Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, the reaction of the Government of Georgia has faced criticism both domestically and abroad. Major reasons for this criticism have included its refusal to mention the “Russian Federation” as a source of aggression in the resolution supporting Ukraine, to avoid a visit to Kyiv and reject to call for an extraordinary session of parliament because of the situation in Ukraine. As a result, President Zelensky recalled Ambassador Igor Dolgov for consultations as a response to the inaction of Georgia’s state institutions with regards to the war in Ukraine. What’s more, in one of his public statements, Volodymyr Zelensky distinguished the Government of Georgia from the Georgian People, with the people seen as being better than the government, and expressed gratitude for Georgian’s solidarity towards Ukraine. Leaders of some European states and Ukraine do not see this war as Ukraine’s fight for its freedom and European future alone. Ukraine’s war directly impacts Georgia and Moldova, as associated members of the EU, who applied for EU membership status along with Ukraine. In this blog, there is made a comparative analysis between the Georgian and Moldovan governments’ actions and rhetoric on the war in Ukraine. The text also discusses the reasons behind Ukraine’s political leadership’s tough rhetoric towards the Government of Georgia as opposed to the Government of Moldova.
Preconditions for tensions between the governments of Ukraine and Georgia
The strategic partnership between Ukraine and Georgia has been firm for 30 years and even though the governments have changed, this has not cast a shadow over the strong partnership between the two states. However, the dynamics of bilateral relations visibly changed after Georgian Dream came into power in 2012.
Tensions between the two countries may be explained by several factors. Before the start of the war, imprisonment of now already Ukrainian citizen, Georgia’s third president Mikheil Saakashvili, and harsh statements by Ukraine’s Ombudsmen on possible inhuman treatment of Saakashvili in prison, worsened the relations between the governments of the two countries. It is noteworthy that Georgia also recalled its ambassador to Ukraine for consultations after Saakashvili was appointed as a Chair of the Executive Committee of the National Reform Council in Ukraine. It illustrates that the Saakashvili’s factor has been a source of tension between the governments in previous years as well. No less important is the fact that Prime Minister Gharibashvili did not visit Ukraine to demonstrate solidarity either before the start of the war or after the Russia’s invasion. Despite all this, prior to 2022 there were bilateral attempts to ensure that these problems did not impact interstate relations, reflecting the long standing strategic partnership between Ukraine and Georgia.
The reaction of the Government of Georgia in the period before the Russian-Ukrainian war
When the threats of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine escalated and the leaders of Western states became actively involved in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, the Parliament of Georgia adopted a resolution in support of Ukraine. This seemingly positive act was outweighed by the fact that per the ruling party’s decision, the document did not mention Russia as a source of possible aggression. For this reason, opposition leaders did not join the resolution, yet some of the opposition visited Ukraine to demonstrate solidarity.
The opposition perceived the ruling party’s action in different ways – as a demonstration of cowardice, out of fear, and a part of the policy to avoid provoking Russia. The Government explained its decision on the grounds of prudence and accused the United National Movement of trying to involve Georgia in the war. Moreover, the chairperson of Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia noted that there are many UNM party members even among president Zelensky’s close circles. Possible awkwardness between the two governments due to the Saakashvili’s factor is one thing, but quite another aspect is national interests and the importance of coordinated work and positioning against apparent enemies internationally. And this latter should override individual and party level disagreements.
How did the Georgian Government respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
In the context of the war in Ukraine, it may be easier for the ruling party to use the well-tested tactics of blaming its opponent for destructive actions and seeding fear in the society. However, it is important to take into account that using one and the same tactics for managing domestic political dynamics and positioning internationally may be damaging for the Government in the long term. Signs of this were evident in critical assessments towards the Government of Georgia from several members of the European Parliament and the public statements of Ukraine’s ruling and opposition leaders. The Government of Georgia was criticized for discussing the possibility of exporting dairy products to Russia and for indifferent statements made by high-ranking Government officials. One of them even reminded the Government of Georgia of the saying by Shota Rustaveli that “the worst among enemies is the one that treats you like a friend”.
Considering the fact that Ukrainian and other international partners frequently disassociate the Georgian people from the Government in their latest statements, it may be concluded that the Georgian people’s one-week of continuous mass protests balanced the embarrassment created at Government level. Additionally, a public opinion poll conducted by CRRC between 7-10 March illustrated that 61% of the population thinks that the government of Georgia should demonstrate more support to Ukraine.
Graph 1: Public opinion poll, CRRC Georgia, March 2022
Support of the Georgian people for Ukraine is also evidenced by the fact that some decided to voluntarily join the Ukrainian army to fight Russia. Additionally, some parties and groups of civil society collected humanitarian assistance and support for refugees from Ukraine including providing temporary housing. According to the latest data, there are currently 4000 Ukrainian refugees in Georgia. It is also noteworthy that the Government allocated one million GEL in support of Ukraine and sent more than a hundred tonnes of humanitarian cargo. Yet, this is not enough and more proactive measures are needed at government level. It is most important for the government to draw a line between internal political and international agendas and to work on a more measured message box. At the same time, upsetting a friendly state at the expense of overly cautious and loyal rhetoric towards Russia may completely isolate Georgia from civilized world.
