What if Russia wins Ukraine? Check out what's happening in Georgia

By Mark Champion

There has been much debate about what the future holds for Europe if Russia's aggression against Ukraine succeeds. We already know at least part of the answer from what's happening in Georgia.

It is the tiny Caucasus nation where Russian President Vladimir Putin first made clear he was willing to use force to reimpose a sphere of Russian control and influence. How this war began remains controversial, and I address that question below. But what happened next was not like that.

Bidzina Ivanishvili

On Monday night, Pitsina Ivanishvili, a Georgian businessman who made his billions in Russia, delivered a speech in which he accused a “global war party” of trying to stop his nation from asserting its independence and sovereignty.

Ivanishvili, who now runs his country as the unelected leader of the ruling Georgian party, is the same “world war party” that used NGOs to fuel the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003. The Rose Revolution brought to power what it described as a puppet government that mired the nation in crime and repression, then plunged Georgia into war with Russia in 2008. Later, this vague global conspiracy led Ukraine to wars with Russia in 2014 and 2022.

Now, Ivanishvili said in his speech that the same people are trying to overthrow his government and impose foreign values ‚Äč‚Äčlike LGBTQ+ rights because he refuses to open a second front against Russia. According to Ivanishvili, non-governmental organizations must now be dealt with, while members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's former government – already in prison on what his lawyers say were false charges – must be prosecuted for unspecified crimes.

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As longtime Caucasus scholar Thomas de Waal said on Tuesday, it's “very dangerous talk.”

The same paranoid, unbalanced language used by Russian leaders

Using the same paranoid, incoherent language and rhetoric that Russian leaders use every day, Ivanishvili publicly declared that he was siding with Moscow in its conflict with the West. “It is absolutely clear that Bidzina Ivanishvili and the 'Georgian Dream' have shifted the course of foreign policy from the West to Russia,” a group of 67 current and former Georgian diplomats wrote in a joint letter responding to the speech.

Twice now, Ivanishvili has urged the government to propose a foreign agent law similar to the one Russia uses to crack down on any foreign-funded nonprofit that toes the Kremlin line. Such laws open the door for authoritarians to suppress civil society and seek to limit all institutions that threaten their power.

Georgian Dream dominates parliament, but backed out of the effort last March after the bill sparked mass street protests. Russia, not coincidentally, was in a difficult position in Ukraine at the time, reeling from two major battlefield defeats and nervous even as a regional power.

Now, the Tbilisi government is trying again, prompting mass protests and official criticism from Georgia's Western allies. The EU said the law would not apply to membership, which polls show 80% of Georgians want. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators expressed their dismay in a letter, warning that the policy change could lead to sanctions against the U.S.

What happened in Georgia?

What really happened in Georgia? Saakashvili, an American-educated lawyer, actually worked for an NGO and led the 2003 Rose Revolution. The country was then a failed state, much of it controlled by criminal gangs and cut off in favor of three locations. Russian separatists – Ivanishvili, who had recently returned from Russia, gave no sign of opposing the Rose Revolution and financed some of Saakashvili's reforms. The young new leader, for all his weaknesses, quickly regained lost ground, drastically reduced corruption, raised taxes and left a functioning, investment-attracting state.

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In 2008, the two became enemies. NATO said “no” to Georgia and Ukraine's membership plans, but offered a long-term commitment to occupy the border of Putin's sphere of influence. The Russian military has begun building fuel depots and rail infrastructure in its two remaining Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When he began infiltrating unmarked tanks and troops into South Ossetia in August, Saakashvili attempted a disastrous preemptive strike.

Saakashvili became the first Georgian president to step down and allow a peaceful transfer of power when he lost the 2012 election. And for a while, it seemed that Ivanishvili and the Georgian dream might offer a less trivial path to EU membership and NATO. A majority of the country is needed, as well as greater protection for the rule of law.

The dreams of Russia's neighbors are turning into nightmares

But the country, on the contrary, is falling in indicators of corruption and freedom. Opponents of the government have been beaten or shot. Around this time, while Ivanishvili pushed for a repressive NGO law, Russia went on the offensive in Ukraine, seizing territory on the Kiev front as it ran out of ammunition. Instead of backing down again in the face of widespread opposition, Ivanishvili has now come out to promote the Foreign Agents Act as his own and cast the West as his enemy.

In doing so, Georgia's strongman is going against what the majority of people want, while obfuscating the truth by appealing to conservative Georgians for gay rights. He will undoubtedly have the support of Moscow, which maintains troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, about a two-hour drive from the capital. I don't know what this situation will look like, but the impact of Putin's military victory in Ukraine is already clear: it turns the dreams of Russia's neighbors into nightmares.

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Performance – Editing: S. Ketijian

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