While Tbilisi Protests, Moscow Watches


The recent protests in the center of Tbilisi showed how the Georgian population’s attention, as well as that of the political class, was entirely shifted to the events on Rustaveli Avenue. The police and the government acted magnificently, and order was promptly restored. Nevertheless, these two-days of demonstrations showed how fragile modern states are; how easy it is to organize the masses through social media and to spread unofficial, incorrect information.

Georgia is in the midst of a geopolitical threat emanating from the north, which is exemplified by the Russian military presence in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and Samachablo (the so-called South Ossetia). In the Russian thinking, this very presence should serve as an additional tool of pressure on any Georgian government when the latter faces protests. Every innocuous protest inside the country could spill over into something more serious, with repercussions for foreign policy relations.

Perhaps it is inconceivable to attach all internal problems to the Russians, but one thing is clear: the Russian perspective on the protests in neighboring countries is quite opportunistic. In case of internal difficulties, it will be easier to pressure Tbilisi on the foreign policy front. It is this mixture of Russia’s physical (military) presence in Georgia as well as potential instabilities in Tbilisi or elsewhere in the country, that makes up the Russian strategy.

Indeed, the unstable ridge of countries around Russia is one way for Moscow to project its influence. Historically, one of the reasons for there having been so many Russian successes in incorporating the neighboring territories was the ability for it to position itself as a source of progress. When the Russians entered Georgia in the late 18th - early 19th century, the country was being ravaged by the Turks and Persians, which made incorporation into the Russian Empire much easier. The same went for other territories of the South Caucasus and Ukraine. Even in Central Asia, where there was no serious opposition to the Russians, for the locals Russia was a European state.

Over the last several centuries, the Russians have been progressive. True, they lagged behind the Europeans. The abolition of serfdom took place in Russia only in the late 19th century, while widescale industrialization happened only in the 20th century. Nevertheless, Europe was far from the core Russia-dominated lands such as the Caucasus and parts of Ukraine. The geographic distance from Europe allowed Russia to portray itself among the Georgians and many others as a source of European military and economic progress. Even for all those living in Soviet times, Moscow was still a center of gravity for political and cultural changes and developments.

Moreover, for centuries, Russia was even able to attract local elites and this constituted one of the pillars of Russian attractiveness.

This is why the Russian strategists are deeply concerned that in modern Georgia and Ukraine, beyond political preferences, local elites are attached to the West and Russia is no longer seen as a source of economic and political progress.

This brings us back to the protests which occurred in Tbilisi. Considering how diluted Russia’s power of economic and political attraction is, the only strategy Russia could apply nowadays in its neighborhood is to incite/support local disturbances that will keep those countries relatively unstable. The Tbilisi protests did not have anything related to Russia, but Moscow watches closely and this should be kept in mind.

There is nothing grandiose in these tactics. All great empires have done so. But it is nevertheless interesting to point out how Russia’s powers have declined over the last several decades. No longer is Russia a center in the minds of Georgians and many other former Soviet nations.

By Emil Avdaliani

14 May 2018 20:29