Thousands of Georgians on November 15 took a stand against “Russia’s creeping annexation" of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a Tbilisi rally that was as much patriotic as it was partisan. The demonstration, led by the opposition United National Movement, provided a venue for many to vent their anger with Moscow’s latest plans for integration with the two separatist regions, but also offered a chance for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili force to make a push for a comeback.
“You don’t sell your homeland for parsley,” bristled one middle-aged woman who attended the protest, speaking in reference to the Georgian government’s efforts to restore trade relations with Russia. “Nobody is doing anything to help me and my children go back to my home in Abkhazia. They are just letting it slowly slip away to Russia. All the government is worried about is how much greens and wine we can sell to Russia.”
The perceived failure by the Georgian government to come up with a meaningful response to Russia’s proposed pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stoked such resentment. That, in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition movement, to take ownership of the territorial integrity issue, which now rates as the country’s second-largest national concern after unemployment.
Never one to miss a rally, Saakashvili, now wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges, addressed the crowd from Ukraine via large screens. Staying true to his flamboyant speaking style, he described his arch-foe Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ex-prime minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, as a “provincial dictator,” and described “Ivanishvili’s Georgia” as debased and degrading, to use polite terms for the actual words used.
The government responded with its standard counter-accusation that Saakashvili’s 2004-2012 government had actually increased the Russian threat to Georgia; most notably, via the two countries' 2008 war.
Domestic political watchers immediately went counting the crowd numbers to see if the rally can provide any indication of the UNM’s potential for mounting a significant challenge to the Georgian Dream.
The larger point of the rally, fighting against “creeping annexation,” got a little bit lost in the process.
The Russian plan, though, is also a major worry across the breakaway line, in separatist Abkhazia.
Many Abkhaz fear that the Moscow-proffered agreement will bring an end to what they see as their hard-won sovereignty from Tbilisi. Moscow’s offer to merge the Abkhaz and Abkhazia-stationed Russian military into one force, with Russia having the upper hand in the chain of command in times of war, will virtually turn the boundary between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia into a Russian-Georgian border, said one Abkhaz commentator, Arda Inal-Ipa, in an article in Novaya Gazeta.
Not many objections to closer ties with Russia, though, are expected from fellow separatist South Ossetia, which would love to unite with neighboring North Ossetia in Russia.
At this rate, it is unclear what Tbilisi is prepared to do in response to these actions beyond the routine expressions of concern and sending updates to the international community.
One think-tank, Georgia’s Reforms Associates, made up of Saakashvili-era officials, has suggested pushing for international sanctions against Moscow to capitalize on the break with the West over Ukraine.* The group called for unity across party lines in response to Russian expansionism, but as the November 15 rally and many events building up to it have shown, partisan unity remains an oxymoron in Georgia.
--- Georgia's Reforms Associates receives funding from the Open Society Foundations' Think Tank Fund. EurasiaNet.org is financed via the Open Society Foundations-New York City's Eurasia Project, a separate program.