Anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi broke out without warning. It all started with the arrival of a Russian delegation to Georgia the day before, to attend the meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy.
The meeting of the delegates was held in the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. The event was organised and arranged by the Georgian side.
The head of the Russian delegation, Russian State Duma deputy Sergei Gavrilov sat in the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament. He was the first one who was given the floor, and he started with acknowledgements to the organisers for their hospitality. But his speech was interrupted by people who had burst into the building – all Georgian parliamentarians from a pro-Western faction.
And as the troublemakers continued inside the building, shouts of indignation were heard on the street. Supporters of the Georgian opposition came to the parliament building to support the protest against the Russian delegates. An onslaught on the building had started.
Law enforcement tried to push the protesters back, but they resisted. Water cannons and rubber bullets were then used. Gradually, skirmishes with the police turned into violent clashes that lasted all night.
On Friday, June 21, the protests continued, but were no longer so numerous. During the two days of unrest, some 240 people suffered, and more than 300 were detained.
A Georgian journalist and public figure, Georgiy Kapanadze believes that the opposition reacted so vehemently to the seating arrangements of the forum participants because the parliament is the main seat of power.
“A fact that a ruling party and government allowed a Russian to sit in the chair of the speaker was perceived by society as a betrayal of national interests. We do not exclude that the Georgian authorities themselves offered to Gavrilov to sit on the presidium. But if so, they should take responsibility, and not blame the protesters.”
Kapanadze, as well as many other experts, are not sure why the organisers decided to hold an event related to the rights of religious believers in the Georgian parliament.
“Parliament is the most important secular institution, so why should the Orthodoxy issues be discussed there – it’s a big puzzle for all of us. The organisers seemed to be intentionally looking for a provocation.”
Russian and Georgian analysts drew attention to a fact that the opposition, whose supporters mainly participated in the night clashes in Tbilisi, had been calling on people to demonstrate since February 2019. But until the events of June 20 to 22, these appeals were not directly linked to Russia. Rather, they focused on the issue of internal political confrontation.
The United National Movement Party (the UNM) consists of supporters of a former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili. After losing last year’s presidential elections, the UNM is trying to take revenge and their goal is now to get a majority during the parliamentary elections to be held in 2020.
But before that, opponents of the current government are trying to change electoral legislation so that elections are decided by lists presented by the various parties, but rather by majority districts. This will allow more single-mandate deputies to take seats in parliament and drive back the ruling party “Georgian Dream”.
The confrontation over seating arrangements of the Russian delegation gave the opposition a win-win reason to bring the masses onto the streets. Among other things, the fact that Moscow had recently expressed concerns about Georgia’s membership of NATO, played into the hands of the UNM too.
Nikolay Silaev, a senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Studies, believes that Georgian politicians have now found a comfortable niche for themselves.
“They regularly come up with anti-Russian statements. Moreover, hatred of Russia has replaced their foreign policy. You no longer have to propose any ideas. Just tell the West about your hatred for Moscow and good funding will flow from this. The clashes at the Parliament in Tbilisi are part of the same story.”
Silaev noted that, although anti-Russian sentiment has not initially dominated the ruling “Georgian Dream” party, it has now become a passive onlooker, having succumbed to Russophobia.
“A ruling elite felt that it was possible not to propose any new agenda, but simply go with the flow of anti-Russian hysteria and get money for it. Both the authorities and the opposition feel comfortable with hatred of Moscow. Although the intensified economic ties, tourism, Russian money transfers say that it is vital for Russia and Georgia to strengthen ties.”
A Georgian political analyst, Archil Sikharulidze connected events in the country not so much with anti-Russian sentiments, but with the inability of the authorities to fulfill long-term promises by bringing Georgia closer to Western institutions.
“Neither a former Saakashvili regime, nor the current course of Ivanishvili has been leading Georgia to either NATO or EU. Although all measures were thrown at it. But today there are two radical movements in the country: Westerners and traditionalists. The first ones deny everything Soviet and Russian, while the latter ones believe that Georgia of the 1970s – 1980s is the best model of the country. But it’s difficult for all political forces to reconcile with an idea that Moscow is an important center of attraction.”
