June 23, 2024

Nestled in a fairy-light-strewn park along the riverbank, near a street vendor proffering a chipped-nose statuette of native son Josef Stalin, a pub has posted a notice.

Russia is an “occupier,” and its President Vladimir Putin is “evil.” “If you do not agree,” it warns, “please do not come in.”

It’s a serious statement in a country that prides itself on its smothering hospitality.

Proprietor Data Lapauri is speaking in part to potential patrons fleeing Moscow in the wake of the war in Ukraine to avoid conscription and prosecution for dissent, or on the lookout for a better life.

These Russians are, on the whole, richer, if more politically oppressed, than their Georgian neighbors, and have been driving up the cost of living here in the capital. Rents have more than doubled since 2022, and lattes are approaching London prices.

With a penchant for silent meditation retreats and potted fern-forward decor, Mr. Lapauri doesn’t seem prone to martial pronouncements. Nonetheless, he detects existential threat in these developments: “Every Russian is a soldier. Some come with guns, others come with money – and they’re expanding the Russian empire.”

Across town, at a new Russian-owned cafe with views overlooking the stylish cobblestoned old city, a 20-something couple from St. Petersburg marvel at the balmy breezes. They are digital nomads who no longer want to live in the authoritarian state Mr. Putin has created. They also understand the frustration of Georgians like Mr. Lapauri who question why Russians like them don’t depose their leader.

But the state “is so strong, so corrupt, [with] so many weapons,” says Katya, who has compatriots in prison for engaging in political protests and prefers not to share her last name. “The police and soldiers, they are so …” Katya struggles for the right word, “impossible.”

Her boyfriend abridges, putting his hand on her shoulder: “It’s pain.”

The dynamic between these young Russians and the Georgian cafe owner is playing out throughout the former Soviet satellites of the Caucasus and Central Asia, where many of nearly 1 million Russians have self-exiled. Here, across the Black Sea from Ukraine, where Mr. Putin is prosecuting war, these people are reminders of the dangers of Russian imperial designs on states desiring democracy over dictatorship.

Perhaps nowhere is this more critically clear than in Georgia, which faces a key inflection point later this year: The European Union will decide whether to grant the Caucasian nation’s long-coveted candidacy status in the Western partnership.

“This is, without exaggeration, a very important historic moment for Georgia,” says Ana Natsvlishvili, an opposition party member of Georgia’s Parliament. “We are at a crossroads.”

Just 45 minutes north of this capital city, EU monitors with high-powered binoculars peer over bucolic rolling meadows and point out armored Russian vehicles parked near a shooting range and camouflaged tower.

They watch a Russian military supply truck wind its way down to a village where residents, who once made a living with cattle or fruit orchards, woke up one day to find that Russian forces had laid down barbed wire and dug ditches, separating them from their property and livelihoods.

Russia occupies 20% of the country – a stake in Georgian ground that has acted as a tacit threat for 15 years, since a short but deadly war launched by Mr. Putin in the summer of 2008. Russian troops routed the country in a conflict that lasted five days, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.

It was a battle Moscow ostensibly waged to support separatists in the Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions of northern Georgia. Viewing the situation through the lens of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, many now believe Mr. Putin pounced on long-held plans to weaken Russia’s former republic after NATO officials in the spring of 2008 pledged to one day make Georgia a member.

The founder of the ruling Georgian Dream political party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, accused Georgia’s leaders at the time of waving this NATO membership push in Russia’s face like “a red cloth in front of a bull.”

Yet even as the war in Ukraine has raised the specter of Mr. Putin’s ability – and proclivity – to assert power, many Georgians are preparing to fight what they see as a critical battle for freedom.

Polls show that 85% of citizens want a West-facing future – and membership in the European Union. But since the Georgian Dream party won democratic elections in 2012, there has been backsliding in anti-corruption, press freedom, and justice.

For those 15% of Georgians who don’t support EU membership, the reasons vary, from nostalgia, to genuine disdain for what they see as the decadence of the West, to disappointment with the economic hardships and challenges wrought by market reform.

Whether the party is edging closer to Moscow and authoritarianism, as critics say, or playing the delicate chess of not upsetting its superpower neighbor and sparking war, as it claims, many Georgians fear the government is sabotaging their decadeslong dream of EU membership.

