TBILISI, Georgia — It might seem like a golden moment of opportunity for the citizens of the small Black Sea nation of Georgia: The European Union will decide later this week during a summit of its leaders whether to allow Georgians to travel to Europe visa-free.
But it finds people in this former Soviet republic walking a thin tightrope between the lure of business opportunities in the West and the threats from Russia, their neighbor to the north, which in 2008 helped two Georgian provinces break away into the Russian orbit and has warned Georgia not to cozy up to the West.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich has warned of a “tough and principled” response to any tightening of what he called an “anti-Russian” partnership between the EU and former Soviet republics, including Georgia.
Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, has long struggled to balance its relationships with Moscow and its European trading partners across the Black Sea. Today, these two poles are pulling apart, as Europe and the United States enforce sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year. The EU’s overtures to Georgia are an attempt to draw the country away from Russia’s influence, and polls find that an overwhelming number of Georgians would like to join the EU.
But a growing minority of Georgians think their country should tilt back toward Russia. A poll conducted last August by the National Democratic Institute, an advocacy organization based in Washington, and funded by Sweden found that 20 percent of Georgians thought their country should join a Eurasian union established by the Russian Federation as a counterweight to the EU.
And Georgians find increasing pride in the religious and cultural ties they share with Russians, making a split with that country harder to imagine.
Such is the fate of a nation that’s straddled the East-West divide since it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
“When the Russian Empire existed, Georgia was an integral part of it,” said Anna Dolidze, a Tbilisi-born observer of Georgian law and politics at the University of Western Ontario. “As long as this dream or ambition exists — and it shows in the rhetoric of Russian leaders — we have to be vigilant.”
This struggle is easy to see in the landmarks of the country’s capital. The statue of Lenin that once commanded the central square of Tbilisi has been replaced by a gilded sculpture of Georgia’s patron, St. George, slaying a dragon, reflecting the nation’s plucky resolve to remain free of Russia.
Nearby are symbols of the West: a sprawling, gray-bricked Courtyard by Marriott hotel and a pink and orange Dunkin’ Donuts storefront. All around the capital, blue European Union flags fly on federal buildings, a testament to Georgia’s hopes of full EU membership. The road to Tbilisi’s airport has been renamed George W. Bush Highway, and although older Georgians learned Russian in school, young citizens speak English as a foreign language and aspire to jobs in Europe or the United States.
But these Western symbols are underscored by a harsh realpolitik. In 2008, two years after the heroic St. George statue was erected in the capital’s central square, Russian troops swept Georgian soldiers out of the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many Georgians hope membership in the European Union could be a defense strategy against possible Russian occupation — but they know it’s a shaky bulwark.
In the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, the EU and NATO didn’t intervene to protect Georgian sovereignty or prevent the expulsion of some 40,000 Georgians from the breakaway provinces. Last year, European and American sanctions did little to deter Russia from annexing Crimea or from supporting pro-Russian separatists who continue to carve up Ukraine.
“I think Georgians have been made a lot of promises about how the West will come save them,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The pro-Russian mood is proportionate to the lack of tangible benefits on the EU side.”
Beyond questions of territory, Georgia is also in desperate need of an economic lifeline that the West hasn’t delivered. The national currency, the lari, has dropped to a 16-year low against the dollar. Georgia sells more than half its exports to former Soviet republics, which are struggling with the ripple effects of Western sanctions on Russia. A free-trade agreement signed last year between Georgia and the EU has been only a minor counterweight because the EU buys less than a quarter of Georgian exports, according to the national statistics office.
“The major problem in Georgia is the economy is performing badly,” said de Waal. “There’s always an argument after that that ‘Russia has been our big market and trading partner, and so the only way to get Georgia performing better is not … with the EU but to be selling to the Russian market.'”
Georgia’s overtures to the West are also checked by the deep religious and cultural ties it shares with Russia. The gold, conical roof of the Sameba Cathedral, built in 2004, can be seen from every part of Tbilisi, and ahead of Easter it was full of worshippers lighting candles and kissing painted icons, a reminder of the revival of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the last quarter century.
A poll last month by WIN/Gallup found that 93 percent of Georgians are religious. Officially, there’s a separation of church and state, but the Georgian government funnels the equivalent of $11 million a year toward the church. In 1977 there were 50 Orthodox priests; today there are more than 1,700.
On Good Friday, Galia Laluashvili, 70, boiled eggs in a pot of water dyed crimson with madder root, an Eastern Orthodox tradition that Georgia and Russia share.
“Georgia and Russia have the same religion,” Laluashvili said as she arranged the red eggs around bright green bean sprouts in the apartment she’d received for free when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. “That’s why we need to be together.”
The 2008 Russian-Georgian war brought out the pro-Russian strain of the Georgian Orthodox Church, said Giorgi Maisuradze, a philosophy professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi.
“After the 2008 war,” he said, “some Georgian clerics claimed God summoned Russian troops to punish Georgians for trying to join NATO and the EU.”
The unclear orientation of Georgia’s foreign policy has translated into proxy domestic culture wars between liberals and conservatives.
Last year, Georgia’s Parliament ignored the protests of the Orthodox clergy and acceded to European demands to outlaw discrimination against gays, one of several requirements for attaining visa liberalization. The measure passed a year after a mob of thousands, led by Orthodox priests in black robes, attacked a demonstration of several dozen gay-rights activists in Freedom Square.
Activist Natia Gvianishvili fled the protest in a police bus under a hail of stones. She said that if Georgia leaned more toward Russia, “it will mean a lot of progress we have achieved will all disappear.”
Russia’s threats, and the EU’s imperfect alliance, seem to be leading Georgians back to their age-old tactics of balancing between great powers.
Located on a vital trade route between the Caspian and Black seas, Georgia sold wine to ancient Greece, was invaded by Persia and sought Russian annexation in 1801 as protection against the Ottoman Empire. Today it remains a modern-day bridge between powers: a conduit for gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey runs through it.
Looking forward, some Georgia observers say the country will try to benefit from both worlds, cultivating ties with the West while never fully severing its links to Russia.
“Neither the U.S. nor the EU could protect Georgia in 2008,” said Dolidze, of the University of Western Ontario. “Some people think it could be inevitable that Russia would influence Georgia, so why not make the most of it?”
(Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.)