Why Georgia should follow the Baltic blueprint

Had Georgia shown some initiative to curb inbound arrivals from Russia, much less implement a visa ban as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have done, it would be on an entirely different trajectory with respect to EU integration.

Russia’s recent move to abolish entry requirements for Georgian citizens and reinstate air connectivity between both countries might seem like an overdue goodwill gesture without any strings attached or conceivable caveats.

Make no mistake, however, this overture is part and parcel of a carefully crafted foreign policy calculus which serves the Kremlin’s manifold geostrategic interests. For starters, a reciprocal visa-waiver agreement will help quash growing calls by civil society and prominent opposition figures in Georgia to rescind the year-long, uninterrupted stay Russian nationals enjoy on their territory.

As the carnage in Ukraine intensifies and risks spilling over into the Russian Federation proper, Vladimir Putin should presumptively be looking to disincentivise overseas trips by able-bodied reservists and ensure that an adequate pool of fighting-age, combat-ready men are at his beck and call when push comes to shove.

While measures have been taken to this effect – namely freezing the bank accounts and invalidating the travel documents of draft dodgers in extreme cases – an erstwhile Soviet republic imposing stricter mobility protocols on his citizenry risks triggering a chain reaction by fellow neighbouring states that can equally ill-afford to harbour displaced and cash-strapped Russians indefinitely.

Much like the Persian Gulf monarchs, the ex-KGB agent banks on a social contract of sorts to keep the public at large politically agnostic and stifle independent thinking. Admittedly, he has not bought their silence with no-show, thumb-twiddling government jobs or by using hydrocarbon proceeds as a slush fund to command unwavering loyalty.

Rather and somewhat ironically given how hellbent he remains on reviving the Soviet Union, Putin often alludes to the miserable Iron Curtain days as a yardstick of the masses’ comparatively better living standards under his watch. The self-styled tsar’s reign at the helm hinges on preserving the post-USSR status quo vis-à-vis rudimentary freedoms that were withheld by the old guard.

One such perk the younger generation will fight tooth and nail to safeguard is the ability to venture abroad at will. There is now an unprecedented sense of desperation on the part of middle-class millennials to pack up and flee Russia, not just for fear of enlistment but also owing to the financial distress wrought by Western-led sanctions.

It is worth recalling that Putin first assumed office on the premise of redressing his predecessor’s gross mishandling of the domestic economy and by extension, restoring long-lost national pride at the turn of the twentieth century. Incidentally, his claim to fame is fast coming undone as ordinary citizens find themselves bearing the socioeconomic brunt of their commander-in-chief’s bloodlust.

Doing the Kremlin’s bidding

Georgia’s “infinite hospitality” tagline earlier this year at the world’s largest tourism trade fair, ITB Berlin, was nothing more than a euphemism for rampant Russophilia which runs deep at the state level. The ruling Georgian Dream party continues to peddle the fallacy that incoming Russians oppose the war when the bulk of them are simply anti-conscription sell-outs who will do or say just about anything to avoid being thrown into the meat grinder.

Those evading their call of duty have no qualms about denouncing Russia’s barbarism once they are out of the woods and even demonstrating solidarity with Ukraine for the sake of blending in. Sadly, the Georgian populace has overwhelmingly bought into this charade and contented themselves with pure showmanship over resisting mass migration from an aggressor state.

In stark contrast to the flak the so-called “foreign agents” bill drew from Georgia’s inhabitants, there has been little pushback against the no-questions-asked admission of more 100,000 Russians into their country since the full-scale invasion’s onset.

Despite the fact that Georgian commoners are being uprooted from their dwellings as a result of the bidding war they are now in with these newcomers, the administration has failed to fortify the porous border through which recurrent waves of hooligans, crypto scammers and intelligence operatives from a supposed adversary infiltrate Georgia unabated.

Worse still, the overrepresentation of a single community and consequent shortage of accommodation is squeezing out immigrants from other backgrounds with greater purchasing power.

