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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

GEORGIA ON THE BRINK

This will be a very quick blog update to note some things that have caught my attention this week.


The protests rocking Georgia seem to warrant far more attention than they've had in the British media. There has been violence as police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters. One opposition leader, following an alleged beating by police during the protests, appeared in parliament with his face bandaged.


The protests began a few weeks ago. Thousands of Georgians have filled the streets of Tbilisi to express their anger at a 'foreign agents law' that has passed two parliamentary readings and is likely to soon become law (although the president ostensibly has a veto, the parliament can overrule her). The law, similar to one Russia adopted some years ago, would mean that NGOs in receipt of more than 20% of their funding from abroad would need to register with the state as 'carrying out the interests of a foreign power.' The ruling Georgian Dream party is criticised for its pragmatic approach to Russia and the law is seen as backsliding on democracy, liberty and human rights, and, critics claim, potentially moving Georgia into closer alignment with Russia. EU officials have bluntly said that the law contradicts 'European values'.


The Georgian government has openly accused the US of being behind the protests. Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze wrote on X that he had 'expressed his sincere disappointment with the two revolution attempts of 2020–2023 supported by the former US Ambassador and carried out through NGOs financed by external sources.' The implication being that the current protests are part of a trend. It's a cheap shot, in many respects, although the number of foreign–funded NGOs active in Georgia is very large and, while I don't think their role ought to be (overly) exaggerated or interpreted simplistically as an instrument of outside powers, NGOs were a significant factor in the country's 2003 Rose Revolution.


This analysis by Almut Rochowanski and Sopo Japaridze will not be popular in all quarters but is, in my opinion, a pretty good essay on NGOs and the current protests. One can easily see that civil society organisations and their international donors play an outsized role in Georgia's politics, to an extent that politicians in much of Europe or North America would find uncomfortable in their own countries. The authors say that more than 25,000 NGOs are registered in Georgia, which has a population of fewer than four million, and 90% of their funding comes from abroad. The authors argue that the law is really targeted at a very small number of powerful NGOs that oppose Georgian Dream's rule. While I expect they are right that the party doesn't want to stem foreign money flowing into the country, I don't follow Georgia closely enough to evaluate their claim about who the law targets.


I agree, too, that the EU is misguided in intimating the passage of the law will negatively affect Georgia's hopes of joining the EU. Support for EU membership among Georgians is high (polling in late 2022 found more than 80% of Georgians either 'fully supported' or 'somewhat supported' accession to the bloc) and the EU should be encouraging them, as it did by granting the country formal candidate status in November last year. Georgia will have an election later this year and that will be an opportunity for Georgia to change its course if the people think Georgian Dream is rolling back democratic freedoms and moving the country back under Russian influence.


Other things to have caught my attention this week:


(i) Emmanuel Macron's comments on NATO involvement in Ukraine


Emmanuel Macron's views on Russia have shifted considerably since the large–scale invasion of Ukraine. The French position, prior to 24 February 2022, was that Russia would not invade Ukraine. In early February 2022 Macron travelled to Moscow and held lengthy talks with Putin, evidently convinced he could diffuse the tense situation and persuade Putin to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border. Macron afterwards implied that there was the possibility of a breakthrough in discussions with Putin, despite US and UK officials warning a massive Russian invasion was imminent. That now looks like a very naïve visit.


The dovish Macron has transformed into a hawk. In February this year he ruffled feathers with his comment that he could not rule out putting NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine. There was, he said, 'no consensus' among the allies. While many reproofed him for the statement, others did endorse it. This week Macron reiterated his February claim. He told the Economist: 'I'm not ruling anything out.' His refusal to rule out sending troops was, he asserted, 'a strategic wake–up call for my counterparts.' Now, it seems, he is trying to insist that it is everyone else who is naïve about Russia. It is quite a volte–face from Macron on Putin.


I argued in a previous post that his February comments were a faux pas, but it is good that this conversation is happening. Macron, meanwhile, is preparing to host China's leader Xi Jinping next week. I'm curious to see what the official readouts of their meeting will suggest about discussions: is Macron's line on China hardening too?


(ii) British foreign secretary Lord David Cameron visited Ukraine


David Cameron visited Ukraine this week. He made a few noteworthy remarks during his trip. Asked about Macron's comments, he seemed keen to establish some distance. He 'welcomed' Macron's commitment to Ukraine but did not want to see NATO states deploying troops to Ukraine 'because I think that could be a dangerous escalation'. If I were his adviser, I'm not sure I'd be too keen to hear him say that. It's the kind of line that could come back to haunt him if NATO troops do become involved. Russian officials are keen to accuse the US and its allies, especially the UK, of being the ones escalating the conflict and such statements could be used against the UK should it come to deploying British troops.


More significantly, Cameron said that it was ok for Ukraine to strike targets inside Russia with British–supplied missiles. That marks a shift from NATO's position, at least until the end of last year, that weaponry its members supplied was not to be used for targeting Russia. (Meanwhile, NATO members turned a blind eye as Ukraine hit targets inside Russia; it has been striking oil depots up to 1,000 km inside the Russian border.) The UK has supplied Ukraine with Storm Shadow cruise missiles which, depending on the variant supplied, have a range of up to 500km+. The UK was the first to supply long–range missiles to Ukraine, followed by the US supply of ATACMS and French Scalp missiles. Germany, meanwhile, is under continued pressure to supply its Taurus cruise missiles.


Cameron's comment, predictably, drew a strident response from Russia. The Kremlin's spokesperson called the comment 'a direct escalation'. The foreign ministry spokesperson said: 'This is the first time that a western politician has ... acknowledged what has long been a well–known secret ... that the West is waging a covert war against Russia [through Ukrainian proxies].'


In the event of the war actually escalating (the topic, incidentally, of a webinar I moderated last week), few think the British military is prepared. Not least across the pond...


(iii) Former US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster doesn't think much of the state of the British military


As readers may recall, McMaster served as Donald Trump's National Security Adviser in 2017–18. He didn't last long in the role, largely owing to his and Trumps divergent views on America's adversaries. McMaster disagreed with Trump on Russia and North Korea. His successor as National Security Adviser, John Bolton, says in his memoir that McMaster advised Trump against congratulating Putin on 'winning' Russia's 2018 presidential election. Trump ignored the advice.


Anyway, this week McMaster gave Sky News a withering assessment of the UK armed forces. 'It broke my heart to see the extent to which the UK... [has] reduced the capacity of its armed forces to such a degree that I think it would be difficult for the UK to sustain operations at sufficient scale and for ample duration to fight and win.' Ouch.


(iv) Belarusian Cyber–Partisans hit the KGB


Lastly, and this technically counts as last week, the Belarusian hacktivist group Cyber–Partisans published documents it had obtained from hacking into the Belarusian KGB's computers in 2023. The hackers obtained 40,000 reports logging information from KGB informants between 2014 and 2023. The scale of informing on fellow citizens revealed by the leaked data is quite staggering. The reports include the informants' names and addresses and that may make Belarusians reluctant to report fellow citizens to the KGB in the future – although fear of the KGB coupled with an anxiety–borne desire to show one's loyalty to the regime will probably remain the greater force.



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Cover image credit: Protesters in Algeria, by Amine M'siouri on Pexels.com.

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