Georgia was rocked this week by massive protests against a draft NGO and media law modeled on a Russian law. Demonstrators waving Georgian, European and sometimes even Ukrainian flags won their case with the complete withdrawal of the text and the release of demonstrators arrested the previous days.
The outcome of the showdown is a victory for the pro-Europeans and a setback for the Kremlin in this former Soviet republic where Russian influence remains strong. Here are five things to know about the country.
1. A small country under Russian influence
Straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, Georgia is a small state of 3.7 million inhabitants, as big as the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Bordered by the Black Sea to the West and by Armenia and Azebaïdjan to the East, the country is above all wedged between two powers, Turkey to the South, and Russia to the North, which has exercised its influence there for three centuries and a half.
From the very beginning of the 19th century, until the break-up of the Soviet bloc, Georgia was an integral part of the Russian Empire, then of the USSR – apart from a short break of independence after the Bolshevik Revolution. A child of the country will even become an illustrious Soviet leader: Stalin, born Joseph Djougashvili in Gori, in eastern Georgia.
2. Russia invaded in 2008 with a scenario identical to the war in Ukraine
To “protect” the Russian-speaking separatist minority of two bordering regions from the actions of a pro-Western power that aspires to join NATO, the Kremlin sends its troops to occupy territories whose independence it is then the only one to officially recognize.
No, it’s not about the war in Ukraine in 2022, but about the conflict that rocked Georgia in 2008. The country was then chaired by Mikhail Saakashvili who faced separatist forces in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The sequel is very different from the Ukrainian scenario. The Russian troops, clearly superior in number, emerge victorious from a few days of war. Following a ceasefire, in which the European Union (EU) became involved under the French presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Tbilisi lost control of the two regions, ie a fifth of its territory.
3. A pro-European president, but a government close to the Kremlin
Georgia is today chaired by a former French diplomat, Salomé Zurabishvili. The daughter of Georgian opponents living in France, she was appointed French ambassador to the country in 2003 before Mikhail Saakashvili offered her the post of foreign minister. In the meantime, Parliament hastily granted her Georgian nationality… After becoming an opponent of Mikhail Saakashvili, she was elected president in 2018.
But the president has few powers, unlike the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibachvili. The latter comes from the majority party in the Assembly for a decade, “Georgian Dream” created by the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanichvili. The government he leads claims to defend a rapprochement with Europe and NATO but it has been concretely aligned with Moscow since last summer and has not really condemned the invasion of Ukraine.
4. Its candidacy for the European Union is pending
Although, geographically, it is not quite located on the European continent, Georgia has long aspired to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic area. In June 2022, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brussels grants candidate status for membership to Kyiv as well as neighboring Moldova. But not in Georgia.
Europeans are asking them for more reforms to bring them closer to the standards imposed by Brussels in terms of democracy and freedom of the press. Its economy is also not deemed to be performing well enough to withstand the shock of entering the single European market.
5. A country that remains poor
Georgians’ standard of living is progressing little. The average salary in 2019 (before the health crisis) was around 400 euros per month. GDP per capita approached him, 4,200 euros, seven times less than the average of the Twenty-Seven.
In his notice rendered in June, the European Commission recognizes the good macroeconomic stability of the country and a favorable business climate. But the level of education of the population and the training of the workforce are considered insufficient, as well as investments in infrastructure, including transport and renewable energy, and its access to global value chains.