The last several weeks were quite tumultuous for Georgia. The country experienced a heightened level of Russian intimidation and ended up on the receiving end of several humiliating statements by high-ranking Russian politicians.
The first such incident involved the so-called Night Wolves, a Russian biker club, whose members sought to enter Georgia to celebrate in Tbilisi the May 9th Victory Day over Nazi Germany (Newposts.ge, May 1). A notorious biker gang with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Night Wolves are reportedly being financed by the Kremlin. The club boasts some 5,000 members and is widely seen as a political (and at times semi-military) arm of Moscow to project its soft (and often hard) power in the post-Soviet republics and post-Communist Eastern European countries. Notably, the Night Wolves were involved in the Russian operation to annex Crimea in early 2014 (Tabula.ge, April 30).
After much public protest, mainly waged via the social media and press, the Georgian government somewhat reluctantly bowed to the pressure and refused entry to 50 bikers on the Russian-Georgian border. Nevertheless, several of them still managed to pass through by unidentified means and reached Tbilisi, to the outrage of many Georgians, who saw it as an act of deliberate humiliation and bullying—particularly, against the background of the ongoing Russian occupation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia) (Ambebi.ge, May 9).
In another insult, Moscow’s former mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, visited Georgia in the beginning of May, and stayed in the country for four days. Luzhkov is widely known for his open support for Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists. In 2009, Luzhkov even allocated 2.5 billion rubles (roughly $78.5 million) from Moscow’s municipal budget to build a so-called “Moskovsky” district in northern Tskhinvali, on the ruins of the Georgian village of Tamarasheni, which was erased by Russian troops and Ossetian militia during the 2008 Russian-Georgian War. Moreover, the Georgian government could have charged Luzhkov with violating Georgia’s Law on Occupied Territories for his unauthorized entry to Tskhinvali in 2009 and to Abkhazia in 2010. But officials denied any wrongdoing by Luzhkov because he had visited those breakaway provinces more than six years ago. Subsequently, he fell off the Georgian persona non-grata list and, hence, was justly granted entry to Georgia (via Armenia) by the Georgian Customs Office (Civil Georgia, May 10).
Luzhkov did not alter his attitude at all in response to this Georgian hospitality. During his visit, he actually declared that it was better for Georgia to live on without Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Pia.ge, May 12). Many Georgians view Luzhkov as a fervent enemy of their country, based on his steady record of anti-Georgian activities. His most recent visit, including his statement, was perceived by many in Georgia as a slap in the face. It is unclear why the Georgian government allowed Luzhkov, a man who spent part of his career trying to dismember Georgia and broke one of its main laws multiple times, to enter the country undisturbed, failing to apprehend him. Needless to say, Luzhkov’s visit was signed off on at the highest levels of the Georgian government, even though both Luzhkov and Tbilisi took pains to emphasize that the visit was purely private and not agreed ahead of time in any official manner (Civil Georgia, May 10).
The Night Wolves’ and Luzhkov’s ventures to Georgia were not the only negatively perceived occurrences from Russia in the last several weeks. A little before Luzhkov’s visit, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs once again slammed in a statement the joint US-Georgian Biological Research Laboratory (The Lugar Center), located on the outskirts of Tbilisi, calling it a threat to Russia (Mid.ru, April 29). Moreover, on May 2, President Putin met in Sochi with newly elected South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov, assuring him of Russia’s full support (Kremlin.ru, May 2). Soon after, on May 12, Russia and the separatist government in Tskhinvali ratified the November 2016 agreement on pensions provisions for Russian citizens residing in South Ossetia. This means that, from now on, Moscow would finance the pensions for local residents (Cominf.org, May 12). Barely a month earlier, the Russian government issued an order to co-finance the salaries for public employees in Russian-occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Pravo.gov.ru, April 14, 17)—pushing these Georgian regions one step closer to a full annexation by Russia. Just about the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Abkhazia, opening a new Russian “embassy” building” in Sukhumi and delivering further security guarantees to the separatists (Civil Georgia, April 20). Surprisingly, the Georgian government failed to even condemn, verbally or in writing, any of these Russian activities except for Lavrov’s visit to Sukhumi, and even then Tbilisi limited itself to a short formal statement of protest.
Russia’s hyperactivity of the last several weeks in Georgia is neither coincidental, nor temporary. As long as the Georgian government shows an inability or at times even unwillingness to stand up to Russian actions and instead sticks to its faltering rapprochement with the Kremlin, Russia is able to gain more and more ground with Georgia. Increasingly, Russia’s treatment of this South Caucasus country resembles an attempt to pull it in as a prospective satellite. This process can be expected to continue as long as Tbilisi fails to react to Moscow’s provocations in any meaningful way. Having essentially removed the question of the occupied territories from their bilateral negotiating agenda last year (see EDM, December 4, 2016), Moscow has left Tbilisi without much, if any, leverage.
The question now is what will come next? The successful infiltration of the Georgian border by the Night Wolves as well as Luzhkov’s recent sanctioned visit strongly suggest that more visits by such odious, anti-Georgian public figures from Russia can be expected in the future. And every such incident has the potential to reinforce a general sense among Georgians that Russia is really back in their country. Only the Georgian government can act to prevent this from happening.