Spurned by the West, Ge­or­gians turn gaze to Rus­sia

Tbil­isi’s E.U. and NATO dreams lan­guish over fears of pro­vok­ing Moscow

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY MICHAEL BIRNBAUM michael.birnbaum@wash­post.com

tbil­isi, ge­or­gia— In this fiercely pro-Western na­tion that fought a brief war with Rus­sia in 2008, few thought the Krem­lin could ever re­gain a toe­hold. But with the West back­ing away from Ge­or­gia’s path to E.U. and NATO mem­ber­ship af­ter a year of con­flict in Ukraine, pro-Rus­sian sen­ti­ments are on the rise.

The for­mer Soviet na­tion’s lead­ers are warn­ing that Rus­sia may yet pre­vail if Ge­or­gia is shut out from Western clubs. Wary of fur­ther pro­vok­ing Rus­sia, Western politi­cians have quashed talk of NATO and the Euro­pean Union ex­pand­ing east­ward any­time soon. Rus­sia has stepped into the vac­uum, in­creas­ing its pres­ence by open­ing Ge­or­gian-lan­guage out­lets of its state-owned news net­work and deep­en­ing in­vest­ments in the energy in­dus­try and other key sec­tors.

Sim­i­lar move­ments are hap­pen­ing in other for­mer Eastern bloc na­tions trapped be­tween Rus­sia and the West, in a tug of war that has deep Cold War res­o­nance.

“Sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity can­not be main­tained with this par­a­digm, with Rus­sia’s par­a­digm of hav­ing spe­cial rights to­wards other coun­tries,” said Ge­or­gian Pres­i­dent Giorgi Margve­lashvili, in an in­ter­view in the pres­i­den­tial palace on a bluff over­look­ing the old city of Tbil­isi. The blue-and-gold E.U. flag flies out­side of the build­ing, as it does at most Ge­or­gian gov­ern­men­tal build­ings, as an em­blem of the na­tion’s as­pi­ra­tions.

“Rus­sia is work­ing pretty ac­tively, not only in Ge­or­gia, but all around the world” to ex­pand its in­flu­ence, he said. De­spite the grow­ing Rus­sian pres­ence, Ge­or­gia re­mains un­shak­ably com­mit­ted to even­tual mem­ber­ship in NATO and the E.U., he said. As a to­ken of its de­vo­tion, Ge­or­gia has sent more sol­diers to Afghanistan to fight along­side U.S. troops in re­cent years than many na­tions al­ready in NATO.

The germ of the present con­flict be­tween Rus­sia and the West lies in an E.U. of­fer of closer ties to Ukraine and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s in­fu­ri­ated re­ac­tion. E.U. mem­ber­ship for Ukraine was al­ways a long shot— but it has be­come even less likely af­ter fight­ing that has killed more than 6,400 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to U.N. es­ti­mates.

E.U. lead­ers squab­bled at a sum­mit in May about whether to of­fer even the faintest prospects for mem­ber­ship to Ge­or­gia, Ukraine and Moldova, which have said they want to join. The E.U. lead­ers de­cided against it, and they also de­layed plans to ease visa rules for Ge­or­gian trav­el­ers, a bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment for Ge­or­gia’s lead­ers. The E.U. cau­tion stemmed from a de­sire not to in­spire back­lash from Rus­sia, diplo­mats in­volved in the dis­cus­sions say.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, who has taken the role of the lead Euro­pean in­ter­locu­tor with Putin, has played down ex­pan­sion prospects. So has Pres­i­dent Obama.

“Nei­ther Ukraine or Ge­or­gia are cur­rently on a path to NATO mem­ber­ship. And there has not been any im­me­di­ate plans for ex­pan­sion of NATO’s mem­ber­ship,” Obama said last year.

Now sup­port for pro-Rus­sian politi­cians in Moldova and Ge­or­gia is grow­ing, while Ukraine is so con­sumed by con­flict that it has made lit­tle progress in in­sti­tut­ing over­hauls nec­es­sary for west­ward in­te­gra­tion. Ar­me­nia, a fourth post-Soviet coun­try that had been in talks with E.U. lead­ers about a trade deal, last year aban­doned the dis­cus­sions al­to­gether, al­ly­ing it­self with the Rus­sian camp.

Many here say that Rus­sia has skill­fully out­ma­neu­vered the West.

“The Rus­sians are work­ing to dom­i­nate this part of the world. They cal­cu­late, they plan and they know this re­gion much bet­ter than the Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans,” said Tedo Ja­paridze, the chair­man of the Ge­or­gian Par­lia­ment’s for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee.

