What is behind the recent spat between Georgia and Russia?

The recent escalation in tensions serves political interests in both Moscow and Tbilisi.

Georgia protests
Demonstrators with Georgian national and EU flags gather in front of the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi on July 8, 2019 [File: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP]

Outrage is the most lucrative commodity in the global political market, especially in Eastern Europe. The recent crisis in relations between Russia and Georgia is a good illustration of this truism.

It started pretty much out of the blue with an incident involving a member of the Russian Duma, Sergey Gavrilov, who was part of a delegation at this year’s meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy hosted by Georgia.

During the event held at the Georgian parliament, the Russian MP addressed the delegations from 21 Orthodox countries in attendance from the seat of the parliament speaker, which provoked a sharp reaction from pro-Western Georgian MPs and sparked weeks of protests in Tbilisi.

It is easy to see why many in Georgia did not take Gavrilov’s actions lightly. The country has been in a state of frozen conflict with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with occasional deadly flare-ups. Two of its breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were effectively occupied by Russia after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Moscow also attempted to cripple the Georgian economy by imposing import bans on the most popular Georgian products – wine and mineral water.

Subsequently, after the pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili left Georgia and went into exile after the war, the new government took a much softer stance on Russia, which resulted in a thaw in relations. Sanctions were lifted and Russian tourists poured into the South Caucasus country, which boasts gorgeous mountain landscapes, warm sea and an extraordinarily rich culinary and winemaking tradition.

Some 1.4 million Russians visited Georgia in 2018, accounting for 20 percent of all tourists in the country. Tourism generates around 9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 27 percent of all jobs.

Despite the rapprochement, hostility towards Russia and perceptions of it as a threat never went away, so on June 20 when Gavrilov took the seat of the Georgian parliament’s speaker, many felt offended.

This came at a time when the governing Georgian Dream coalition is slowly losing ground to the revitalised Saakashvili-linked opposition, which was only narrowly defeated in presidential elections last year and has good chances in the next parliamentary elections in 2020.

The opposition quickly took advantage of the situation and rode the wave of public outrage, following the “coloured revolution” playbook, which Saakashvili had helped draw up years ago. Opposition supporters attempted to storm the parliament, but were brutally repelled by police, which resulted in dozens of injuries.

Having failed at that, they moved on to a Maidan-style protest, its visuals squarely aimed at internationalising a domestic political conflict. Pictures from the scene showed dozens of posters in English, many of them calling Russia an occupier.

The Kremlin, too, was quick to play up public outrage. Government media portrayed it as Russophobic and war-mongering, while the Russian government issued a ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia, delivering a major blow to the country’s fledgeling tourism industry at the height of the season.

Tensions escalated further after an opposition Georgian TV anchor Giorgi Gabunia went on an obscenity-filled rant against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Duma threatened to introduce further sanctions, but eventually, the Kremlin chose to defuse tensions and so did the Georgian authorities (although the flight ban remains in place).

The post-Soviet culture of public outrage, fake and real, is related to patterns of mass psychology that appeared in the 20th century, a truly genocidal epoch for this part of the world.

Of all national leaders in the region, Putin is best at playing up public sentiments to his advantage (although his opponents in neighbouring countries are quick learners, too). He knows that well-manipulated mass outrage makes people forget atrocities committed against them by their own government and rally behind it against some perceived external threat.

This mindset harks back to World War II, when the invasion by German Nazis, who regarded Slavs as an inferior race slated for eventual extermination, united the Soviet people under their murderous dictator, Joseph Stalin (ironically, an ethnic Georgian), in order to repel the aggression. A popular song of that time called “sacred war” captivates this sentiment quite well: “Rise up, big country, rise for a mortal combat with the dark fascist force, with the accursed horde. Let noble outrage rise like a wave – a people’s war is coming, a sacred war.”

The perception that the West poses an existential threat to the country is still dominating the Russian collective psyche. It played out in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which the Kremlin’s propaganda successfully sold as a dark menace to its own population as well as the Russophones of Ukraine. Naturally, manufactured in the West. The very visible ultra-nationalist component of the Maidan and the backing of the West certainly helped solidify these negative perceptions.

Having convinced the Russian public that the Maidan is not a democratic movement, but a threat, the Kremlin managed to mobilise nationwide support for the annexation of Crimea, which, in turn, sent Putin’s approval ratings to over 80 percent. Even people who had opposed his re-election and the unfair elections that had maintained the majority of his party in the State Duma rallied behind him at that time. Thus Putin effectively outsourced the brewing domestic political conflict to a foreign country.

In countries like Georgia, these Soviet patterns mix with local ethnonationalism, a natural successor to communism in the former Eastern bloc, as well as strong anti-Russian sentiments. The effect is the same – outrage which is easy for spin doctors to manipulate.

While manipulation of public outrage may work well in the short term, it does not really produce a lasting effect. Today, five years after the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s approval ratings are down to pre-2014 levels. With a stagnating economy, there is little for Kremlin’s spin doctors to offer, except the “threat of Russophobia” emanating from its small southern neighbour. But will Russians keep buying this old trick over and over again? Polls will show soon enough.

The same is true in Georgia as well. What happens on the political scene, especially in the 2020 elections, will demonstrate whether peddling the grossly exaggerated Russian threat in the hope of evoking old Soviet psychological patterns still pays off.

However, in both countries, a time will inevitably come when people will say – sorry, we no longer buy it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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