Russia puts the squeeze on Georgia as anti-Kremlin protests rock Tbilisi

Protests since last week have renewed hostilities between the former eastern bloc neighbours

An opposition demonstrator holds a Georgian national flag at a rally in front of the Georgian Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Monday, June 24, 2019. Demonstrators have returned to parliament for daily rallies, demanding the release of detained protesters, the ouster of the nation's interior minister and changes in the electoral law to have legislators chosen fully proportionally rather than the current mix of party-list and single-mandate representatives. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)
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Russia has imposed harsh economic measures on neighbouring Georgia after anti-Kremlin protests in Tbilisi sparked by a Russian politician’s address to the Georgian Parliament.

Russia’s consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor announced this week it was implementing tougher checks on imports of Georgian wine, a move that poses a multimillion-dollar threat to one of the Caucasian country’s most celebrated industries.

Days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree banning his countries airlines from flying to Georgia.

The order, which comes into effect later in July, also bans Georgian planes carrying passengers between the countries.

This is likely to seriously harm Georgia’s tourism revenues, given that one million Russians visited the country last year.

Mr Putin said the move was necessary to protect Russian citizens amid the political instability, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would lift the flight ban as soon as Georgia “resumes a non-Russophobic course".

The protests erupted outside the legislature last Thursday after a Russian State Duma Deputy, Sergei Gavrilov, addressed the Georgian Parliament from a chair usually reserved for the Speaker.

The politician's appearance, which was part of an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries, struck a nerve among Georgians who regard Russia as a hostile neighbour.

Russia and Georgia fought a 10-day war in 2008 and the Kremlin backs two breakaway regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Hundreds of protesters and police were injured in demonstrations that turned violent on Thursday.

Heavily armed riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, who were angered by the government’s decision to allow Mr Gavrilov to address Parliament.

“Person to person” ties between Georgians and Russians have improved since the 2008 war, but Georgians’ feelings of anger and humiliation have lingered, says Thomas de Waal, of the Carnegie think tank.

“Had Sergei Gavrilov been an ordinary participant in the parliamentary session on June 20, he would probably have got away with it,” Mr de Waal recently wrote in an analysis.

“Yet the sight of him sitting in the Speaker’s chair – ‘occupying’ the Speaker’s chair – in the Parliament chamber was genuinely offensive to many Georgians.”

Mr Putin’s decision to ban flights between Russia and Georgia could set the former Soviet country's economy back as much as $300 million a year, says Georgy Kepuladze, who heads the Banks and Society NGO in Georgia.

But since the unrest broke out late last week, observers of Georgian politics have noted that the resentment being voiced on the capital’s main street is not directed towards Russia alone.

After the ruling party, Georgian Dream, came to power in 2012, it set out to strike a balance between strengthening ties with the EU and improving relations with Russia.

Its popularity in recent years has been on the decline and the party’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is now among one of the most unpopular public figures in the country.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who won a closely contested election last year and was supported by the ruling party, claimed a “fifth column” taking orders from the Kremlin was responsible for the unrest in Tbilisi.

Heeding the sentiment on the street, Parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who gave his chair on June 20 to Mr Gavrilov, resigned the following day.

And in another move celebrated by opposition parties and the protesters, Georgian Dream announced changes to the electoral system before elections in 2020.

On Monday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticised Georgia’s western partners for turning a blind eye to what he also called Russophobia.

“We are soberly assessing the role of the United States and its allies in the world arena,” Mr Lavrov said.

On Tuesday, he said that the US was doing everything in its power to hinder the normalisation of relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Ultimately, the Kremlin’s sanctions are only likely to further weaken the Georgian Dream party, says Dimitri Avaliani, an editor of JAM news, which focuses on the South Caucasus.

“Why the Kremlin acted in this way is a mystery understood only in Moscow,” Mr Avaliani wrote in a recent column on the political crisis.

“What is now certain is that the chances of Ivanishvili and his party keeping power in next year’s parliamentary elections look much slimmer than they did one week ago."

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