For how long can Georgia continue playing both sides?

As Georgia continues to hedge its bets – seeking better relations with both Russia and NATO – its president and prime minister voice contrasting visions of its future. 

Within the period of a few short days—and once at the same event—Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili and its president, Salome Zourabichvili, repeatedly offered starkly differing diagnoses of Georgia’s present challenges and future.  

Zourabichvili ran as an independent candidate backed by Garibashvili’s ruling Georgian Dream party in 2018 but has emerged as a staunch critic of his government’s “anti-Western” policies that “estrange us from Europe” including a proposed ‘foreign agent’ bill—which was withdrawn after mass protests—and the restoration of direct flights to and from Russia. 

Speaking at the May 26 Independence Day celebration in Tbilisi’s Liberty Square, Zourabichvili said, “Democracy’s main rule is to implement what people elected you to do. Each government promises that to the people, and the current government also promised that to the people. Moreover, the promise strengthened the path to European integration by the constitution. Today, when the Georgian people demands its implementation, where is the government?” 

A poll taken in late 2022 found 85 per cent of Georgians support joining the European Union. A new constitution, adopted in 2017, makes working towards joining the EU and NATO constitutional obligations. 

Garibashvili also spoke at the same Independence Day event and reassured attendees that he is trying to convince the EU to approve Georgia’s candidacy. However, for the first time in years, the buildings surrounding the square did not fly EU flags for the occasion—the cabinet chose to decorate the capital in only Georgian flags in what its critics say is a subtle message to Russia. 

On May 30, at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava, Garibashvili was more openly critical of the West. He said that “everyone knows” NATO enlargement was one of the main reasons for the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. “I don’t want to quote the statements of the Russian government, but one of the reasons was Ukraine’s will and determination to become a member of NATO.”  

The very next day, Zourabichvili became the first Georgian head of state in 13 years to address the European Parliament in Brussels and used the occasion to argue for the incorporation of Georgia and Ukraine into European security blocs, saying, “Promoting Georgia’s membership in the European Union is part of a greater strategic vision regarding the new European order that will emerge from what I’m confident will be a Ukrainian victory.”  

“Candidate status would cement Georgia’s role as a pro-European force in the region,” she insisted. “Europe understands the importance of this region for the new world that is emerging. It knows that Georgia is not only a democratic and European stronghold, but a central element of a secure Black Sea and a stable Caucasus region.” 

A shaky balancing act 

Both Ukraine and Georgia have dealt with Russian-backed separatist movements for years and what has, at times, seemed like mixed messages from NATO. In April 2008, NATO agreed at the Bucharest Summit that “these countries will become members of NATO” but denied Kyiv and Tbilisi’s hopes of inclusion in the Membership Action Plan even as Albania and Croatia’s accessions were greenlit. Georgia’s relations with Russia rapidly deteriorated after NATO’s pronouncement, and Russia invaded that August. 

Ukraine and Georgia applied for EU membership with Moldova in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but while Brussels offered candidate status to Kyiv and Chişinău, it said Georgia must make progress on a list of reforms before Tbilisi’s application could advance.  

While Georgia remains in limbo, its government has hedged its bets on Western integration by maintaining some semblance of good relations with Russia to increase the economic benefits of trade and tourism from its northern neighbour and decrease the risk of renewed conflict.  

Georgian trade with Russia has increased since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine even as the West urges Tbilisi to join its sanctions. Moscow has rewarded Georgia with the resumption of direct flights—even as US officials warn Georgian companies could be sanctioned if they service sanctioned Russian aircraft—and praise.  

“We see that Georgia, like other countries of the world, is under pressure from the West, which openly and shamelessly demands they join the sanctions against Russia,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “This small country and its government have the courage to say that they will be guided by their own interests, economic interests, and this deserves praise.” 

Geopolitical limbo 

Some analysts believed the ‘foreign agent’ bill criticised by Zourabichvili and top EU officials was an attempt by Georgian Dream and its allies to deliberately sabotage the EU accession process to preserve Russian perceptions of Georgia’s neutrality while ensuring the decision came from Brussels to lessen political backlash from pro-EU Georgians.  

While it may seem odd for Georgia’s heads of government and state to be so publicly at odds with each other, their differences of opinion contribute to an image of Georgia as an unsettled geopolitical battleground that is beneficial as both seek concessions from international partners.  

While the West and Russia express their displeasure whenever Georgia courts the other, they both know that meaningfully punishing Tbilisi would hand ammunition to the forces that oppose them within the country and make it harder to strengthen relations in the future.  

Having it both ways has avoided another Russian invasion but has also kept Georgia in geopolitical limbo as its EU and NATO ambitions stall. How long limbo satisfies Georgian voters remains to be seen.

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