How does the Moldovan Government’s response on the war in Ukraine differ from that of the Georgian Government?
Moldova did not join the sanctions imposed against Russia, however, the Ukrainian Government is not sending critical messages to the Government of Moldova. On the one hand, the reason behind this may be the fact that Moldova is bordering Ukraine and Ukrainians fleeing the war to seek temporary shelters are redistributed in various regions throughout Moldova and Poland. It is worth mentioning that according to March 13th data, Moldova has received more than 106,000 Ukrainian refugees despite its hard social-economic conditions. Therefore, the EU allocated 15 million Euros to respond to this crisis. Moreover, the number of refugees in Moldova is increasing daily and is reaching the country’s critical limits. Therefore, the Prime Minister of Moldova asked the United States for additional financial assistance. In response, President Joe Biden requested from Congress $2.75 billion to support countries including Moldova, which, with a population of only 2.6 million, has received an unprecedented number of refugees.
Receiving a large number of refugees may have been predictable partially because of the geographic location, however, the fact is that a large cohort of refugees has also moved to the EU and its partner countries, such as Germany, Hungary, Poland, Israel, Turkey and others. The Georgian Government’s passive stance towards receiving refugees may be explained by the social and economic challenges. However, despite having a similar context, Moldova still received refugees. If the Government of Georgia had shared that responsibility and expressed readiness to receive refugees, the EU and the US may have allocated significant financial assistance for Georgia. Unfortunately, the Government of Georgia has not yet taken similar proactive steps. Yet, the number of Russian and Belorussian citizens arriving is increasing day by day, which is no less important challenge to maintaining the security and resilience of the country. According to the latest data, more than 25,000 Russian and Belorussian citizens entered Georgia. This frustrates the public and creates doubts about collaborationism.
The second factor differing the Government of Moldova from the Government of Georgia is the measured and consistent message box. The Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and other government officials of Moldova clearly explain why Moldova does not join sanctions. Since Moldova is one of the poorest countries of Europe, it was noted that additional economic restrictions and crisis could lead to public discontent and fuel rhetoric against refugees from Russian information sources. This would not be in the interest of either Moldova, Ukraine or the EU. Additionally, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Moldova – Nicu Popescu – pointed to the threats and possible provocations coming from the puppet government of Transnistria. Georgia faces similar threats from de-facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is no less important.
What could the Government of Georgia have done but did not do?
Had the Government of Georgia clarified for the Georgian public and international society the reasons for not joining sanctions, put aside internal political disagreements and presented itself on international arena as a united and established state, it would not have become the target of criticism from the public and the Government of Ukraine. Instead, the government did not cease internal party-political disagreement and, in parallel to the war, started fuelling discontent between different branches of government. This is evidenced by the Government’s decision to block the President’s international visits and the filing of a constitutional lawsuit against the President for her clearly beneficial visits in Europe for Georgia’s path on democratization.
On the one hand, applying for the EU member status and then on the other hand, thinking about trade relations with Russia and accepting their citizens without any questions, casts doubt on the Government of Georgia’s real positioning. Additionally, such actions threaten Georgia’s European prospects. It needs to be noted that Georgia may be required to show more responsibility and solidarity than Moldova, since Georgia, like Ukraine and unlike Moldova, had firmly demonstrated its desire to become a NATO member. The ultimatum voiced by Russia before the war did not concern only Ukraine’s NATO membership, but it was about Georgia as well as it referred to the Bucharest Summit declaration. Therefore, unlike Moldova, expectations towards Georgia were naturally higher.
Like the Government of Georgia, Moldova did not join in the sanctions and did not support sending volunteer fighters to Ukraine. However, the actions and rhetoric of the governments of these two countries substantially differ from each other, which has led to the different attitudes of the Government of Ukraine and EU towards Georgia and Moldova. It is clear that Moldova, like Georgia, does not attract attention with harsh statements towards Russia and limits itself to measured assessments. However, morally speaking, the Government of Moldova is in a more advantageous position. It is evident by the fact that regardless of its national and security interests, the Government of Moldova does everything it can to accommodate Ukrainian refugees and provide them with humanitarian assistance. Yet, the Government of Georgia does the least it can do in terms of humanitarian or other type of assistance. At the same time, the Government of Georgia supports accepting businesses or citizens fleeing international sanctions in Russia, which is unjustified morally and politically since it allows Russia to get around sanctions.
Unlike the Government of Georgia, Georgian citizens preserved the country’s good image internationally by demonstrating Georgia’s firm support to Ukraine. However, in the longer perspective, the country will have trouble going forward on the actions of its citizens alone. Hence, the critical assessments and sobering statements made by Ukraine, which is currently at war, do not lack legitimacy and which, in the best-case scenario should make the Government of Georgia reconsider sacrificing the long-standing strategic partnership between Georgia and Ukraine to this conflict. Ukraine is the most important partner for Georgia in the Eastern Partnership region in terms of Euro-Atlantic aspirations and it is important that this relation is not damaged because of cautious and possible conformist attitudes towards the common enemy.