By James M. Dorsey
A political crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia challenges the fundament of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s civilizationalist effort to project Russia as a major power whose defense of the Russian Diaspora allows it to redefine the country’s borders.
The challenge emerged as protesters demanded the resignation of interior minister Giorgi Gakharia for violently breaking up demonstrations against the Georgian parliament’s invitation to Russian communist lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov and Russia’s de facto occupation of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
More than 240 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to turn back crowds trying to enter parliament on June 20.
Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008 against Russia that resulted in Russian forces leaving behind large contingents of troops in the two Georgian breakaway regions.
A 2018 survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research concluded that 85 percent of Georgians consider Russia a “political threat.”
Mr. Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov and state-run media described the protests that have entered their third week as “Russophobic hysteria.”
In response, the government sought to disrupt tourism and trade and squeeze Georgia economically by stopping Russian airlines from flying to Georgia as of July 8 citing their debts and safety issues and advising tour operators to drop the country as a destination.
Mr. Peskov said the flight ban was to protect the safety of Russian tourists.
An estimated 1.4 million Russians visited Georgia in 2018. Tourism last year accounted for almost eight percent of Georgia’s GDP.
Russian trading standards body Rospotrebnadzo warned about a “decline in quality” of Georgian wine in a signal that the government could increase pressure by banning one of Georgia’s major exports. Georgia exports 70 percent of its wine to Russia.
“The issue is simply for Georgia to return to a non-Russophobic path. As soon as we see that, then we can think about re-examining the decisions that have been taken,” Mr. Peskov said.
Members of Georgia’s ethnic Russian community and Russian journalists, however, rejected Moscow’s assertions that they were threatened by the protests or widespread anti-Russian sentiment.
“Nothing near the horrors that Russian television has been broadcasting…is happening here. I’m walking around with my perfectly Russian physiognomy, asking questions in Russian and do not encounter a shred of anything even remotely reminiscent of hostility.” said Russian journalist Aleksey Romanov on YouTube.
Russians are not being chased down with “torches and pitchforks,” Anna Trofimenko, a 31-year old Russian web designed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi told Eurasianet. Ms. Trofimenko added that Georgians had good reason to be critical of Russia.
Some Russian analysts suggested that Mr. Putin was turning a mouse into an elephant to demonstrate Russian power and the government’s commitment to a state that defines its borders in civilizational rather than national terms.
Mr. Putin alluded to his civilizationalist aspirations in an interview with the Financial Times as he was leaving for last month’s Group of 20 summit in Japan.
Mr. Putin bemoaned the fact that “25m ethnic Russians found themselves living outside the Russian Federation. Listen, is this not a tragedy? A huge one! And family relations? Jobs? Travel? It was nothing but a disaster.” Mr. Putin was referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Putin’s remarks loom larger than a moan against the backdrop of his endorsement in 2013 of a civilizationalist foreign policy whose objectives included “ensuring comprehensive protection of rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots residing abroad.”
That year, Mr. Putin illustrated the flexibility of his notion of compatriots when he noted that Russia and Ukraine had “common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”
Unmarked Russian forces entered Crimea a year later. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea following a referendum in which Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation.
Russia also intervened in support of pro-Russian groups in the Donbass area of Ukraine as well as the self-declared regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.
At the core of Mr. Putin’s philosophy is Eurasia’s 21st century Great Game that aims to shape a new world order in an environment in which a critical mass of world leaders, including US President Donald J. Trump, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, effectively agree on illiberal principles of governance.
That tacit understanding reduces the Great Game to a power struggle in which players jockey for their share of the pie.
Far-right anti-Semitic ideologues associated with the Moscow-based Izborsk Club, who influenced Mr. Putin’s thinking, describe their country’s stake in the game as “restoring Russia as a Eurasian empire.”
The club was , named after a 16th century Muscovite fortress that protected Russia’s north-western border.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia squarely in that context.
“The Western overseers are prepared to close their eyes to the excesses of nationalists, to Russophobia, even if it severs all ties of the Georgian people with our country. We are soberly assessing the role of the United States and its allies in the world arena,” Mr. Lavrov said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.