Tbilisi has taken to the school of thought that appeasement breeds pacifism, when in reality the opposite holds true. The Kremlin now has carte blanche to implant its foot soldiers on Georgian soil and Russify the country to such an extent the capital as well as the coastal city of Batumi no longer boast an inherently European flair but instead an eerie, gulag-esque ambiance where Russian has become the lingua franca.

To his credit, Putin could not have picked a more opportune juncture at which to offer the tiny Black Sea nation an olive branch. His kiss and make up escapade, which comes in the backdrop of severely ruptured ties between Georgia and the European Union, is not mere happenstance so much as a covert attempt at exploiting ideological fault lines within Georgian society.

The current establishment, which tacitly operates in the garb of a Western-style democracy, has its fair share of internal saboteurs who will stop at nothing to derail Georgia’s European perspective. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili along with party head Irakli Kobakhidze have become something of local poster children for euroscepticism who often parrot the Kremlin’s key talking points and outlandish conspiracy theories on the EU and Ukraine.

At the same time, the resumption of direct flights to and from Russia will almost certainly be characterised by one-way traffic and further exacerbate Georgia’s cost of living crisis. The Georgian leadership is essentially doing Vladimir Putin a huge favour by taking in the undesirables he was keen to offload anyway and even branded as “national traitors” for refusing to take part in the war.

The Baltic blueprint

President Salome Zurabishvili’s plausible deniability when it comes to being in the dark over pro-Russian initiatives championed by members of her cabinet is now par for the course. The Georgian people are starting to see through the gross malfeasance committed by senior officials who have deliberately stymied their pathway to EU accession. Being denied candidate status last June was largely a by-product of Georgia’s soft spot for the Kremlin above and beyond other deficiencies cited by Brussels.

Existing sticking points from press freedom and de-oligarchisation to judicial overhaul and the groundless incarceration of Mikheil Saakashvili pale in comparison to the lifeline Tbilisi has thrown Moscow in its hour of need. By seeking to have it both ways and reducing the nation to little more than a pawn on Putin’s chessboard, the Georgian government only has itself to blame for ending up in the Western doghouse.

Both Europe as well as the United States view this brewing rapprochement through a zero-sum lens, such that normalised Russo-Georgian relations and the latter’s strategic partnership with the collective West cannot go hand in hand. Contrary to the likes of other rogue actors such as Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, Georgia does not have the bandwidth to get away with playing a double game.

Recently re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly used the ten million, Europe-bound Syrian refugees stranded in his country as a bargaining chip to extract concessions and funds from Brussels. Meanwhile, the Emiratis have mastered the art of lobbying the State Department and its transatlantic satellites to look the other way insofar as gross human rights violations as well as coalescing with pariah states are concerned.

Perhaps what is most mind-boggling, from the Eurocrats’ vantage point, is that Georgia has made a wilful decision to take a leaf out of the Belarusian playbook in becoming a de facto exclave of the Russian Federation as opposed to emulating the Baltic states’ tried-and-tested template.

Had the Georgian government shown some initiative to curb inbound arrivals from Russia, much less implement a full-fledged visa ban as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have done, it would be on an entirely different trajectory with respect to EU integration.

The short-term material gains from positioning itself as a sanctions circumvention hub have proven far too lucrative for Tbilisi to try and rock the boat, however much this cosmetic windfall undermines national security and unity. The Baltics, by contrast, have not let profits trump principles and perceived the ongoing conflict as a cue to entirely wean themselves off a failed state in the making.

Glorified capitulation

Mending fences with an existing occupier is tantamount to glorified capitulation, irrespective of the hollow soundbites we hear every now and then by closet Russophiles masquerading as public servants on 20 per cent of Georgia’s land being annexed.

Taking aim at Russian passport holders by constraining their travel privileges will prove the ultimate deathblow to Putin’s already collapsing regime, having just withstood the Wagner mutiny saga.

Needless to say, the Baltic trio were among the first EU member states to clock this panacea and walk the walk. At the same time, they swiftly ramped up border protection as a means of preempting state-sanctioned human trafficking from both Russia and Belarus.

Unless the Georgian Dream Party follows suit and reorients itself in earnest with the free world, it is only a matter of time before the country’s upper echelons are given a reality check by their increasingly disgruntled voter base and put out to grass.

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