Georgia’s Transition to Joining the West Will Never End

For decades, Georgian neoliberals have justified obedience to Washington, relentless pro-market reforms, and soaring inequality in the name of Westernization. But Russia's war has only revived claims that Georgia needs to bind itself tighter to the West.

George W. Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili walk to a press conference in Georgian parliament in 2005. (TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images)

For decades, Georgia has been involved in territorial conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regions each currently run by separatist governments. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, nominally in support of comparable statelets, thus naturally raised alarm signals in this small South Caucasus country.

In August 2008, under Mikheil Saakashvili’s leadership, Georgia attempted to take full control of South Ossetia. It shelled the regional capital Tskhinvali, sparking a twelve-day war with Russia. A French-brokered cease-fire ensured Russia withdrew, but not from the two statelets; shortly after, Moscow recognized their independence while providing them with economic support and an enduring military presence.

This left behind a “frozen conflict,” ever ready to resume. Yet despite paranoia that today’s war in Ukraine could spread here — with Moody’s even cutting Georgia’s credit rating — neither South Ossetia, Abkhazia, nor Russia have shifted their military posture. Before his defeat in this month’s election, South Ossetia’s leader, Anatoly Bibilov, announced plans for a referendum to join Russia, which is currently mooted for July 17, while Abkhazia’s government, despite its support for Russia’s war, refuted speculation about any similar poll.

By all accounts, Georgia faces no immediate threat. In fact, since winning power in 2012, the ruling Georgian Dream party has undertaken a policy of “strategic patience” toward Russia, aimed at reversing the fallout from the 2008 war and — eventually — normalizing economic and political ties. Many Georgians agree that these unresolved conflicts should be resolved diplomatically.

“Strategic patience” is also evident in the government’s careful yet still clearly pro-Ukrainian responses to the current war. But while polls suggest most Georgians approve of its position, the opposition loudly rejects this. It sees Ukraine and Georgia as countries whose fate is intertwined; deeply geopoliticized and lacking true sovereignty, they rely on strong Western institutions for protection. While the government surely agrees with this, the opposition insists that “strategic patience” is a “pro-Russian” stance. Yet this itself follows in a long tradition of calls to complete Georgia’s transition to the West, seemingly always out of reach.

Shame Movement

Recent pro-Ukraine protests in Georgia have mostly doubled as anti-government actions. In particular, the Shame Movement — an activist group founded in 2019, after a Russian MP’s visit to the Georgian parliament sparked weeks of protests — has used the war to mobilize an unsavory nationalism, demanding tighter entry restrictions for Russian citizens after tens of thousands entered Georgia to evade the pressures of war and sanctions. Some businesses in the capital, Tbilisi, and elsewhere followed suit, requiring political questionnaires before Russians could use their services, or refusing to rent them apartments.

Georgia’s government, hoping to avoid accusations of encouraging Russophobia, called this “unacceptable.” Given the lack of renter protections, some landlords took advantage in the opposite direction by raising rents and evicting tenants without notice, much like in neighboring Armenia.

Ukraine’s government has also directly pushed against Tbilisi’s response to the conflict. Its defense secretary, Oleksy Danilov, said Ukraine’s military situation would improve if Georgia opened up fronts to retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In response, both government and opposition MPs in Georgia displayed rare common purpose by reaffirming their commitment to peaceful resolution. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky continued to dial up the rhetoric, repeatedly making public reference to Georgia’s need to reclaim Abkhazia.

This tension appeared in economic matters, too. Unlike many Western governments, Georgia’s prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, ruled out closing airspace to Russian aircraft or imposing bilateral sanctions, emphasizing that this was not in his country’s interest. There are already projections that Georgia will see a decrease in economic growth due to the war. Given its small size (population 3.7 million) and reliance on the Russian market for imports, exports, and remittances, bilateral sanctions would have considerably squeezed a population already struggling with unemployment, inflation, and poverty. Were Russia to impose counter-sanctions, as in the past, Georgia would have limited options. Tbilisi has reiterated that it is in full compliance with financial sanctions against Russia, although, in many reported cases, this has amounted to Georgian banks refusing to open accounts for Russian citizens.

Zelensky has recalled Igor Dolgov, Ukraine’s ambassador to Georgia, citing Tbilisi’s “immoral position” on sanctions. David Arakhamia — himself of Georgian descent, Zelensky’s top aide and a lead negotiator in Ukraine-Russian talks — has repeatedly claimed that Tbilisi is actively helping Russia. Nika Melia, chairperson of Georgia’s United National Movement, the party founded by Saakashvili, echoed this sentiment in harsher terms, calling the unwillingness to impose sanctions “collaborationism.” Far from a happenstance diplomatic row, these tensions have deep roots.