This quest was dealt a blow last year when Moldova and Ukraine were granted EU candidacy status, but Georgia was not – a devastating development in a country that had long considered itself ahead of this pack on the path to democracy.

“Georgia has been – I wouldn’t say a beacon of democracy, but still really kind of a standout case of a democratic state in transition,” says Irakli Porchkhidze, the country’s former first deputy state minister for reintegration. “Nowadays we really haven’t been fitting the bill for that.”

The question is whether the EU will grant the country candidate status anyway – if only to prevent disillusioned Georgians from looking eastward for consolation.

Indeed, EU candidacy would sustain pro-European Georgian advocates fighting for their country’s freedom, says Nona Kurdovanidze, chair of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. “We’re not Russians – we’re not leaving. We will fight to the end.”

EU candidacy status is not membership but the first of several progressive moves toward it – including adopting EU laws and standards – that can take more than a decade to complete. To qualify for that initial entry step, which the full 27-member union votes on, Georgia was given a to-do list of 12 democratic priorities. They involve promoting open society development, rooting out corruption, protecting freedom of the press, and implementing judicial reform. But that list instead has “become an instructional manual for how to destroy Georgia’s European path,” says Giorgi Vashadze, chair of the Strategy Builder opposition party.

As a case in point, critics point to a bill put forward last year requiring media and nongovernmental groups that get more than 20% of their funding from the West to declare themselves “foreign agents.”

The proposal appeared to be ripped straight from Mr. Putin’s power-consolidating playbook; the term itself echoed “the Stalin era, when people called this were shot,” says Eter Turadze, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Gazeti Batumelebi.

And as in Soviet days of old, it brought back memories of betrayals and efforts to break free of not only Russian mastery, but also the Russian mindset.

As a child in the 1990s, George Melashvili grew up in this capital city, which was ideologically free but in economic crisis, with Mafia-like clans battling for power and even a civil war early in the decade. His home didn’t have reliable running water or electricity. But it was filled with classic novels his beloved grandmother managed to procure, and by candlelight they worked their way through the Western canon: Charles Dickens, “Robin Hood,” “The Three Musketeers.”

These stories sparked in him a sense of “the way institutions are supposed to serve society and restrain people with great power – and that, in the face of injustice, one person can make a change,” says Mr. Melashvili, now a German Marshall Fund fellow and founder of the Europe-Georgia Institute.

And so it was with some hope that he and his fellow university alumni approached their old professor, Nikoloz Samkharadze. He had become chair of the Parliament Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

Mr. Samkharadze was known for his egalitarian teaching style. “He was very close with his students,” emphasizes Mr. Melashvili, a courtly 20-something alternately teased and revered by friends for his unassuming command of his country’s history.

A Europe specialist who studied in Germany, Mr. Samkharadze “knew perfectly well what this law was supposed to do,” Mr. Melashvili says. And he had the power to quash the foreign agents bill in committee.

In an open letter, more than 100 of his former students urged Mr. Samkharadze to do just that.

When their former professor ultimately rejected their pleas, “a lot of people who considered him a mentor – and adored him – were devastated,” Mr. Melashvili adds.

Privately, many speculated that Georgian Dream officials had chosen to send their bill through the committee chaired by the pro-European Mr. Samkharadze as a party loyalty test.

The students, along with thousands of others, took to the streets in March in a massive uprising that ultimately pressured the government into withdrawing the law.

“It was very inspiring for us,” says Tamar Oniani, human rights program director at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. “It was a rebirth of Georgian civil society.”

Mr. Samkharadze, in a recent interview with a group of Western reporters, described the outcry as a misunderstanding about what the law was designed to do. He says it was to promote transparency – and certainly not a Russian-backed effort to block Western funding to organizations critical of the government.

Still, he argues, it’s generally important that the country take a “very pragmatic approach” to Moscow: “We are under enormous pressure, and under a big, big risk of being attacked.”

Give Russia an hour, after all, and they could have tanks in Tbilisi. “Then it’s a dilemma: If you shoot, it’s a war – and if you don’t shoot, you are not a state,” Mr. Samkharadze adds.

When the Russian forces descended on the town of Akhalgori in 2008, a neighbor burst through Nana Chkareuli’s door. “They’re coming!” she yelled. They took off running toward the woods to hide.

Ms. Chkareuli now lives in Tserovani, a Georgian settlement for thousands of people who fled during the war.

