Is Georgia on the verge of a Kremlin-inspired political takeover? No. But neither is growing Russian influence a fantasy, as a December post by Dustin Gilbreath in The Monkey Cage appears to suggest.
Gilbreath makes some good points about political tendencies in Georgia. Georgians’ views of Russia are indeed complicated. But pro-Eurasian Union sentiment is growing, and there’s a significant chance that Russian influence is growing as well.
Polling data taken regularly over the last several years shows a clear and steady increase in Georgian support for the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). That roughly tracks with increasing political support for anti-West and pro-Russia political factions within Georgia.
Why should the West care?
Getting a feel for Georgia’s geopolitical trajectory is too important to get wrong. Georgia is arguably the stablest and most democratic of the post-Soviet republics outside of the Baltics, and plausibly the last hope in a region that has seen years of political stagnation and regression. The United States and Europe have poured billions into promoting democracy and economic development there, and Tbilisi has consistently responded with an enthusiastic embrace of Westernization.
The government in Tbilisi is doing just about everything right. But expansion fatigue in the United States and especially Europe is breeding fatalism in Georgia, and incubating a political environment where pro-Russia factions’ anti-west crusades are gaining traction.
If Georgia turned away from the West, it would not only be a blow to the country’s nascent democracy, but it would also sew up the Eurasian interior for Moscow, give Russia a direct corridor to the Middle East, lop off Western access to Eurasian energy sources and kill off any hope for regional democratization for the foreseeable future.
Under Russian domination, Georgia might fall back into a mirror image of its 1990s past: a failed state and open air market for illicit trade. Racked by civil war and warlordism, it could be a fertile ground for radicalism.
The technical stuff: Behind the polls, the numbers point to budding Russian influence
Georgian support for the EEU “hasn’t changed since 2013,” Gilbreath wrote, referring to a 2013 Caucasus Barometer poll.
But his organization’s polls tell a different story. Gilbreath’s Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) conducted polls for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Those show steady growth in reported pro-EEU sentiment between 2013 and the present — from 11 percent in August 2013 to 20 percent in August 2014 to 31 percent in April 2015. That’s a marked increase.
So why the discrepancy between the 2013 Caucasus Barometer poll and the NDI polls over support for the EEU? In 2013, the EEU was still a glimmer in Putin’s eye, and would not actually be formally launched until January 2015 — so public reactions at that point were to a theoretical organization. In fact, a closer look at the numbers shows that 44 percent in the Caucasus Barometer poll would not (or could not) make a firm determination on the EEU either way.
The remaining 56 percent broke down very interestingly. Only 24 percent opposed the EEU; 17 percent went with “equally support and don’t support”; and 27 percent chose “don’t know” or refused to answer. Under the hood, those 2013 Caucasus Barometer numbers suggest that folks were undecided or even unaware of the EEU.
The ways the questions are posed also matters. For example, the Caucasus Barometer asked the question, “To what extent would you support Georgia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Community?” That’s quite different from the questions posed by the NDI polls.
In the August 2013 and August 2014 NDI polls, respondents are asked, “Which of the following two statements do you agree with?” They could choose joining the EEU, joining the European Union, agreeing with neither, don’t know, and refusing to respond. Such different questions and answers makes it hard to compare the responses. Similarly, the April 2015 NDI poll that showed 31 percent support for the EEU was yet another twist on the question (“do you approve or disapprove of the following?”), although it’s arguably the most straightforward question of the four polls.
From this point of view, it is hard to say that Georgian support for the EEU —a vehicle for Russian hegemony — is not trending upwards. But this is not the only sign of creeping Russian influence.
Georgians are increasingly voting for pro-Russian candidates and parties
Another way of tracking Georgian attitudes toward Russia is to look at election results. Using election results to measure attitudes have their own problems. Georgia’s three most recent national elections — the 2014 local elections, the 2013 presidential elections, and the 2012 parliamentary elections — don’t tell us as much as we would like, for three reasons. They’re a little dated; they represent the opinions only of those citizens who actually voted; and the election results don’t really tell us much about why a voter chose one slate or another. Nonetheless, in an electoral democracy like Georgia (albeit a rough one), elections are the final arena for gauging political power.
In 2014, several parties that could be fairly described as pro-Russia received approximately 20 percent of the nationwide proportional vote. Ex-Speaker Nino Burjanadze’s “United Opposition” plus the populist Alliance of Patriots drew about 15 percent; another 5 percent voted for several other minor parties with anti-west tendencies. This total does not include other voters who cast ballots for the anti-UNM opposition (and now ruling) Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, which has its own anti-west factions.
That’s a solid bump from the 2013 presidential elections, when anti-West parties got only 13 percent of the vote. And in the 2012 parliamentary elections, the largest non-GD or UNM vote share was the 1.2 percent of the vote that went to the quixotic Labor Party, the vehicle for Georgian political gadfly Shalva Natelashvili.
In other words, over a handful of years, pro-Russia parties have been steadily bringing in more Georgian votes.
Why was pro-Russian sentiment so low a few years ago? Between 2004 and 2012, when the United National Movement (UNM) ruled, supporting Russia was a dangerous position to hold. In the UNM era, dissidents were routinely harassed and arrested by the regime and trotted out as “Russian spies” — with or without evidence. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, leaving behind traumatic memories. And the UNM often told Georgians that integrating with Europe would be virtually painless and just around the corner.
But more and more, it seems clear Georgia will not be joining the E.U. or NATO any time soon, despite high public support. The increase in public fatalism towards that hope is related to growing support for the EEU alternative.
So what’s the attraction of the EEU, anyway?
Georgia’s current GD government is pro-West, and has expanded economic, security, and diplomatic ties in that direction. Those include an Association Agreement with the E.U. in June 2014; Georgia’s entry into a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU; rapidly growing ties with NATO; and the likely prospect of visa liberalization with the E.U. in 2016.
But the GD administration has arguably not effectively sold these accomplishments to Georgians. Nor has it managed to cushion recent years’ economic shocks in an already job-starved economy. Many Georgians probably see affiliation with the EEU as less desirable than affiliation with Europe — but the EEU could plausibly do more in the short term to create jobs and put coins in ordinary people’s pockets.
For example, reopening trade with Russia in 2013 gave Georgian agriculture its greatest boost in years. More people still support integration with Europe than with the EEU, but joining Europe seems like a distant dream to many, while the EEU could probably be negotiated tomorrow.
Georgia’s drift toward Russia could show up in October’s elections
Recent polls and extensive anecdotal evidence suggest that the nation could see a surge in pro-Russian votes in this October’s parliamentary elections. It’s unlikely that Russian proxies will wrest control from pro-West parties. But pro-Russian parties could gain enough seats to dissolve Georgia’s current pro-West political consensus. Or since the two main pro-West parties — GD and the UNM — tend to fight one other destructively, pro-Russia parties may become kingmakers, expanding their clout.
With Russia looming on Georgia’s northern borders, and its forces garrisoning the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a certain amount of pragmatism from Tbilisi is essential to ensure stability. But a pro-Russia drift in Georgia would threaten the country’s Western moorings, making it dominated by Russia by default. For the West, losing Georgia doesn’t just strengthen Russia, but gives it a strategic connector state between Europe and Eurasia—and the meeting point of regional powers Russia, Turkey, Iran and Europe.
Michael Hikari Cecire is a Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the Colchis columnist at BNE Intellinews and co-editor of Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security (2014).