Ukraine’s government has sanctioned several relatives of Georgia’s informal leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as Kyiv and Tbilisi continue to spar over the presence of Georgian opposition figures in Ukraine’s government.
Along with recriminations over a contentious vote at the Council of Europe, which linked a condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine with support for the Georgian opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili, the relationship between the traditional strategic partners has reached a nadir.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree on October 19 imposing personal sanctions on several members of Ivanishvili’s family and three other businessmen. The decree does not offer any justification for the sanctions, and officials in Kyiv have not elaborated.
The move outraged Georgia’s government, which insisted that the real reason it was being targeted was its failure to act more forcefully against Russia. Various Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on Tbilisi to open what would amount to a second front in the war, targeting Russian troops based in the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party told reporters on October 20 that Kyiv was trying to “blackmail” them into opening the second front.
That “second front” narrative has lately become a catch-all conspiracy theory for any and all political woes Georgia and Georgian Dream is facing. But the sanctions also come while domestic politics are driving a thick wedge between Kyiv and Tbilisi.
Members of the Georgian opposition, who have long branded Ivanishvili as a pro-Russian oligarch, openly took credit for advocating for the sanctions.
“My team and I have been pushing for sanctioning supporters of Russia’s war and orchestrators of state capture in Georgia,” Elene Khoshtaria, leader of the opposition Droa party, said in a tweet. “We are grateful to Ukraine and hope this is the beginning of liberating Georgia.”
The United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s former ruling party and now the main opposition force, called on Kyiv to include Ivanishvili himself in the next sanctions package. Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgian Dream and its first prime minister, has said he has retired from politics but is widely considered to remain the power behind the throne.
It is the presence of several former UNM officials in Ukraine’s government that has for years constituted the main source of friction between Tbilisi and Kyiv. After then-president Saakashvili and the UNM lost power in 2012, many senior officials decamped to Ukraine; many remain in high-ranking positions there.
The Georgian Dream government, which took over in 2012, brought criminal charges against several of them, and some were found guilty in absentia. The most prominent was Saakashvili himself, who returned to Georgia in September 2021 and was quickly arrested; he has been in jail and in and out of court since.
That political rivalry took place against the backdrop of a broader strategic partnership between the two countries. Georgia and Ukraine have always considered themselves allies against their common enemy, Russia, and their NATO aspirations have long been linked. Along with Moldova they formed an “Associated Trio” of European Union aspirant countries and enjoy deep trade partnerships.
But Tbilisi-Kyiv relations took a nosedive this year as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Georgia’s exceedingly cautious stance vis-a-vis Moscow, ruling out imposing sanctions (while cooperating with American and European sanctions against Moscow) and often appearing afraid to openly criticize Russia.
The war, rather than uniting the two against a common threat, brought the political infighting to the foreground of the relationship. Kyiv has accused the Georgian government of helping Russia evade sanctions (though offering no proof yet), and the issue became one of the most contentious in Georgia’s ever-deepening political polarization.
Georgian Dream officials have continued to maintain that they are robustly supporting Ukraine, offering humanitarian aid and carrying out strict export controls so as to not allow Georgian territory to be used for sanctions evasion. They also regularly sponsored and voted for pro-Ukraine international resolutions – until recently.
An October 13 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine and called on member states to declare Russia a “terrorist” state. But it also included an amendment calling Saakashvili a “political prisoner” and calling for his release.
It was the latter that made the resolution unpalatable for the ruling party, and Georgian Dream members of PACE sat out the vote. A small group of members “sneaked an amendment” into the resolution, “blemishing” it, Shalva Papuashvili, speaker of Georgia’s parliament, said on October 15 by way of explanation.
Then two days later, nerves were again touched when one of the UNM’s most notorious former officials was seen as part of a Ukrainian delegation to the Council of Europe. Zurab Adeishvili, Georgia’s former chief prosecutor and a figure associated with some of the worst human rights abuses of those years, was convicted in absentia on multiple abuse charges in Georgia.
So officials reacted harshly when he was seen representing Ukraine, now as an aide to that country’s chief prosecutor, at the Council of Europe.
It remains to be seen if Kyiv will go further to extend personal sanctions to Ivanishvili: the billionaire, who has been out of the public eye for over a year, has already landed on another list in Ukraine, recommending individuals for international sanctions.
And if Kyiv has seen Georgia’s policies as a betrayal from a friend in the face of the Russian threat, in Tbilisi the relationship had become unrequited – at least in Kobakhidze’s eyes.
“This is a continuation of a one-sided friendship, which is grave and unfortunate,” he said, reacting to Adeishvili’s Council of Europe visit. “But we should not give into our emotions, we need to maintain the one-sided friendship regime for the sake of the Ukrainian people and for the sake of our friendly country.”
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.