To speak or not to speak, the Georgian government’s dilemma

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Two quick questions for high school students. Can the Russian government treat neighbors as equals, and can we trust the Russian government’s word?

Alas, the answers to both questions is negative. One does not need to be a historian, just old enough to remember the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, and the cynical disregard of agreements signed with the Russian government.

Another question for high school kids – should we talk to Russia regardless? And the answer here is yes, and is even more true for the political class, especially elected officials who pledged to serve the people. For the rest of us, doing business or being friends with Russian nationals has never been an issue and this has been largely the norm since we first met some 300 years ago.

But truth be told, a sad thing is also happening in parallel. Since we encountered the Russians, our territory has shrunk and unfortunately Georgia still has no guarantees or sufficient tools in place to stop this illegitimate process. Well, I have said nothing new; just described the generally prevailing feelings in our society. However, these feelings gradually become a great contributor to the existing stigma among Georgian politicians. Or, perhaps “fear” is a better word. The fear of the Georgian government to start talks with the Kremlin.

So, what are they afraid of? I think the answer is simple – public anger. The straw that might break the camel’s back. Certainly, if talks occur the Kremlin need not immediately surrender territories under their military control, but neither should these talks threaten the achievements Georgia has made on its way to democratization. While the latter is still achievable, the former needs to be carefully crafted and proposed to the public. Georgia still leans more towards “street democracy” than classic Western institutions. When it comes to big issues, things are not always decided by the judiciary or parliament, but by the size of the angry crowd protesting the matter.

To investigate Georgian public sentiments about the importance of the Russian market and attitudes towards talks between PM Gakharia and President Putin, we fielded survey questions to a representative sample of the Georgian population. The public’s answers were generally not surprising, except for one – support for Georgian/Russian talks at the highest level is supported by a majority of respondents in every cohort of society, including those who support the previous regime.

For many decades, the Russian market was very common to us, and several Georgian brands have huge name recognition among Russian consumers. Exporting to Russia is cheap due to its geographic proximity and quality requirements compared to EU standards and bureaucracy. Based on this survey, two thirds of adult Georgians believe that Russia is an important market for Georgia, while only one in five thinks otherwise – 75% and 20% respectively.

The survey also revealed that a large majority of Georgians support our Prime Minister meeting with Vladimir Putin.


Chart 1: Attitudes towards possible talks and importance of Russian market for us

Source: GORBI, 2019 November, nationwide surveys in Georgia. (n=1,000 adult respondents) 

Analyzing these findings more deeply showed that all major societal groups are supportive of high level talks, including the university educated and those with less education, urban dwellers and farmers, men and women, employed and unemployed. A large majority of supporters of Georgian Dream (GD) and half of supporters of the United National Movement (UNM) would support talks. Across age groups, younger people are less optimistic, however, in each age category well over 50% percent of respondents supported high level talks.

Chart 2: Attitudes towards high level talks among age groups and GD and UNM party supporters

Source: GORBI, 2019 November, nationwide surveys in Georgia. (n=1,000 adult respondents) 

So, the Georgian government has room to act as it can count on significant support for such a diplomatic initiative. But will there be political courage? Obviously, some opposition parties will try to portray any initiative as a “betrayal of the national interest” and capitulation. Others, especially pro-Russians, will welcome the initiative but this should not be a dilemma for the Georgia government. Georgia’s friends will certainly support the start of talks and they will also contribute if the time comes. Until then, the government needs to find its courage and listen to the public.

GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research ( ).


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