Georgia, the small Caucasus country partially invaded by Russia in 2008, adopted a non-confrontational policy against its northern neighbor when it invaded Ukraine in February this year.
Despite being a country with just over three million inhabitants, Georgia has managed to maintain its national and cultural identity over the centuries and was the country with the greatest political and economic transformation in the region between 2000 and 2010 under the regime of former President Sakaashvili, who was later criticized for abuses of power and is now in jail.
Bedzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian oligarch who made his fortune in Russia, created the “Georgian Dream” Party that ousted his predecessor and has held power since 2012. In 2014 Georgia was the furthest advanced country in signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, ahead of its neighbors Moldova and Ukraine.
However, the country’s transformation process slowed down in recent years and has been criticized by traditional allies (USA and EU) to the point that Georgia did not get the same treatment as Moldova and Ukraine for the accelerated process of integration to the EU announced this year.
At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgia took a relatively neutral position on the conflict, limiting itself to condemning the invasion of a sovereign territory, sending some humanitarian aid but not sending military aid, and refusing to apply trade or financial sanctions against Russia.
Although it has been a position that has raised some criticism from voices inside and outside the country, the result has been that an estimated 80 to 100 thousand Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Georgia, many of them middle to upper-middle class. The country has benefited from the economic benefits that the refugees have brought with them, to such an extent that the local currency, the lari, is one of the few world currencies that has appreciated by almost 20% against the US dollar.
After a marked economic contracting due to covid, the economy has expanded more than 15% this year, with important positive effects on hotel occupancy and related services and on real estate prices and high-end housing rentals . Russian is heard on the streets of Tibilis and many cars with Russian license plates are seen, several with Ukrainian flags inside to signal their support and avoid aggression, since some Georgians do not approve of the arrival of those they consider to be their invaders.
It is well known that Putin tends to justify his invasions of other countries, under the false pretext of defending his nationals. So, although today Georgia benefits from a neutral policy, it remains to be seen whether the immigration of Russians will not be the argument in the near future to launch a new offensive against a much smaller country that is less prepared to defend itself. Let us not forget that the Russian troops stationed in South Ossetia are only about 35 kilometers from the beautiful capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.
*The author is a member of the COMEXI Unit on the Mediterranean, Caucasus and Central Asia. Former Executive Director of EBRD.
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