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Georgian Dream Plays Geopolitics To Shore Up Support At Home

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin on June 11
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin on June 11

TBILISI -- As Georgia's ruling party has taken a sharp turn toward authoritarianism and unleashed unprecedented rebukes of its Western partners, Russian officials have responded approvingly, spurring speculation about the once unthinkable: a Georgian geopolitical shift toward Russia.

But analysts in both Moscow and Tbilisi believe the Georgian Dream party's geopolitical signaling is intended, above all, for domestic consumption ahead of Georgia's critical elections this fall.

The ruling party, which faced weeks of mass protests and international criticism over a controversial "foreign agent" law, is walking a delicate tightrope in its messaging. It wants to blame the West -- and by extension, the deeply pro-Western opposition -- for the country's ills. And the party also wants to demonstrate that Georgia will benefit from its accommodating approach to Moscow, while taking care not to cozy up too closely with a country that the overwhelming majority of Georgians still consider their greatest enemy.

Separatist Territories

The difficulty of this balancing act has been on display in recent weeks as a narrative developed that Georgian Dream might be working on a deal to secure the return of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which both broke away from Georgia in separatist wars in the 1990s.

The territories are now heavily backed by Russia, which provides critical financial assistance to the de facto authorities in each territory and also stations thousands of troops there. But rumors have long circulated that Russia and Georgia could eventually come to some sort of agreement: Georgia would renounce its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and Russia would allow Georgia to regain control over its lost territories.

The theory got a breath of new life in the summer of 2023 when Georgia unexpectedly resumed direct flights with Russia and some Georgian Dream deputies dropped hints that, by starting to repair relations with Russia, they would be rewarded by the return of the lost territories.

One Georgian Dream deputy recently made a strong implication that a deal was being discussed, writing on Facebook on May 24 that "we'll suffer both sanctions and threats.... For Abkhazia, for Samachablo [an alternative Georgian name for South Ossetia], for Georgia!"

Speculation has further spiked in recent weeks as Georgian Dream reintroduced a "foreign agent" law at the beginning of April that will establish a registry of foreign-funded NGOs and media organizations. It sparked a crisis with Georgia's European and U.S. partners, as well as domestic opponents, who refer to the legislation as the "Russian law" due to the Kremlin's use of similar legislation to silence critical voices.

Georgia's opposition helped fuel the speculation about the separatist territories. According to the leaders of the Droa (It's Time) party, in early March, they overheard a conversation in a cafe between a Georgian Dream deputy and a Georgian-Russian businessman close to the Kremlin, with the two allegedly discussing the creation of a confederation of Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it all fed worries that a deal could be made behind their backs. One prominent Abkhaz journalist, Inal Khashig, wrote in late April that "the only motive" he could see for Georgian Dream reintroducing the "foreign agent" law would be a deal with Moscow to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

'EU By 2030'

As speculation was mounting, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze made the biggest splash. On May 26, Georgia's Independence Day, he vowed that Georgia would join the European Union by 2030, together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While vague promises of regaining Abkhazia and South Ossetia are standard for all Georgian politicians, in the current context, Kobakhidze's statement sounded particularly loaded.

It was at this point that official Moscow weighed in. Russian officials, who previously had been touting Tbilisi's "rational" and "pragmatic" distancing from the West, came out to mock Kobakhidze's claim.

Grigory Karasin, Russia's top envoy for Georgia, called the claim "the devil's logic." Konstantin Zatullin, a senior deputy in Russia's Duma, its lower house of parliament, said Kobakhdize was merely "demonstrating his patriotism." Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called it a "fantasy" and pointed to statements from the de facto governments -- Russia formally recognizes them as independent states -- refusing the offer.

"They discuss this idea in Georgia, not with Russia," said one political analyst in Russia. (RFE/RL is not naming the analyst due to Russia's labeling of RFE/RL as an "undesirable organization.") "It is not and will not be on the table in Russia."

"Looking at comments from Moscow, they are laughing at Kobakhidze's statements," said Vano Abramishvili, an analyst and head of the Peace Program at the Tbilisi-based Caucasian House NGO.

A deal is unlikely on many levels. Russia's formal recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- which it declared following the 2008 war with Georgia -- amounted to a point of no return, a step that would be difficult to justify reversing.

It would also be hard to implement such a deal peacefully. Even if Moscow and Tbilisi were somehow able to co-opt the regions' leaders to go along with a confederation, there would be widespread, popular opposition to Georgian rule in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In addition, neither Georgia nor Russia trusts the other enough to stay true to such a game-changing deal.

"Under no circumstances is Russia going to give up either Abkhazia or South Ossetia," said Paata Zakareishvili, a longtime activist for rebuilding Georgia's ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "Russia knows well that Georgia can easily change government again, and it will again be anti-Russian. So if they give up Abkhazia and South Ossetia now, it would be very difficult to get them back."

But dropping hints about the possibility of such a deal dovetails neatly with the ruling party's messaging.

One consistent element of Georgian Dream's pitch to voters since it came to office 12 years ago has always been that they, unlike the previous government, would keep Georgia out of war. This narrative underpinned their cautious response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which, with time, has taken on a more elaborate and anti-Western tone. Party officials claim that a shadowy "global war party" is seeking to draw Georgia into its war against Russia and that only Georgian Dream is capable of keeping Georgians out of the conflict.

Ahead of critical parliamentary elections in October, Georgian Dream has expanded that narrative to incorporate domestic and social elements. The party has framed the "foreign agent" law and a package of anti-LGBT legislation as necessary to prevent harmful influence from the West via NGOs that are funded by the West and espouse liberal values.

'Subconscious' Campaign

But while criticism of the West could work with some Georgian voters, a pro-Russian orientation would face wide opposition. In a poll taken in the fall of 2023, the largest portion of Georgian Dream supporters favored a foreign policy that was pro-Western while maintaining good relations with Russia. When opposition supporters were asked the same question, the largest segment endorsed a solely pro-Western foreign policy. A fully pro-Russian foreign policy received only scant support: 10 percent among Georgian Dream voters, and one percent among opposition supporters.

Recent polls have also shown the potential allure of a deal with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In a 2021 poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, Georgians were asked, if they had to choose only one, whether they would pick control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia or greater integration with the West. A full 78 percent chose the former option.

Floating the idea thus amounts to a preelection "bluff" by Georgian Dream to voters who might be attracted to such a deal, activist Zakareishvili said. And officials are careful not to promise anything openly but instead carry out a "subconscious" campaign with plausible deniability.

"Then, after the elections, they will say, 'Sorry, we didn't say this, Sukhumi [the administrative center of Abkhazia] said this, the South Ossetians said this, the Russians said this. We did not promise you anything,'" Zakareishvili said. "That is, on the one hand, they are trying to deliberately introduce this topic into the campaign, and on the other hand, [they are] not taking responsibility for it."

This involves one discreet, but well-used method of Georgian government "propaganda," wrote columnist Tengiz Ablotia in an analysis for RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza. The government deploys "lesser known talking heads and a well-established system of spreading rumors," and "in this way, theses get spread widely among the population, which aren't expressed out loud officially," Ablotia wrote.

But the mockery from Moscow has ended the campaign, he suggested. "After the sharp retorts of Karasin and Zakharova, the Abkhazia topic has completely disappeared from the current political struggle," he wrote. "In response, the [Georgian] authorities, who are waging a war on their own people supposedly to defend independence and sovereignty, are studiously remaining silent."

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