There are not a lot of things in this world that we agree on. Left or Right. For or against immigration. Netflix or the big screen. Still, there are a few that we do agree on. In the EU, it includes climate change and the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most of us seem to agree on climate change – 78% of respondents across the EU are concerned or alarmed by the phenomenon. We also agree about Putin. In Europe, 79% say they distrust him.
When it comes to climate change, we tend to also agree that apart from legislative actions, what we do at home, counts. We sort glass from plastic and paper. We turn off the lights and buy energy-efficient appliances.
We can be just as proactive at the grassroots level when it comes to Putin. While we see major setbacks at the legislative level, such as the reinstatement of Russia to Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the nomination of Russia’s State Duma member Leonid Slutsky to the vice-president’s post – Slutsky is under international sanctions for having voted to introduce Russian troops into Ukraine – we can still make a difference at the individual level.
What better place to start than in Putin’s most hated country – Georgia.
Georgia is currently in the midst of mass demonstrations. Thousands of young people have been gathering every evening in front of Georgia’s Parliament building to express their anger at the Georgian government for allowing a Russian State Duma deputy, Sergei Gavrilov, to sit in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat while addressing the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy.
On that first night, 20 June, the Georgian government dispersed the demonstrators with rubber bullets, injuring nearly 250 people, including over 30 journalists. An 18-year-old girl, Mako Gomuri, was one of two people who lost an eye to the rubber bullets that were fired by the police.
Since then Georgia’s youth have taken to the streets to protest the government’s incompetence, use of extreme force, and to demand that the interior minister, Giorgi Gakharia, step down while also demanding that Russia ends its occupation of 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognised land.
One of the key demands, having a proportional system in the next legislative elections, has now been promised by the ruling party, the Georgian Dream, but not without a trojan horse – a new 0% barrier for entry into parliament to go with the proportional system. It seems the approach of the country’s de facto supreme leader and eternal head of the Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man whose wealth is equal to 50% of Georgia’s GDP, remains – an eye for an eye.
Putin’s approach has been no less abnormal. He has ordered all flights into Georgia to be cancelled as of 8 July and for all Russian citizens vacationing in Georgia to return to home. Russian vacationers have already started to post hundreds of videos on social media showing their happy holidays eating khachapuri and drinking chacha – Georgia’s equivalent of grappa – and rejecting the Kremlin’s state channel reports that Russians are being threatened in Georgia.
Moscow has also threatened to ban Georgian wine exports as well. Russia’s consumer safety watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, laid the groundwork for the possibility of a blanket ban on Georgian wine when it recently announced that Georgia’s alcoholic drinks are “deteriorating” in quality and need to be closely observed.
Georgia is not new to this game. Putin put an embargo on Georgian products, including wine, in 2006 with the aim of crushing Georgia’s then-thriving economy. It was a logical move as Russia accounted for the biggest share of Georgia’s wine exports at the time. Instead, in 2007, Georgia’s economy grew by 12.5%. This was due in part to Georgian producers finding new export markets, such as the EU.
Europe’s demand for strict quality standards first resulted in many producers struggling to meet the demands, but once they complied, they saw much higher returns.
Fast forward to 2019, and Georgia finds itself in a rerun of the same events from more than a decade ago. Due to the Georgian Dream’s approach to normalised relations with the Kremlin, wine exports to Russia grew again, making it the top spot in export figures this year and tourists from Russia accounted for the highest percentage of visitors to the country, roughly 20% of the 8 million visitors in 2018.
By banning Russians from holidaying in Georgia, and threatening to embargo Georgian wine, the Kremlin once again believes that it can sink the Georgian economy.
Why does Putin care so much about Georgia’s economy?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia was portrayed to the average Russian citizen as a country where corruption is even more rampant than at home. This narrative became more difficult to propagate when Georgia started appearing on numerous international polls as one of the least corrupt and most transparent countries in Eastern Europe as well as one of the most business-friendly in the world.
What Putin is most afraid of is for Russians who visit Georgia by the millions to find out that a post-Soviet country can be transparent, corruption-free, and economically diverse and thriving. To have Russians return and demand the same freedoms and transparency as in a neighbouring country is viewed as dangerous by the Kremlin.
What Europeans can do on an individual level is help defy a foreign government’s attempt to influence the internal matters of a sovereign state. Europeans, North Americans, and others from around the world can contribute to the development of the Georgian economy and successfully stymie Putin’s goal of stunting Georgia’s path to fully integrating with the West by visiting the country this summer or buying one of its wines.
This will pay huge dividends for the country as more Georgian products begin to be redirected from Russia to the West, a move that will once and for all fundamentally decouple Georgia’s economy from the influence of the Kremlin.
Moreover, this will show Europe’s solidarity with the Georgian people and prove to the Kremlin that the people of Europe stand by Georgia’s continued drive to become a truly democratic and free state.