Kremlin Retaliates Against Georgia Protests
By Marren Haneberg
Thousands of protesters took to the streets after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov, deputy of the Russian State Duma, sat in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat and addressed the audience in Russian. Gavrilov was there as president of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO), “a body set up by the Greek parliament in 1993 to foster relationships between Christian Orthodox lawmakers” (Antidze). Protests cut IAO meetings short.
These protests have led to confrontations between police and protestors. On the first night, police used rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas to drive away protesters. Protesters retaliated by throwing stones and over 240 people were hospitalized with injuries, including 80 police officers (“Грузинским авиакомпаниям с…”). Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze later claimed in a statement that police “never used and is not going to use rubber bullets or gas against peaceful protesters,” despite video evidence proving otherwise (Antidze, “Anti-Russia protesters met…”).
Opposition’s Frustration with Georgian Dream Party
Protesters are angered not only by the Kremlin’s overreach into Georgia, but also with the Georgian Dream Party, which protesters claim has failed to adequately protect the country from Russian aggression. “The Russia factor was the trigger for this crisis, but it was not the cause,” rather the breaking point was “very polarized domestic politics in which the opposition plays the Russian card to discredit the government” according to Georgia expert Thomas de Waal (Higgins).
In 2008, Russia invaded the small republic, situated in the Caucasus. After a five-day war, Russia seized 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, including breakaway republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it set up military bases (Megrelidze). The Georgian Dream, Georgia’s ruling party, started leading the government in 2012. Protesters claim that the party has failed to stand up to Russia. Opposition members of parliament demand “that the parliamentary speaker, interior minister and state security service chief all resign over the incident” (Antidze).
The Kremlin launched a propaganda campaign in a reaction to the protests. The campaign portrays Georgians as Russophobic and anti-Russian. While it is true the Georgian and Russian governments frequently clash, Russian and Georgian people generally get along. So far, no Russians have been hurt in the protests (Higgins). “This ban has hit ordinary people the worst because Russia and Georgia are tied together by centuries of history” Oksana Litvyak, who lives in St. Petersburg and grew up in Georgia, told AP News (Megrelidze). “Most Russians who visit Georgia marvel at the absence of overt hostility to them or their language” despite Russia’s 2008 invasion (Higgins).
On July 8, the Kremlin halted all passenger flights between Russia and Georgia. The Russian Transport Ministry cited aviation security concerns and overdue debts to Russia’s State ATM corporation (Zvereva). The debts amounted to $792,543.19 (“Грузинским авиакомпаниям с…”). Airlines will take a hit, as they have to compensate their customers $48 million due to the ban (“Press review: Tbilisi…”).
In addition to cancelling flights between Russia and Georgia, a decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin also advised travel agencies to stop selling Georgia trip packages, a measure which will further hurt Georgia’s tourism industry, which relies heavily on Russian customers. 150,000 Russians have to cancel their flights to Georgia due to the ban.
On June 22, there were 5,000 to 7,000 Russian tourists in the country. About one million Russians visit Georgia annually, making up the largest number of tourists each year (Megrelidze). In 2018, Russian tourism was a $720 millionindustry annually in Georgia, with 1.4 million Russians visiting Georgia. According to analysts, Georgia could lose $250 million to $300 million from the ban, or about 10 percent of its total income from the tourism sector (“Putin’s Ban On…”). One Tbilisi travel agency told AP News that 80 percent of its Russian-language tour guides were left without work after the ban.
Putin Rejects Proposed Sanctions
On July 8, Russian lawmakers drafted new sanctions to impose on Georgia after a television host on Rustavi 2, Georgia’s main opposition station, “unleashed a stream of profanities about Putin and his parents in a live broadcast.” Luckily for Georgia, Putin rejected these sanctions because they would further “burden [Russia’s] relations” with Georgia (Janjevic). These sanctions, if approved by the Kremlin, would have taken a hit on Georgia’s wine and mineral water industries and banned remittances from Russia to Georgia. While the Kremlin did not approve these sanctions, it showed Georgia that Russia has the potential to do far more damage to the Georgian economy if the country continues to protest Russian involvement.
Georgia, which is famous for its mineral water and wine, would stand to lose heavily if these bans were enforced. In 2017, mineral water and wine accounted for approximately 36 percent of exports to Russia, comprising $145 million of the total $403 million Russian exports. Russian exports make up 13 percent of Georgia’s total exports. It is the top destination for Georgian exports, with Bulgaria coming at second with 10 percent of exports.
Similarly, loss of remittances from Russia to Georgia would cause significant pain. In 2017, Georgians sent home $330.56 million from Russia (Bank of Russia). This accounted for a third of total remittances sent home to Georgia, which totalled $1.053 billion and composed 11.9 percent of GDP (World Bank).
What’s next for Georgia?
Tension between opposition and the Georgian dream will continue to escalate. On July 3, Giga Makarishvili, who helped organize the protests, said protesters would switch to “guerrilla tactics” and follow Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia everywhere “demanding his resignation” (“Organizers Of Ongoing…”). Protesters accuse Gakharia of using unnecessary force to break up protests.
Russian control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is the main issue straining Georgian-Russian relations. By cancelling flights and threatening sanctions, the Kremlin is asserting its power to show Georgia that it will continue occupying these regions, which make up 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.
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