Cold civil war in Georgia and why it matters

Georgia is important not only because it is a strategic energy export route bypassing Russia, but also because it is a litmus test for America’s resolve to contain Moscow’s reintegration of the former Soviet Bloc under its hegemony.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | May 10, 2013

Cold Civil War in Georgia
Anti-government protesters in Tbilisi (left), and Georgia’s strategic geopolitical position in the context of energy (right)

Ever since Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition won the parliamentary elections in October of last year, a kind of cold civil war has been raging in this South Caucasian country. Its instigators have been the new prime minister—a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia during the early 1990s—and his collaborators, who immediately unleashed a witch hunt against President Mikheil Saakashvili and the main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), which is affiliated with Georgia’s head of state. In spite of official harassment and dropping poll numbers, the UNM has survived, however. On April 19, 5,000 to 10,000 of its supporters (depending on who counted) held a rally in the city center of Tbilisi, demonstrating that the movement remains a force to reckon with.

The motif of the rally was unequivocally pro-Western. The crowd, which was addressed by President Saakashvili himself, carried signs which read “Georgia’s choice is Europe,” “Bidzina, go home!” and “Any country but Russia – no way but the West.” This reflected the UNM’s opposition to the Ivanishvili cabinet’s attempts to “normalize” relations with Moscow.

These pro-Russian genuflections yielded very little for Georgia, except for a recent decision by the Kremlin to lift the embargo (in place since 2006) on Georgian wine and mineral water. As a Jamestown Foundation analyst pointed out, however, this is a mixed blessing at best: “By reopening its market to Georgian products, Moscow may benefit by reestablishing a Georgian export dependency on its northern neighbor, thus leaving Georgia’s economy vulnerable to Russia’s manipulations once again.” The Chekists who run post-Soviet Russia view their admittedly large market just as they treat their export of energy resources, primarily as leverage to be utilized in blackmailing other actors on the international arena.

What is particularly disconcerting in this context is that the Ivanishvili government seems to exhibit more hostility towards its fellow Georgians in the opposition than toward Russia, a country that invaded Georgia less than five years ago and occupies two of the country’s provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In fact, the new prime minister has not only blamed the Kremlin’s attack on Georgia in August 2008 on Saakashvili but even seeks to indirectly implicate the former government in the Boston Terrorist Attack of April 15 by two Chechen Islamists.

In light of the above, Ivanishvili’s indignation at the opposition’s accusations branding him a “stooge of the Kremlin” seems quite disingenuous. Given his policies, he clearly has only himself to blame.

There is, of course, also another option. Ivanishvili may be conducting a clever deception operation aiming to demonstrate to the international community that, in spite of a foreign policy shift in Tbilisi, Georgia’s outstretched hand is met with only the most token of concessions. Georgia has, after all, often been castigated for alleged bullheadedness in its relations with Russia, and such a policy would therefore underscore the Kremlin’s intransigence.

In addition, the new prime minister and his cabinet might simply be cold and sober realists who have chosen to come to terms with their large and aggressive northern neighbor due to the geopolitical context during the last five years. Admittedly, the Bush administration stood by when the Russians invaded Georgia and Team Obama expressed its disinterest in the former “captive nations” (i.e. former Soviet republics and satellites). Further, the Smolensk Plane Crash of April 2010 meant the death of Poland’s staunchly pro-Georgian president, Lech Kaczyński, and the crumbling of his attempts to forge close geopolitical ties between the former “captive nations” of Central-Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

It appears rather unlikely that these theoretical musings are actually grounded in reality. In any case, the United States would be prudent to allay Georgian fears that the America will lack the resolve to back Tbilisi if Russia applies greater pressure against Georgia. The Georgian government—regardless of who heads it—should feel that it has our support whenever the Kremlin, and its Abkhazian and South Ossetian proxies, decides to test the Georgians’ will to remain an independent nation. The same should of course apply to the countries of Central and

Eastern Europe, which, along with Georgia, constitute a vital strategic asset for American policy in Eurasia.

Thus, in spite of its relatively small population and size, Georgia is a crucial element in a larger geopolitical equation. The mountainous nation is a strategic transit route for energy from the Caspian Basin to Asia Minor and Europe. If post-Soviet Russia is allowed to reestablish its former domination over Georgia, this transit avenue will be effectively severed. That, in turn, will not only strengthen Russia’s already strong position in the Southern Caucasus and even Central Asia, but will also undermine the energy diversification that European nations require to loosen Gazprom’s stranglehold on their policies. In addition, U.S. resolve to back Georgian independence is a litmus test for our political will to contain the Kremlin’s neo-imperial dreams of reintegrating the former Soviet Bloc under its hegemony, and this is exactly how Moscow sees it.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.