After 15 years of development, Tserovani is dotted with modest homes, some inhabited by avid gardeners tending grapevines, and even a handful of Airbnb properties.

Still, the 2008 war looms large in the collective consciousness. On clear days, Ms. Chkareuli can see the hills of what was her hometown – since renamed Leningor – in the distance. She longs for a day she can return, and she is not alone. During a visit to a high school just up the road from Ms. Chkareuli’s nongovernmental organization offices supporting people who have been displaced, one student recounts stories grown-ups have told her about her old village and sighs: “I know it was something like heaven.”

These towns remain occupied and considered, by Mr. Putin at least, to be Russian soil. And in the meantime, those who cross the boundary line of the Russian-occupied zone – whether to visit a loved one or to shoo back a cow that has strayed – are routinely held by Russian authorities for what EU monitors here call “ransoms.”

The EU decision not to punish Moscow for its Georgian incursion emboldened Mr. Putin, Georgian officials often argue – and their Western counterparts tend to agree. Even after Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008, France sold Moscow an amphibious assault ship, for example (prompting a Russian general to remark that having that in the military’s arsenal at the time of the war with Georgia would have made defeating the country even easier). And the following year, in 2009, the Obama administration launched its reset with Russia.

An EU statement criticizing the invasion “was predictably tepid,” former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his 2014 memoir: “So as much as most of us wanted strong action against Russia, we suppressed our feelings.”

When the Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012, it introduced “a new approach – we call it strategic patience,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili explained at the Bratislava Global Security Forum in May. Through it, “we managed to achieve peace and stability.”

It is, to be fair, a considerable feat, deftly walking a line between a looming Russian threat and a West demanding reform. It is also, analysts note, an adroitness for which Georgians are known: The Mother of Kartli monument overlooking Tbilisi holds a wine glass for guests in one hand and a sword for enemies in the other.

Perhaps because of and not despite this, Georgians have served as influential Soviet leaders, from the brutal premier Mr. Stalin to the elegant perestroika supporter and door-opener-to-the-West Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

Yet a historical talent for savvy maneuvering doesn’t explain the extent to which the government appears to be instrumentalizing fear, says Dr. Porchkhidze, now vice president of the Georgian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Critics charge that Mr. Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his money in banking and metals in Russia in the 1990s and became prime minister in 2012, is an oligarch beholden to Moscow.

But Moscow can’t render Georgians anti-Western overnight, given their overwhelming support for EU membership, says Tinatin Bokuchava, who chairs the United National Movement opposition party. So Mr. Putin’s strategic goal must be, she says, “to systematically erode democratic institutions” to guarantee Georgia can’t become an EU member.

Others say Georgian Dream may indeed be reasonably pro-Western but uses anti-democratic moves simply to hold on to power. Eyeing elections in 2024, the party must project a pro-European stance to win. But reforms demanded by the EU jeopardize its chances by stripping it of tools like media control and judicial coercion – so it is resisting them, says Sergi Kapanadze, a former member of Parliament and spokesperson for the European Georgia party.

Georgian Dream is also using nationalism and xenophobia to fire up its base, he argues: “They say, ‘I’m pro-Europe, but Europe wants to get us into war in Ukraine because they have different values. We’re protecting identity, statehood, sovereignty, peace in this country.’

“This is a very pragmatic thing to do,” he continues. “Now enemies are defined as anyone who wants to ‘drag’ Georgia into war with Russia.”

Aiding their campaign is a “humongous propaganda machine,” including several state-owned television stations, Dr. Kapanadze adds. “So they can take even the most outrageous idea and spin it.”

As deputy director of Formula TV, Georgia’s largest independent broadcast station, Giorgi Targamadze sees alarming and familiar attempts to restrict freedom of the press.

His first ID card growing up was as a Soviet citizen: “I remember it well. We were isolated from the civilized world,” he says.

When reporters from Russia began streaming into Georgian exile after the invasion of Ukraine, the Formula TV network headquarters here provided them studio space, equipment, and other technical support.

But the resolve of Mr. Targamadze and his colleagues to document their leaders’ crimes and shortcomings is proving increasingly harrowing.

Reporters here cite July 5, 2021, as a turning point in their coverage of the news. It was the day of a gay pride demonstration that the government used, they say, as an excuse to beat up more than 50 journalists. One camera operator was killed.

