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Ukraine reminds Georgia of its war with Russia

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Ukraine reminds Georgia of its war with Russia

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. For many Georgians, this means that the country must clearly stand with Ukraine. But the government is more cautious.


Khurvaleti, Georgia – Georgian farmer Tina Marghishvili remembers the forest planted by her father when she hears the latest news from Ukraine. She remembers her childhood home, her cows, her family’s garden – all the land and stuff her family hasn’t seen since 2008, when Russian soldiers took her to their house during that year’s Russo-Georgian War. Was forced from hometown.

“I watch Ukraine news, I remember 2008, and it makes me cry,” said Ms. Marghishvili, 57, who now lives in a camp for Georgians displaced by the 2008 war. “Georgia should impose sanctions on Russia, block them, boycott their exports.”

And for Ms. Marghishvili, the big mystery is this: why hasn’t the Georgian government already done so?

With Russia borders post-Soviet countries such as Georgia, which are torn between Russian and Western influence, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented governments with a strategic dilemma.

Apart from Belarus, no one has supported the Russian invasion. But neither has he strongly opposed it – for fear of upsetting a key neighbor that is a major source of trade and remittances, a guarantor of the security of some countries and a potential aggressor for others.

A small, mountainous country of 3.7 million people at the southeastern tip of the European continent, Georgia is running up perhaps the narrowest gauntlet. Russia invaded parts of Georgia 14 years ago, and Russian forces still defend South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two separatist states that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008. This has put Russia under de facto control of about a fifth of the Georgians. The area, which includes the town of South Ossetia, where Ms. Marghishvili once lived.

For the Georgian government, this uncertain dynamic makes it unwise to speak too strongly against Russia, lest Russia turn on Georgia further.

“We live next to a volcano,” said Georgi Khelashvili, a legislator from Georgia’s ruling party, the Georgian Dream. “The volcano just erupted, and it so happens that lava is currently flowing on the other side of the mountain.”

But this cautious approach has landed the Georgian government with much of its population in trouble – creating a far more pronounced conflict between Ukraine and majority opinion on government policy than in most European countries.

Recent polling shows that nearly 60 percent of Georgians want a stronger stance on Ukraine from their elected officials, and many have hung Ukrainian flags from their apartments and offices in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Thousands of Georgians have rallied to support Ukraine and to criticize the government’s similar approach to a fraternal nation.

“We have different lands and different countries, but we have the same sky and we have the same enemy,” said Dato Turashvili, a popular Georgian novelist, and one of the many Georgians to have visited his home country. A Ukrainian flag was hoisted outside.

“The Georgian government says, ‘It’s better to be careful, Russia is dangerous’ – but that doesn’t matter to the Kremlin,” Mr Turashvili said. “If they take Kyiv, they will take Tbilisi.”

The government says the criticism is unfair, as it has taken some measures that could anger Russia.

Days after the invasion began, Georgia submitted an expedited application for membership in the European Union – a huge symbolic sign of its pro-Western orientation, as full membership is years away. The government sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, admitted more than 5,000 Ukrainian refugees and voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

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Georgia has also admitted more than 30,000 Russians since the start of the war, of whom 12,000 have remained there, with Tbilisi joining Istanbul as one of the primary destinations for a new wave of young Russian exiles.

But despite growing anger from Georgian society, the Georgian government has generally avoided directly condemning Russia, and has refused to impose sanctions on the Russian economy. The government has clashed with the country’s formal president, who has taken a strong position; prevented a charter plane of Georgian volunteers from going to Ukraine; and blocked the entry of many Russian dissidents.

The Georgian prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, also dismissed the effectiveness of the sanctions, suggesting that no outside actor could save Ukraine – a remark that many Georgians found unnecessary defeat. Notably, Russia did not include Georgia in the list of countries it considered unfriendly, while Ukraine has withdrawn its ambassador to Georgia.

All this has led to accusations that the Georgian Dream has been co-opted by Moscow – unproven claims that have nonetheless gained momentum because the party’s founder and former leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, made most of his fortune in Russia. Representatives for Mr. Ivanishvili ignored several interview requests. But he no longer has a formal role in the party, and the party denies claims of Russian interference.