Whatever possible reasons for the unrest in Georgia could be, whether what happened at the parliament was a provocation or just a fatal alignment of circumstances – it is about time to evaluate consequences.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on measures to ensure the national security of the Russian Federation, which also concerns Georgia. According to the decree, Russian airlines have been prohibited from flying citizens from the Russian Federation to the territory of Georgia since July 8, 2019. For the period of the flight ban, tour operators and travel agents were asked not to sell travel vouchers there.
This measure, which became the answer Moscow provided for all the recent anti-Russian sentiments in Georgia, will create a lot of problems for already sluggish Georgian economy with tourism as one of the major sectors.
According to an estimation of the head of the Georgian Hotels and Restaurants Federation Shalva Alaverdashvili, damage to the Georgian economy due to the decree banning flights from Russia will equal at least 750 million dollars. Given that population of Georgia is 3,7 million people, it turns out that the anti-Russian demarche will cost each Georgian citizen around 202 dollars, which is about a half of one average salary in the country.
Converting this into the Georgia’s GDP, losses from a reduction of Russian tourist numbers look even more impressive. According to the World Bank, Georgia’s GDP is around $ 15,5 billion. Therefore, a loss of $750 million, or about 4,83 percent of gross domestic product, is a very serious shock to the national economy.
A Russian political analyst Ivan Danilov considers that Russia is now conducting an international policy of economic education.
“All Russian neighbours and partners need to accept a simple idea: good relations with Russia, which, among other things, make it possible to earn access to Russian markets and Russian money, is a privilege. This privilege should be deserved and then carefully kept, groomed and cherished. Those who do not understand this simple idea should remain without access to Russian money and markets – it is not a question of punishment, it is a question of Russia’s elementary self-esteem as a state. Paying money to a country whose leadership sincerely hates Russia and the “Russian occupiers” is, mildly speaking, a strange and extremely unproductive strategy.”
There is an opinion that organizers of the provocation at the Georgian parliament did not expect such tough tit-for-tat measure from Russia. A deputy dean of the World Economy and World Politics faculty of the Higher School of Economics Andrey Suzdaltsev, considers that Georgian authorities never estimated that consequences of anti-Russian actions would be so harsh.
“They didn’t count on it. One could say that they had provoked to break some relations between Russia and Georgia, but there were no relations. There was only an unofficial practice of trade and tourism. Now that it has been hit, it has not been beneficial to anyone. First of all Georgia suffers.”
And Georgia suffers indeed. Its residents, especially those who work in spheres relating to serving tourists, are deeply upset by the decision of the Russian authorities to suspend flights and sales of tours to Georgia, especially since the season has just begun. Owners of hotels and cafes, tourist guides and taxi drivers, salesmen in resort towns and manufacturers of souvenirs – all of them are sadly calculating income which they will not receive due to a significant reduction in a number of tourists.
Many of them may even face bankruptcy, because the share of Russian tourists is large. Last year, for the first time in 12 years, Russians became the most numerous foreign guests in Georgia – every fifth tourist was from Russia (over 1,3 million people).
Moreover, Russian counter measures affect not only tourism to Georgia. Russian Federal Service for Consumer Protection and Human Welfare reported on increasing control over alcoholic products coming to Russia, which is produced in Georgia.
According to the Federal Service, from 2014 to 2018 the detected amount of alcohol, which was produced in Georgia and did not meet mandatory requirements, increased by 2,9 times and amounted to 203 thousand liters in 2018.
This increasing of control is extremely inconvenient for Georgian wine producers who had experienced quite favorabe conditions of export to Russia. Representatives of the Wine Association of Georgia even had the courage to make a statement that Georgian authorities should conduct a sensible policy with Russia in order to prevent economic damage to the counrty.
“We consider expedient to express our own position and openly underline: it is important that the state pursues a reasonable policy in order to prevent economic sanctions from Russia, which will also prevent economic damage to the country. We consider it unacceptable when the country’s economy becomes a victim of interests of certain political forces.”
Thus, it is far from being clear what exactly targets were pursued by those who organised protests in Tbilisi and whether these targets were achieved or whether the situation had spiraled out of control.
There is only one thing to be confident about: every Georgian who somehow depends on tourism or trade with Russia, is currently facing hard times with no certain understanding of when and how the situation might improve.