The courts convicted 14 far-right perpetrators, but critics counter that they were actually recruited by officials who wanted the press targeted. The government says the attacks were random.

They certainly fit a pattern of growing harassment and violence against journalists “due to increased political polarization and uncertainty” in the country, notes a 2022 Freedom House report.

A particularly infamous case was the conviction last year of Nika Gvaramia, general director of an opposition broadcast company, for misusing a company car – a spurious charge, concluded Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption nongovernmental organization.

He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison and served one before the country’s French-born President Salome Zourabichvili, who is not a Georgian Dream party member, pardoned him in June.

The point of this intimidation has been to cow independent media, journalists here say, and it has not been without effect.

“The main idea is to have this kind of self-censorship,” says one Formula TV reporter. “You start thinking about your own safety and the safety of your family members – and then I guess at some point you say, ‘Maybe it’s not the right time to be in this profession.’”

At the offices of Gazeti Batumelebi, one of the country’s largest independent newspapers – based in the palm tree-lined Black Sea resort of Batumi – a leak of thousands of secret state security service files in 2021 confirmed the fears of journalists: Their increasingly skittish sources were being scared or blackmailed into not talking – and they were being surveilled, too.

The trove included recordings of confessions heard by Catholic clergy, an elected figure privately wrestling with whether to seek an abortion after an extramarital affair, and newsroom discussions of sources coming forward with proof of votes being traded for prison sentence commutations.

Reporters feel equal parts exhausted and galvanized, says their editor Ms. Turadze, whose traffic-cone-orange hair seems custom-designed to capture the newsroom’s cautionary mood. The government’s recent initiatives have “forced us to become activists – this is so not comfortable for us. … But this is about survival.”

The real damage – and the point of disinformation efforts, critics say – is that the truth can come to seem unknowable.

Such powerlessness is precisely the feeling authoritarian leaders like to cultivate in their citizens, says Lika Mkhatvari, a child psychologist and proud native of the ancient city of Kutaisi that is now known for its style and a direct flight to Paris.

At an hourslong dinner with groaning boards of khachapuri – gooey, cheese-filled bread – eggplant with walnuts, pomegranate-marinated pork, and clay pots of stewed beans, Ms. Mkhatvari sits beside her friend Nino Tvaltvadze, former deputy mayor of Kutaisi.

Ms. Tvaltvadze’s husband fought Russia in 2008 when her eldest daughter was 3 months old. She understands intimately the pressures on the Georgian government to avoid war: “I was thinking, what would I do if I were a decision-maker, if you believe you could cause war – if you really believe that?”

But, she adds, despite the risk, the public will to join the EU is “so strong, because we also see the solution in that, the protection in that.”

It’s a stance that has garnered some sympathy among EU officials. A June EU report on Georgia’s progress in meeting the dozen candidacy criteria concluded that three of the 12 are completely addressed, seven saw “some progress,” and one in the category of “de-oligarchization” saw “limited progress.” On the final indicator of “media pluralism,” “no progress” was achieved.

The decision on Georgia’s candidacy status is expected later this year. Many democracy advocates are hopeful that EU officials will conclude that whether or not the government deserves EU membership, the people of Georgia certainly do.

There is precedence for granting EU candidacy under these conditions, they say, pointing to a decision made in Bosnia-
Herzegovina’s favor in 2003.

If it doesn’t happen, Georgia is likely to be pulled back into Russia’s orbit, Ms. Tvaltvadze says. “And we know how Russia wants its neighborhood to look: without any ambition, without any future.”

With this, the two women lead the table in a Georgian toast. It roughly translates as, “I hope you win” – a nod, they say, to a storied history of what amounts to bare-knuckled brawls for survival. It is not for nothing, analysts note, that almost all of Georgia’s Olympic medals have been for fighting sports like boxing, judo, and wrestling – or for the brawn of weightlifting.

It is also no coincidence that Georgians have sent droves of soldiers to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion.

At today’s feast among friends in Kutaisi, it is a toast to Georgia’s quest for EU membership. The guests raise their glasses, responding with the traditional, “I hope you win, too.”

“We need hope,” Ms. Tvaltvadze says. “We need this.”

On-scene reporting was facilitated through a study trip sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a trans-
Atlantic think tank.

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