Post-2014 Ties

Since the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine, ties between Georgia’s opposition and Ukraine’s government have deepened significantly. Saakashvili and figures from his inner circle even assumed positions in Petro Poroshenko’s post-Maidan government in Ukraine, with Saakashvili named governor of Odesa Oblast in 2015. Georgia’s exiled former deputy interior minister Gia Lortkipanidze, accused of punitively ordering the violent breakup of a 2011 anti-government protest, was named chief of police in Odesa and is now serving as Ukraine’s deputy director of counterintelligence. Former Georgian prosecutor-general Zurab Adeishvili — found guilty in abstentia for charges including overseeing the closure of a television station in 2004, facilitating the kidnapping of an opposition leader, and falsifying evidence regarding the inhumane treatment of inmates — currently works as a reforms advisor to Ukraine’s prosecutor-general. Saakashvili’s personal bodyguard, Giorgi Kuparashvili, became active in Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, while another former bodyguard, Teimuraz Khizanishvili — now a member of various military units and the far-right Right Sector — appeared in a recent video in which captured Russian soldiers were summarily executed just outside of Kiev.

These ties have also proven unstable: Saakashvili’s disagreements with Poroshenko eventually cost him his job. However, after being elected president in 2019, Zelensky appointed Saakashvili to a new position as lead of the Executive Committee of Ukraine’s National Reform Council. Georgian oppositionists’ role in the Ukrainian government is thus key in shaping relations between the two countries. When the Ukrainian secret services recently accused Tbilisi of actively helping Moscow evade sanctions — presenting no substantial evidence at the time — political score-settling was clearly a driving factor.

Saakashvili’s Return

The main opposition to today’s ruling Georgian Dream party — founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, an ex–Saakashvili ally — comes from Saakashvili’s own United National Movement (UNM). In his long years of exile — facing criminal charges for abuse of office, should he return — UNM splintered into politically incoherent factions mostly centered on individual personalities.

Yet a cult of personality for Saakashvili still exists. His supporters view him as an unconventional state builder and unrelenting reformer, with an almost religious belief that he rescued the country from the destitution and conflicts of the 1990s. His missteps and ideological inconsistencies are seen as secondary to the enthusiasm and national revival he embodied as leader of the country’s 2003 Rose Revolution and the government that followed.

In the lead-up to municipal elections in October 2021, Saakashvili finally returned to Georgia. He hoped to mobilize his supporters and spark a political crisis that could potentially wrest power from Georgian Dream. No such thing happened.

A few days after secretly entering the country, he was arrested in a non-descript Tbilisi apartment and promptly went on hunger strike. The hashtag #tavisuplebamishas (free Misha) circulated while people took to the streets in support. Over the course of the former president’s detention, videos leaked showing him being humiliated in prison, coupled with claims by his lawyers of torture and abuse from guards and other inmates. While this led to outrage, releasing the footage did have a political logic. Saakashvili’s own presidency, from 2004 to 2013, is remembered by his detractors as an era of mass incarceration, prison abuse scandals (that also came to light through leaked video footage), and authoritarianism. All of this sparked massive protests in 2007 that were brutally cracked down on, paving the way to his party’s 2012 election defeat. This explains why a segment of the Georgian population viewed the humiliating footage of Saakashvili in jail not as the struggle of a righteous political prisoner but rather the schadenfreude-tinged fall from grace of an autocrat.

Some in the West who once thought of Saakashvili as a client lent conditional, albeit frustrated, support — less out of concern for his condition than as an opportunity to criticize the Georgian government’s sober approach toward Russia; hence why some petitioned EU leaders to impose sanctions on Georgia, described it as a country “going down the well-trodden road of Central Asian despotisms” (as did one former Estonian president), or belligerently suggested the situation warrants more US involvement in Georgia’s domestic affairs. Yet in April, even the European Council on Human Rights rejected appeals regarding Saakashvili’s treatment in prison.

In Georgia today, politics are a spectacularized mudslinging contest between elite factions, without any real connection to the socioeconomic needs of a struggling population. The legitimacy of the ruling party and its opposition rely more on the dramatization of mutual enmity than serious policy difference. Theatrical polarization between the government and opposition is reinforced by systemic weaknesses in the private sector and a state that commands access to important positions and resources. It is no surprise, then, that Georgians by and large do not see their country as a democracy — with a sizable portion agreeing it never was.

