TBILISI, Georgia — In this fiercely pro-Western nation that fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, few thought the Kremlin could ever regain a toehold. But with the West backing away from Georgia’s path to E.U. and NATO membership after a year of conflict in Ukraine, pro-Russian sentiments are on the rise.
The former Soviet nation’s leaders are warning that Russia may yet prevail if Georgia is shut out from Western clubs. Wary of further provoking Russia, Western politicians have quashed talk of NATO and the European Union expanding eastward anytime soon. Russia has stepped into the vacuum, increasing its presence by opening Georgian-language outlets of its state-owned news network and deepening investments in the energy industry and other key sectors.
Similar movements are happening in other former Eastern bloc nations trapped between Russia and the West, in a tug of war that has deep Cold War resonance.
“Stability and security cannot be maintained with this paradigm, with Russia’s paradigm of having special rights towards other countries,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, in an interview in the presidential palace on a bluff overlooking the old city of Tbilisi. The blue-and-gold E.U. flag flies outside of the building, as it does at most Georgian governmental buildings, as an emblem of the nation’s aspirations.
“Russia is working pretty actively, not only in Georgia, but all around the world” to expand its influence, he said. Despite the growing Russian presence, Georgia remains unshakably committed to eventual membership in NATO and the E.U., he said. As a token of its devotion, Georgia has sent more soldiers to Afghanistan to fight alongside U.S. troops in recent years than many nations already in NATO.
The germ of the present conflict between Russia and the West lies in an E.U. offer of closer ties to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s infuriated reaction. E.U. membership for Ukraine was always a long shot — but it has become even less likely after fighting that has killed more than 6,400 people, according to U.N. estimates.
E.U. leaders squabbled at a summit in May about whether to offer even the faintest prospects for membership to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, which have said they want to join. The E.U. leaders decided against it, and they also delayed plans to ease visa rules for Georgian travelers, a bitter disappointment for Georgia’s leaders. The E.U. caution stemmed from a desire not to inspire backlash from Russia, diplomats involved in the discussions say.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has taken the role of the lead European interlocutor with Putin, has played down expansion prospects. So has President Obama.
“Neither Ukraine or Georgia are currently on a path to NATO membership. And there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO’s membership,” Obama said last year.
Now support for pro-Russian politicians in Moldova and Georgia is growing, while Ukraine is so consumed by conflict that it has made little progress in instituting overhauls necessary for westward integration. Armenia, a fourth post-Soviet country that had been in talks with E.U. leaders about a trade deal, last year abandoned the discussions altogether, allying itself with the Russian camp.
Many here say that Russia has skillfully outmaneuvered the West.
“The Russians are working to dominate this part of the world. They calculate, they plan and they know this region much better than the Europeans and Americans,” said Tedo Japaridze, the chairman of the Georgian Parliament’s foreign relations committee.
The United States has tried to offer consolation measures. U.S. troops did training exercises with Georgian soldiers in May, and Georgia’s leaders present an upbeat face about their westward efforts.
“We don’t have time to be disappointed,” said David Bakradze, the state minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. “Our aspirations are irreversible.”
But some Georgians feel they have little to show for their long westward push. Some of those sacrifices have been made in blood in grueling deployments to Afghanistan, where they have been one of the top contributors of soldiers to the battle efforts per capita, even though they are not NATO members.
“More and more Georgians are feeling they haven’t gotten anything tangible from the West,” said Shorena Shaverdashvili, a prominent Georgian journalist. “There isn’t more love for Putin and Russia. It’s just a realization that we’re left face-to-face with Russia, and we have to deal with it.”
Spurned by the West, Georgians are starting to look elsewhere. Support for signing the E.U. trade agreement was at 68 percent in April polls from the National Democratic Institute, down from 80 percent immediately before the Ukraine crisis started. Support for Georgia’s joining the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, meanwhile, is up to 31 percent.
Part of the shift inside Georgia came with the ousting of President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Western-trained lawyer who ruled the country for a decade starting in 2003. Passionately anti-Russian and close to U.S. leaders, Saakashvili rarely missed a chance to jab at the Kremlin. The biggest eruption came in August 2008, when Georgian soldiers attacked Russian soldiers who were amassing in greater numbers on breakaway territories of Georgia.
The ensuing five-day war decimated Georgia’s military and led to Russia’s recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. By 2012, many Georgians were ready to embrace the leadership of their nation’s wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who promised to improve relations with Russia while maintaining ties to the West.
The payoff for Georgia was swift. Russia lifted a ban on imports of Georgian wine in 2013, and trade spiked.
“Those people who are trying to help us, we just want to tell them, ‘Stop meddling with Russia,’ ” said Jemal Veliashvili, who works in a seed and fertilizer shop in Georgia’s Kakheti wine-growing region, in the green shadow of the Caucasus Mountains that form the border with Russia. He said his business had tripled since the ban was lifted.
Even though diplomatic relations with the Kremlin remain tense, Russia’s presence inside Georgia is strengthening. Just last month, Russia’s Sputnik news agency opened new offices here and started a Georgian- and Russian-language Georgian news service.
“Georgia should be neutral, and it should be militarily free,” said Archil Chkoidze, the leader of Georgia’s Eurasian Choice, a coalition of pro-Russian groups that says it has nearly 16,000 members.
For now, even some of Georgia’s most committed pro-Western politicians say that their best hope is to hold tight to their goals but to expect little from their partners.
“No one told us it was going to be easy,” said Irakli Alasania, the leader of the opposition Free Democrats. Alasania was defense minister until November, when he was ousted for being too pro-West, he says. The possibility of joining NATO “will only open up after Putin,” he said.
Putin is widely expected to remain Russia’s leader until at least 2024.