Russian concern over protests in Georgia
Russian officials and propagandists had several reactions to the recent crisis in Georgia: gloating, echoing the Georgian government's rhetoric, and casually threatening to bomb Tbilisi into the ground.
Russia initially maintained indifference toward the recent crisis in Georgia despite being front and center of the brewing strife: The bill that drove the controversy in Georgia was dubbed the "Russian Law." But when crowds spilled into the streets of Tbilisi with Russia-disparaging slogans, reactions began pouring in from Moscow.
Claiming that the bill was used as a pretext to attempt a coup, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that March 7-8 protests in Tbilisi brought to mind Kyiv Maidan, the 2014 revolution in Ukraine. "The events in Georgia are of course orchestrated from the outside," Lavrov told Russia's Channel One on March 10. "They are similar in nature [to Maidan], as here also the goal is to plant an irritant on the border with Russia."
Kremlin's propagandists like Vladimir Solovyev gloated at an alleged panic among Georgia-based Russians supposedly caused by Russia-bashing at the protests. Pointing to reports of an outbound traffic jam at the border from Georgia to Russia, Solovyev claimed that the Russians who escaped to Georgia amid the war in Ukraine, were now running back. Georgian cities, however, remain full of Russians today and little suggests any reverse exodus.
The propaganda tsarina Margarita Simonyan interpreted events in Tbilisi as an attempt to pick a fight with Moscow. "It was clear from the outset that this entire brouhaha was needed only to create a second front for us," said Russia Today's editor-in-chief on her Telegram channel. In case of a repeat of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, "nobody is going to coddle Georgia and even bother to send troops there. Tbilisi will get pounded without any fuss."
Claiming that Russia's brutal war in Ukraine was in fact Moscow going soft on a brotherly neighbor, she said Russia had no reason to pull its punches when it comes to Georgia. Unlike Ukraine, "nobody here ever considered us to be one people with the Georgians."
The Kremlin itself made no such threats, but President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson said that Moscow was keeping a worried eye on Georgia. "Although we don't have [diplomatic] relations with Georgia, it is still a neighboring state and the state of affairs there inevitably prompts our concerns," Dmitry Peskov said on March 9, just as Georgia was stepping back from the crisis.
"It is important to us that peace is maintained along our borders but the situation there leaves a lot to be desired," he said.
In the light of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin's talk of Russia's commitment to peace at its borders comes off as a bit rich.
Plus, much of Georgia is convinced that the bill on foreign agents, which threatened to demonize and possibly sabotage non-profit groups and critical media, was inspired by similar Russian legislation that ultimately led to harassment and crackdown of non-government organizations and independent media there. Georgian protesters and Western diplomats feared that Georgia was about to go down the same path – a claim the Georgian government continues to deny.
Even some Russian expats showed up at the rallies against the bill. "I'm from Russia and this is what I escaped from. Fight!" read a poster carried by one Russian.
Both Moscow and Tbilisi shrugged off the Russia parallels. "The Kremlin has nothing to do with it," Peskov said. Much like Georgian officials, he passed the buck to the United States, saying the controversial bill was inspired by American legislation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also pointed the finger at the U.S. when commenting on criticisms that Georgia's proposed law was incompatible with the European Union norms and ran counter to Georgia's desire to join the bloc.
"Now I see why the U.S. is not part of the EU: In the U.S. there has been such a law since the 1930s," quipped Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on her Telegram channel, referring to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the U.S.
In their defense, Georgian officials also refer to FARA and, more recently, to a foreign agents bill that is being considered in the EU. In these debates, few bother to make close comparisons between existing and planned legislation to reveal devils in the details or to analyze the intent and political context. The main similarities between Russian laws and the legislation offered in Georgia are arguably in the spirit if not the letter.
For one, both Moscow and Tbilisi seem to share the distaste for the Western-backed NGOs that were targeted by the Georgian bill. "The West is offering support […] for a variety of NGOs that are engaged in activities that can be described as preparations for another color revolution in this part of the world, or in any other region for that matter," Lavrov said at a March 20 joint press conference with his Armenian opposite number, Ararat Mirzoyan.
In their rationalization of the bill, Georgian officials also criticized Western-sponsored NGOs for their alleged attempts to overthrow the government in Georgia. "It is unacceptable to us when someone is financing NGOs that are demanding the resignation of the government," said Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, when discussing the bill on foreign agents.
In his frequent criticism of NGOs, Kobakhidze tends to single out movements with a pronounced political agenda, such as Droa and Shame, but he also regularly attacked respected democracy watchdogs, such as Transparency International and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy. If signed into law, the bill was going to lump together all internationally sponsored non-profit groups and news media as foreign agents.
The Kremlin long accused the collective West of staging revolutions and using civil society and news media as agent provocateurs, but this is a relatively new trend in Georgia. An erstwhile darling of the West in the region, Georgia has been recently accusing the US and EU of attempts to drag the country into war with Russia. Now allegations of the West trying to open a second front for Russia are made on either side of the Caucasus mountain range.
Georgia's governing party has also engaged in a petulant exchange with the country's vibrant civil society. All the watchdogs whose job is to point at faults in democratic governance or expose corruption, are accused of plotting the government's ouster.
That Tbilisi and Moscow arrived at the same conclusion vis-à-vis NGOs and make the same claim about a theoretical second front is seen by some in Georgia as proof of secret cooperation between the governments that formally are not even on speaking terms. To others, it shows Georgia's ruling elite is growing increasingly insecure and addicted to power, and, like any such government, Georgian Dream is naturally drawn to borrowing tricks from an authoritarian playbook. Georgian Dream denies both scenarios as preposterous.
The big difference between Tbilisi and Moscow in the situation with the laws is that the Georgian government backed down in the face of mass protests. But the converging narratives and the fact that Georgian authorities have been earning plaudits from Kremlin propagandists suggests that there are now more similarities than Tbilisi would like to admit.
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