Georgian Nationhood and Western Integration

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Western-oriented development has not only failed to address Georgia’s problems but reinforced them.

Back in 1974, Zviad Gamsakhurdia cofounded the Georgian Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights,followed by the Georgian Helsinki Group. Zviad also believed in Georgia’s independence — a position he admitted was marginal in late Soviet Georgia. Yet, becoming Georgia’s first post-Soviet president upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, he mobilized his supporters with the ethnonationalist rallying cry “Georgia for the Georgians.”

Soviet policies had long facilitated Georgianization — in terms of national and cultural institutions and percentage of the population. However, they also guaranteed national-territorial administrations for the Abkhaz and Ossetian minorities. Zviad’s nationalism claimed Soviet nationality policies were imperial — not because of perceived Russification, which didn’t happen, but due to the territorial claims they granted to non-Georgian ethnic groups. Non-Georgians were framed as settlers and guests. These politics enflamed tensions during the independence process in ways that have never been resolved. Zviad and his ideas are still widely revered today.

Zviad appealed to Washington for support through the framework of human rights. In November 1991, a “US diplomatic protest note” was delivered to Georgia’s representatives in Moscow concerning the deteriorating political situation, including the arrest of opposition leaders and the conflict in South Ossetia. On December 12, Zviad wrote a response letter to then US secretary of state James Baker, summoning human rights as the political basis upon which the United States could guarantee Georgia’s independence.

Despite this appeal, Helsinki Watch published a scathing indictment⁠ of human rights violations by Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his regime on December 27, 1991, its content mirroring the US protest note.

Washington’s concern was not about human rights but who was in charge. Although the US formally recognized Georgian independence on December 25, 1991, it wasn’t until after the anti-Gamsakhurdia coup in 1992 and the return to power of Eduard Shevardnadze — a former Georgian Communist Party leader (1972–1985) and Soviet foreign minister (1985–1991) — that they established formal diplomatic ties.

Formally president from 1995 till 2003, Shevardnadze was seen in the West as a reformer, and boasted previous personal ties with US officials. As president, he pragmatically avoided centering a romantic image of the West. Shevardnadze had inherited civil war, economic collapse, territorial dismemberment, and a protracted rebellion of Gamsakhurdia supporters in Western Georgia. He appealed to Russia for help to crush them.

In December 1993, Georgia joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (withdrawing in 2008) and allowed for Russia to maintain the old Soviet military bases in the country (they were all closed by 2007). At this time, Russia and its first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, were drowning in a sea of unregulated privatization, mafia wars, territorial chaos, and even a recent constitutional crisis. Yet Russia’s integration into European and Western institutions such as NATO was still widely touted, and Yeltsin was working closely with Washington.

Shevardnadze imagined Georgia’s geo-economic position as part of a “new Silk Road” meant to “strengthen East-West cooperation” in a larger vision that “must include Russia.”This vision projected a geopolitical and economic middle ground for Georgia, maintaining ties to both Russia and the West.

Yet his presidency deepened Georgia’s material dependency on the United States. Shevardnadze’s ability to attract foreign aid, due in part to his reputation as a reformer and likely client of Western interests, resulted in over $1 billion in financial assistance from 1991 to 2001, making Georgia one of the largest per-capita destinations of US aid worldwide. Washington clearly viewed Georgia as strategic and sought to undermine the geopolitical standing of a weakened Russia and concretize its own interests in the post-Soviet world. Shevardnadze used this to position Georgia to take advantage of US imperial ambitions while maintaining amicable relations with Russia.

Shevardnadze also facilitated closer ties with the West through pipelines. In the wake of Soviet collapse, oil in the Caspian Sea became a coveted goal of those with the means to exploit it. In the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s ability to amass wealth via oil and gas ensured it a modicum of geopolitical independence, while resourceless and landlocked Armenia was excluded from such projects and became mired in poverty and an overdependency on Russia. Georgia was able to use its idyllic geography for transiting gas to the Black Sea. Georgia’s position within the Black Sea–Caspian corridor made its geo-economic position, in the eyes of the West, crucial. Georgia was key to not only connecting pipelines between Azerbaijan and Turkey but also getting Caspian gas to Europe. With the help of the United States, the Baku-Supsa pipeline was created, and later, after Shevardnadze left office, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline — the “oil window to the West.”