“If that were the case,” said the Georgian Dream legislator, Mr. Khelashvili, “then Georgia’s enduring insistence on integration with the West, and most importantly our latest announcement about joining the European Union, seems out of context. . “

But for many Georgians, the party’s attitude toward Russia still deviates from pragmatism into unnecessary respect, said Olesya Vartanian, a Tbilisi-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, a global affairs research institute.

For years, Ms Vartanyan tried to avoid describing the Georgian Dream as pro-Russian, arguing instead that the party’s interests align only with those of Russia. Now, for the first time, she said, “I say it’s not the Georgian dream, it’s the Russian dream.”

One reason for the government’s caution can be found a few hundred yards from the home of Ms. Marghishvili, a displaced farmer. She now lives close to the border with South Ossetia, one of two separate areas guarded by Russian troops. The southern tip of South Ossetia runs just 500 yards north of Georgia’s main east-west highway, meaning that Russian troops stationed there could halve Georgia in minutes.

A pothole road leads to Khuravaleti, one of hundreds of villages in Georgia divided by a border line. In the years since 2008, Russian troops have fortified the border with fences and ditches – cutting off many Georgians from their homes, and often arresting those still trying to cross it. We do.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgian intelligence officials have found no sign of a new Russian offensive against Georgia, said Georgy Sabdashvili, head of analysis at the Georgian State Security Service.

But in villages like Khurvaleti, where there is always a tense situation, it is a bit comforting.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, “people are more afraid here,” said 85-year-old Valya Vanishvili, a Khuravaleti resident whose house has been separated from the rest of the village by a Russian fence.

“The Russians are doing to Ukraine what they did to us,” said Ms. Vanishvili, standing on one side of the fence while two Times journalists stood on the other. “Maybe something will happen here again,” she said.

For some Georgians, these fears justify the government’s ambiguous position on Ukraine.

Supporters of the government’s stance include the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the most powerful civic institutions in the country, whose priests have historically criticized the liberal values ​​they associate with the West.

“We remember that the Russian troops are standing just 50 kilometers away,” said the Rev. Andrea Jaghamadze, a spokesman for the church, referring to the border between Georgia and South Ossetia, which is about 30 miles away. “Therefore great wisdom must be shown,” he said, “so that the country would not be overburdened.”

But many Georgians feel that taking a more assertive stance would not only be more respectful, but also more strategic.

By taking a vague stance on Ukraine, Georgia signals to the West that it is not interested in proper relations with Europe and North America, and therefore does not deserve the support of the West, said Georgy Gakharia, a former prime minister.

“If your position is not clear, and if your position is not based on values,” then “the British, the Germans, the French, the Americans will have questions,” Mr. Gakharia said. “Where is Georgia standing?”

In some cases, the desire for a stronger stand against the Russian state has turned into the anger of new Russian immigrants, who have found themselves in an intimidating environment.

“Citizens of the Russian Federation,” reads a flyer recently posted in central Tbilisi. “You are not welcome here.”

Some Georgian landlords have refused to rent apartments to Russian tenants. Alexey Voloshinov, a 20-year-old journalist for the Russian news organization Rosbalt, listed by the Kremlin as a foreign agent, said a landlord denied him a tenancy last week “because we’re Russian, and Russian soldiers killed his son.” Dala the Russo-Georgian War in 2008,” Mr Voloshinov said.

The novelists are sympathetic to dissidents and journalists such as Mr. Turashvili, Mr. Voloshinov. His best-known novel, “Flight from the USSR,” is about a group of Georgian dissidents who tried to escape the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

But in a sign of the times, Mr. Turashvili is also wary of accepting a large wave of Russians. Like many Georgians, he worries that most have fled for financial reasons rather than any serious opposition to the Kremlin.

“They have the best writers in Russia,” said Mr. Turashvili. “But probably not a good reader.”

Mariam Zibzibadze contributed reporting.

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