlin will pick up the tuition tab for those who succeed at the entry exams. "From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, the best Russian schools are ready to accept students from Georgia under a quota of the federal government of Russia," reads a news flash by Russian diplomatic representation, hosted by the Swiss Embassy in Tbilisi.
To bring the message home, the statement comes with a photo of smiling students with Russia's national flag flying in the background. "You can study for free anything from mathematics to acting," the announcement says. "Students will get stipends and can live in dormitories."
Previously, only Georgian citizens permanently residing in Russia could seek free education in Russia. Now Georgia has joined a select group of Moscow's ex-Soviet friends, including Belarus and Tajikistan, where all citizens are eligible to apply for free studies in Russia. Russian news reports that the quota for Georgian students is 200 spots for now.
Many in Tbilisi scoffed at the offer. Western education is what everyone wants in the city and is what is valued by employers. Various sources provide conflicting statistics, but all data suggest that far more Georgians go to the EU for studies than to Russia (only 763 students in 2019, according to UNESCO).
But the Kremlin could be up to something with its offer to a country that is struggling with high unemployment and meager income levels, especially in rural areas. "Some people in the rural areas, especially in the mountain regions might go for it," commented Tinatin Bregvadze, a longtime education programs manager. "They have few career and income options at home, so they may go to study in Russia in hopes of getting jobs there."
Even being under international sanctions and having its resources being depleted by its war on Ukraine, Russia offers higher pay rates and more career opportunities than small Georgia, where the official unemployment rate (11.3% of the workforce) is almost three times larger. In rural areas of Georgia, monthly salaries can be as low as $270 and in villages people eke out a living through subsistence farming and social aid from the government.
Georgia's Russian-speaking minorities might also be interested. "We have 11 Russian-language schools across Georgia, where 14,000 students are enrolled," education expert Simon Janashia told Eurasianet. "Not all, but some of those students see their future in Russia or in a Russian-speaking world. On top of that, there are also people who have family in Russia and have ties with the Georgian diaspora, and could enjoy their support if they chose to study there."
Still, Janashia thinks that Russia cannot recruit a significant number of students in Georgia and that the offer is largely symbolic. Moscow simply wants to show that it keeps making goodwill gestures toward Georgia, he said.
In the previous episodes of the Russia is courting Georgia show, the Kremlin allowed direct flights between the two countries and canceled visas for Georgian citizens.
Russian officials say that Georgia earned these tokens of appreciation by dint of its restrained take on Russia's war on Ukraine. Georgia did not cut trade ties with Russia and did not erupt in condemnations of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine like the West did.
"The latest generation of Georgian leaders and the current government of Georgia at least showed some pragmatism, and it is impossible not to see that," said ex-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. "This is why our relations are moving forward, and this is why we again allowed Georgians to enter Russia without visas, and this is why planes are flying again."
The most ardent local and international critics of Georgia's current government insist that Tbilisi is in fact in cahoots with Moscow and all the rapprochement steps are coordinated. Those with a more moderate view believe that the government of the Georgian Dream party truly fears Russia and, at the same time, is getting sick of Western requests to show democratic progress and get its foreign policy priorities straight.
All of this, offered Moscow an opportunity to make a move, said political commentator Giorgi Mchedlishvili. The Kremlin interpreted Georgia's ambiguous stance toward Ukraine and worsening of relations with the US and EU as a signal of potentially friendlier Georgia, he said, "and decided to check whether Georgia's behavior marks the genuine revision of Tbilisi's foreign policy priorities or is it only caused by sheer fear of Moscow."
By showering Georgia with gifts, Russia has thus entered into an active competition with the EU, which Georgia hopes to join. Moscow, however, has a lot of catching up to do as the EU has made a lot of progress in building closer ties with Georgia over recent years.
Russia cancelled visas for Georgians this year, but the EU did that back in 2017 and scores of Georgians are now going to Europe for temporary jobs. Budget flights from Kutaisi airport are now full of rural Georgian women, speaking surprisingly fluent Italian. They ply between Georgia and Italy, where they work as caregivers.
Many Georgians go to European universities, while there are more Russian citizens studying in Georgia today, than the other way round. The EU also remains the largest trade partner for Georgia, though Russia has been catching up fast on that front.
Between 2021 and 2022, trade turnover between Georgia and Russia more than doubled to reach $2.5 billion. The world's biggest drinker of Georgian wine, Russia downed nearly 50 million bottles or 40 percent of Georgian wine exports in 2022. Russia is also the biggest taker of Georgia's key export of ferroalloys.
Coupled with the Georgian government's now cantankerous relations with the West, all of this gives pro-Western Georgians (the majority of the population, according to polls) plenty of reasons for concern and drives mistrust toward the government.
One of the key reasons Georgia's intellectual elites seek membership in the EU is that they hope to see their country become a modern, liberal democracy, based on the rule of law and human rights. Brussels is indeed asking Georgia to show democratic progress (judicial and electoral reform, civil relations between the authorities and the political opposition), to advance on its path to EU membership.
But for a political elite looking to stay in power indefinitely, the conservative and autocratic Moscow is a far better ally than Brussels. The ruling Georgian Dream party has been in power for 11 years and has no intention of going anywhere. Its billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, famously said that Georgians will truly see the benefits of his party's rule in 2030. At the same time, Georgian Dream issues thin-skinned reactions to Western calls for more democracy.
With such an environment in Georgia and with Moscow's growing advances, a geopolitical about-face cannot be ruled out, Mchedlishvili said.
"Similar to other post-Soviet countries, Georgia is in the 'grey zone' of not-so-liberal and not-so-democratic category, where reversal and assuming of a darker hue of gray is entirely possible," he said. "Our democratic institutions are too shaky and political culture too immature to withstand the mines that Russia is laying all around us."