After 9/11, the US-led global “war on terror” also shaped Georgia’s process of Western integration and military development. Russia, the United States, and Georgia viewed their security interests in tandem — at least momentarily. The two larger powers both fought barbaric wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, respectively, in the name of suppressing Islamism.

In 2002, the Georgia Train and Equip Program was the first of many such programs initiated, with Washington providing Georgia with millions of dollars’ worth of military aid and training. Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge — home to ethnic Chechens with ties to the insurgency across the border — was the key reason. This initiative was supported by Russian president Vladimir Putin, just as the war in Chechnya two years earlier to ensure Russia’s “territorial integrity” was supported by Shevardnadze. Georgia’s military relations with the United States and Russia were supported by both sides within the logic of the war on terror. Shevardnadze also committed to getting Georgia into NATO, and signed it up for the “Coalition of the Willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003.

Saakashvili and Radical Americanism

In May 2005, George W. Bush became the first sitting American president to visit Georgia. He praised it as a “beacon of liberty for this region and the world” that would have a “solid friend” in the United States as it beat its “path to freedom.” On behalf of the Iraqi people and the Coalition of the Willing, Bush extended thanks for the nearly one thousand Georgian soldiers who had joined the US-led war and occupation.

By now, Georgia was ruled by the thirty-seven-year-old president Saakashvili — riding high on his popularity from the “Rose Revolution.” One of the first so-called color revolutions, this was neither simply a Western-backed coup nor a genuine expression of democratic power. Rather, it was an example of Western-supported regime change and a process that, once begun, was encouraged and exploited by a segment of emergent elites and Western powers for their own interests.

In Georgia’s case, Shevardnadze was not out of favor in the West. But in November 2003, anger at falsified election results sparked weeks of protests in Tbilisi. A central demand was Shevardnadze’s resignation. A burgeoning network of Western-funded civil society organizations were key political actors in the unrest. At the forefront was the student group Kmara, funded by Open Society Institute and connected to Saakashvili’s party. In the January 2004 elections that followed, Saakashvili won unopposed.

Saakashvili and his allies had to position themselves as more Western than the already pro-Western Shevardnadze. They celebrated the extreme free-market orthodoxy, nationalism, and anti-communism of figures like Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. These reformers believed in the progressive merits of globalization and neoliberalism at a moment when millions worldwide were fighting against them.

Not only was Washington using its post–Cold War unipolar moment to develop postcommunist countries like Georgia into client states, but postcommunist countries were pressured to compete for investment, and tried to attract capital through extreme market reforms. The architect of these reforms in Georgia was Tbilisi-born Russian oligarch Kakha Bendukidze. A dogmatic libertarian who made millions of dollars in Russia in the 1990s and by some estimates had assets worth upward of $1 billion by his death in 2014, most notably owning the Yekaterinburg-based heavy-machine producer Uralmash, he returned to Georgia in 2004, after being named minister of economic reforms, and proceeded to hollow out any remnants of a social safety net or labor protections, overseeing the near-total privatization of the economy. These policies sharply increased inequality and poverty.

The extreme marketization sat comfortably with Georgia’s comprehensive nationalist rebranding under Saakashvili’s government. Georgia was cast as a centuries-old Christian crusader nation, an authentic European land and a nation of victims to a Soviet communism indistinguishable from an earlier Russian imperialism — saved by the United States and thus eternally indebted to it.

During a 2006 meeting with Bush, Saakashvili reiterated Georgia’s national commitment to US imperial aims, explaining how US domination in Iraq is a “success for countries like Georgia. It’s a success for every individual that loves freedom, every individual that wants security, to live in a more secure world for himself, herself or their children.”

Bush responded in kind by falsely presenting Georgia as a consolidated democracy, despite Saakashvili’s heavy-handed policies and clearly antidemocratic form of governance. The country’s “symbolic capital” made it a “specific asset” to the Bush administration’s freedom agenda and foreign policy of democracy promotion. Saakashvili maintained a personal relationship with the US Republican apparatus through direct contacts with John McCain and more behind-the-scenes people like Republican lobbyist Randy Scheunemann and Bruce P. Jackson, an executive at Lockheed Martin and president of the Committee to Expand NATO. These dynamics can help explain why, despite objections from core countries like France and Germany, the United States pushed for a NATO Membership Action Plan for Georgia, culminating in the guarantee of eventual ascension at the now infamous 2008 Bucharest Summit. After Georgia’s 2008 war, the United States provided an unprecedented $1 billion in aid.

