Ukraine reminds Georgia of its own war with Russia. That creates a dilemma

Many Georgians wish the government would oppose the Kremlin more vocally. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KHURVALETI, GEORGIA (NYTIMES) - When she hears the latest news from Ukraine, Ms Tina Marghishvili, a Georgian farmer, remembers the forest her father planted. She remembers her childhood home, her cows, her family orchard - all the land and belongings that her family has not seen since 2008, when Russian troops forced them from their hometown during that year's Russian-Georgian war.

"I watch the Ukraine news, I remember 2008, and it makes me cry," said Ms Marghishvili, 57, who now lives in a camp for Georgians displaced by that 2008 war. "Georgia should be sanctioning Russia, blockading them, boycotting their exports."

And for Ms Marghishvili, the big mystery is: Why hasn't the Georgian government already done that?

Along Russia's borders, in post-Soviet countries such as Georgia that remain caught between Russian and Western influence, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented governments with a strategic dilemma.

Apart from Belarus, none have backed the Russian offensive - nor have they strongly opposed it, fearful of upsetting a dominant neighbour that is a major source of trade and remittances, a guarantor of some countries' security and a potential aggressor to others.

A small, mountainous country of 3.7 million people at the south-eastern extreme of the European continent, Georgia is perhaps running the narrowest gauntlet.

Russia invaded parts of Georgia 14 years ago, and Russian troops still protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two secessionist statelets that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008.

That has put Russia in de facto control of roughly one-fifth of Georgian territory, including the town in South Ossetia where Ms Marghishvili once lived.

To the Georgian government, this precarious dynamic makes it unwise to speak out too strongly against Russia, lest Russia turn on Georgia next.

"We live next to a volcano," said Mr Giorgi Khelashvili, a lawmaker for Georgia's ruling party, Georgian Dream. "The volcano just erupted, and it just happens that the lava is currently flowing down the other side of the mountain."

But this cautious approach has put the Georgian government at odds with most of its population - creating a far more pointed clash between majority opinion on Ukraine and government policy than in most other European countries.

Recent polling suggests nearly 60 per cent of Georgians want a stronger stance on Ukraine from their elected officials, and many have hung Ukrainian flags from their apartments and offices in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital.

Tens of thousands of Georgians have rallied to support Ukraine and to criticise the government's equivocal approach to a brotherly nation.

"We have different lands and different countries, but we have the same sky and we have the same enemy," said Mr Dato Turashvili, a popular Georgian novelist and one of many Georgians flying a Ukrainian flag outside his home.

"The Georgian government says, 'It's better to be careful, Russia is dangerous' - but that doesn't matter to the Kremlin," said Mr Turashvili. "If they take Kyiv, they will take Tbilisi."

Mr Dato Turashvili, a popular Georgian novelist and one of many Georgians flying a Ukrainian flag outside his home. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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

Days after the invasion began, Georgia submitted a rushed application for membership in the European Union - a largely symbolic indication of its pro-Western orientation, since full membership is years away.

The government sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, admitted more than 5,000 Ukrainian refugees and voted in favour of a United Nations resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

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

But despite rising anger from Georgian society, the Georgian government has generally avoided condemning Russia directly and has refused to impose sanctions on the Russian economy.

An anti-war demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi on March 12, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The government has clashed with the country's ceremonial president, who has taken a stronger position; prevented a charter plane of Georgian volunteers from flying to Ukraine; and blocked entry to several Russian dissidents.

Supporters of the government stance include the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the country's most powerful civil institutions, whose priests have historically criticised the liberal values they associate with the West.

"We remember that Russian troops are standing just 50km away," said the Reverend Andrea Jaghmaidze, a spokesperson for the church, referring to the boundary between Georgia and South Ossetia, about 30 miles (48km) distant. "Therefore, great wisdom should be shown so as not to place extra burden on the country."

A camp for Georgians displaced by the 2008 Russian invasion, in the foothills of mountains in South Ossetia, on March 13, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

But many Georgians feel that it would be not only more dignified to take a more vocal stance but also more strategic.

By taking an ambiguous stance on Ukraine, Georgia risks signalling to the West that it is uninterested in proper ties with Europe and North America and therefore not worth the West's support, said Mr Giorgi Gakharia, a former prime minister.

"If your standing is not clear, and if your standing is not values-based," then "the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Americans will have questions," Mr Gakharia said. "Where does Georgia stand?"

A Soviet housing complex in Tbilisi. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In some cases, the desire for a stronger stance against the Russian state has morphed into anger at the new Russian emigres, who have found themselves in an intimidating environment.

"Citizens of the Russian Federation," reads a flyer recently posted across central Tbilisi. "You are not welcome here."

Some Georgian landlords have refused to rent apartments to Russian tenants. Mr Alexey Voloshinov, a 20-year-old journalist for Rosbalt, a Russian news organisation listed by the Kremlin as a foreign agent, said a landlord had refused him tenancy last week "because we're Russians, and the Russian soldiers killed her son in the Russian-Georgian war in 2008," Mr Voloshinov said.

Mr Turashvili, the novelist, empathises with dissidents and journalists such as Mr Voloshinov. His most famous 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, even Mr Turashvili is wary of admitting too large a wave of Russians. Like many Georgians, he worries that a majority have fled for financial reasons rather than any sincere opposition to the Kremlin.

"They have the best writers in Russia," Mr Turashvili said. "But maybe no good readers."

Remote video URL

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.