The United States has tried to of­fer con­so­la­tion mea­sures. U.S. troops did train­ing ex­er­cises with Ge­or­gian sol­diers in May, and Ge­or­gia’s lead­ers present an up­beat face about their west­ward ef­forts.

“We don’t have time to be dis­ap­pointed,” said David Bakradze, the state min­is­ter on Euro­pean and Euro-At­lantic In­te­gra­tion. “Our as­pi­ra­tions are ir­re­versible.”

But some Ge­or­gians feel they have lit­tle to show for their long west­ward push. Some of those sac­ri­fices have been made in blood in gru­el­ing de­ploy­ments to Afghanistan, where they have been one of the top con­trib­u­tors of sol­diers to the bat­tle ef­forts per capita, even though they are not NATO mem­bers.

“More and more Ge­or­gians are feel­ing they haven’t got­ten any­thing tan­gi­ble from the West,” said Shorena Shaver­dashvili, a prom­i­nent Ge­or­gian jour­nal­ist. “There isn’t more love for Putin and Rus­sia. It’s just a re­al­iza­tion that we’re left face-to-face with Rus­sia, and we have to deal with it.”

Spurned by the West, Ge­or­gians are start­ing to look else­where. Sup­port for sign­ing the E.U. trade agree­ment was at 68 per­cent in April polls from the Na­tional Demo­cratic In­sti­tute, down from 80 per­cent im­me­di­ately be­fore the Ukraine cri­sis started. Sup­port for Ge­or­gia’s join­ing the Rus­sian dom­i­nated Eurasian Eco­nomic Union, mean­while, is up to 31 per­cent.

Part of the shift in­side Ge­or­gia came with the oust­ing of Pres­i­dent Mikheil Saakashvili, the Western­trained lawyer who ruled the coun­try for a decade start­ing in 2003. Pas­sion­ately anti-Rus­sian and close to U.S. lead­ers, Saakashvili rarely missed a chance to jab at the Krem­lin. The big­gest erup­tion came in Au­gust 2008, when Ge­or­gian sol­diers at­tacked Rus­sian sol­diers who were amass­ing in greater num­bers on break­away ter­ri­to­ries of Ge­or­gia.

The en­su­ing five-day war dec­i­mated Ge­or­gia’s mil­i­tary and led to Rus­sia’s rec­og­niz­ing the in­de­pen­dence of South Os­se­tia and Abk­hazia. By 2012, many Ge­or­gians were ready to em­brace the lead­er­ship of their na­tion’s wealth­i­est man, Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili, who promised to im­prove re­la­tions with Rus­sia while main­tain­ing ties to the West.

The pay­off for Ge­or­gia was swift. Rus­sia lifted a ban on im­ports of Ge­or­gian wine in 2013, and trade spiked.

“Those peo­ple who are try­ing to help us, we just want to tell them, ‘Stop med­dling with Rus­sia,’ ” said Jemal Veliashvili, who works in a seed and fer­til­izer shop in Ge­or­gia’s Kakheti wine-grow­ing re­gion, in the green shadow of the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains that form the bor­der with Rus­sia. He said his busi­ness had tripled since the ban was lifted.

Even though diplo­matic re­la­tions with the Krem­lin re­main tense, Rus­sia’s pres­ence in­side Ge­or­gia is strength­en­ing. Just last month, Rus­sia’s Sput­nik news agency opened new of­fices here and started a Ge­or­gian- and Rus­sian-lan­guage Ge­or­gian news ser­vice.

“Ge­or­gia should be neu­tral, and it should be mil­i­tar­ily free,” said Archil Chkoidze, the leader of Ge­or­gia’s Eurasian Choice, a coali­tion of pro-Rus­sian groups that says it has nearly 16,000 mem­bers.

For now, even some of Ge­or­gia’s most com­mit­ted pro-Western politi­cians say that their best hope is to hold tight to their goals but to ex­pect lit­tle from their part­ners.

“No one told us it was go­ing to be easy,” said Irakli Alasa­nia, the leader of the op­po­si­tion Free Democrats. Alasa­nia was de­fense min­is­ter un­til Novem­ber, when he was ousted for be­ing too pro-West, he says. The pos­si­bil­ity of join­ing NATO “will only open up af­ter Putin,” he said.

Putin is widely ex­pected to re­main Rus­sia’s leader un­til at least 2024.

PHOTOS BY VANO SHLAMOV/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

TOP: Sup­port­ers of for­mer pres­i­den­tMikheil Saakashvili’s United Na­tion­alMove­ment take part in a rally in Tbil­isi, Ge­or­gia, in­March. ABOVE: Ge­or­gian ser­vice mem­bers take part in a U.S.-Ge­or­gia joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise at the Vaziani air base out­side Tbil­isi in­May.

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