Because nation building was oriented toward setting Georgian nationhood within the perspective of US-led globalization, a memory war was waged against Georgia’s Soviet past. Shevardnadze-era problems were almost exclusively framed as vestiges of the USSR — as the corrupt and backward opposite of the Western-looking development the new reformers wanted.

Most glaringly, in central Tbilisi, the Museum of Soviet Occupation was opened in 2006. The USSR was presented as wholly external to Georgia instead of a system Georgians themselves built and largely benefited from.

Civil society also developed in service of such a historical narrative that became important to nation building. Western-funded NGOs like the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information and Soviet Past Research Laboratory each promote narratives of Georgia as a nation victimized by Sovietization. The Saakashvili era intelligentsia, able to live comfortably segregated from the rest of Georgian society with Western patronage, played a key role in using NGOs to reproduce this national historical vision.

Limits of the West

Georgian Dream inherited and expanded upon the basic policies of the Saakashvili government. Georgia has also enjoyed a modicum of economic growth since 2012. But the limits of Western-oriented development and nation building have shown.

Over the years, the United States has provided nearly $4 billion to Georgia — $1.8 billion through USAID, promising to actively support Georgia’s “democratic, free market and western orientation.” This, along with billions in EU funds, have encouraged a systemic reliance on foreign aid to keep Georgia’s economy afloat.

The policies of Western governments, institutions, and NGOs toward Georgia often rely on assessments of Georgian democracy based on ratings provided by the contentious Freedom House Index and similar yardsticks. Georgia’s 2022 Freedom House rating dropped in part because of the collapse of the April 19 agreement mediated by European Council president Charles Michel. The agreement ended a six-month political crisis following Georgia’s October 2020 elections. In this case, Georgia’s relative democratic standing was bound to its adherence to an EU-mediated agreement (though it is not part of the bloc), not the empowerment of Georgian domestic institutions. The EU has now supplanted the US as the most visibly involved Western power, also taking a more active role managing domestic political crises.

Militarily, decades of US input have largely not improved Georgia’s capacity for self-defense. Disproportionate focus on preparing Georgian soldiers for counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan meant US military contractors were mainly interested in reproducing their own roles. This is itself unsurprising, given Washington’s instrumental view of Georgia, though it has, belatedly, attempted to change course. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama-era restrictions and approved the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Georgia, while, in 2018, the US-led Georgian Defense Readiness Program began to focus training on territorial defense.

Joining Europe, or Leaving Georgia?

Since Georgia’s turn to a wild capitalism, various parasitic industries have become preponderant, especially in finance, making it a haven for cryptocurrencies, gambling, microfinancing, and other nefarious credit schemes. Combined with pervasive underemployment and unemployment, this economic scenario has given rise to serious individual debt crises. But without any larger collective force addressing these issues, there has been an increase in lone-wolf attacks and bank robberies along with rising right-wing revanchism.

In 2019, Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili essentially promised the EU a steady flow of cheap labor by encouraging Georgians to leave as an answer to abysmally low local wages and unemployment. Despite the much-celebrated visa-free travel in the EU, the average Georgian cannot afford to vacation in Europe.

This is accompanied by an overdependence on tourism. The highly unstable tourism industry can easily be disrupted, as in the recent pandemic, with grave economic consequences. Tourism as a centerpiece of the Georgian economy also encourages consumption, not production, weakening economic performance and durability overall.

Meanwhile, Western companies investing in Georgia pay little in taxes and are often allowed to function with near total impunity — or else the Georgian government faces external political pressure. Frontera Resources is a prime example — where US politicians came to the defense of a US-owned oil company with nefarious practices.

In the context of the current war, Georgia followed the lead of Ukraine and Moldova by turning in its application to join the European Union two years ahead of schedule. Yet actual EU ascension — if it is ever to happen — is still a long way away.

Ukrainian flags blanket central Tbilisi, the wealthiest and most Western-connected area of the country, but pro-Ukraine protests ended quickly and were small by Georgian standards.

Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, Russia’s war in Ukraine has unleashed excitement at the political opportunities. Western institutions have consolidated a new sense of purpose, civil societies have found a new moral crusade, arms manufacturers new contracts, and gas flows in new directions.

In Georgia, there is no such excitement. Political fatigue and resentment are simmering. Not only because Western integration is a pipe dream but because Georgians wake up every day in a society that thirty years of fidelity to the West has built — where wages are low, opportunities are in short supply, and, for many, the only option is to leave.