It is commonplace these days to invoke the fears that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has awoken in Eastern Europe. With the 2008 invasion still fresh in the minds, the Black Sea nation of Georgia is also bracing itself against the Russian bear.

The latest surveys dating from March show amid the war in Ukraine, 90% of respondents perceived Russia to pose a significant political threat and 83% an economic threat to the country.

However, the question of how to respond to the war has clearly deepened political polarisation in the country. Led by social democratic party, Georgian Dream, the government has tiptoed in its response to the invasion out of a so-called fear of provoking its neighbour, even as thousands have poured in the streets to demand more solidarity.

Russian dream?

Gestures at the onset of the war appeared to confirm Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic outlook, asserted in earnest in the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution. Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the government backed a United Nations resolution demanding Moscow withdraw its troops, sent 80 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and opened its borders to more than 5,000 Ukrainian refugees.

On March 3, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that his country had officially applied to join the European Union.

But at the same time, Tbilisi has been wary of poking the bear in the eye, only too aware Russian troops are parked kilometres away from the capital. In late January, Georgian Dream tabled a resolution that sought support Ukraine, but fell short of mentioning the Russian Federation’s aggression, drawing outrage from the Opposition.

A day after the invasion on February 24, Garibashvili announced that Georgia would not join the international sanctions imposed against Russia and questioned its effectiveness. This prompted Kyiv to recall its envoy to Georgia, Igor Dolgov.

Georgia has also blocked a charter plane of Georgian volunteers from flying to Ukraine and prevented several Russian dissidents from entering its territory. Revealingly, Moscow did not include Georgia in a list of countries it considered unfriendly. “I will say frankly: we are truly fraternal nations, but I do not understand the position of the leaders of your state,” Zelensky told a Georgian journalist in Kyiv on April 23.

Economic dependency

Fears of military aggression are far from being the only concern. Although the European Union now accounts for 21% of Georgia’s trade, the country has suffered from an economic dependency upon its northern neighbour since Russia gradually lifted its embargo on trade.

In 2020, exports to Russia, Russian visitors, and remittances represented more than $900 million (5.7% of Georgia’s nominal GDP), and up to $1.3 billion (6.7% of GDP) in 2021. Of particular concern is Georgia’s dependency on its wine exports to Russia, wheat imports, and Russian tourism.

Altogether, the country counts more than 7,000 companies owned by citizens of the Russian Federation in sectors as diverse as finance, services and industry. It is expected that Russia’s war against Ukraine and Western sanctions will have an impact on Georgia’s economic growth.

Solidarity with Ukraine

This does not deter a share of the Georgian population from urging the government to stand closer to Ukraine. In Tbilisi, blue-and-yellow flags can be regularly seen hanging from balconies. Citizens, as well as the public and private sectors have organised various initiatives to support the Ukrainian people.

While the Georgian society has demonstrated its support to Ukraine against Russian aggression, studies show varying results regarding the public’s demand to their government to step up its efforts. According to one poll, more than 61% of the Georgian public wants to see more support for Kyiv. Another shows that more than half consider the government’s support to Ukraine as “sufficient” or “somewhat sufficient”.

The recall of the Ukrainian ambassador by President Volodymyr Zelensky over PM Garibashvili’s decision not to join sanctions against Russia became a turning point for many. Out of frustration over the government’s actions, tens of thousands of citizens demonstrated in the centre of Tbilisi in the first weeks of the war. In late March, 22 Georgian civil society organisations hit out at Georgian Dream’s “vague and inconsistent rhetoric” on the war.

The country’s ceremonial president, former diplomat Salome Zourabichvili, who was born in Paris, has also acted as a thorn in the side of the Georgian Dream. After the government refused to allow her to make diplomatic trips to oppose the war, the former diplomat resorted to use her personal connections to embark onto a diplomatic and media blitz across Europe in the days following the invasion. The ruling party has announced it was in the process of suing her for her “unauthorised trips to Paris and Brussels”, despite initially strongly supporting her bid for the presidency.

In her annual address to the Parliament in March, Zourabichvili criticised both the Georgian Dream and the Opposition for failing to reach a consensus on the war. Whereas the parliamentary majority tended to frame critics as traitors or warmongers, the opposition, too, was guilty of systematically reducing the Georgian Dream’s foreign policy to a pro-Russian one, she said.

Tbilisi’s ambiguity

In line with Zourabichvili’s calls, it is evident the country must use this moment to forge a more unified stance toward Russia.

Georgian Dream’s attempts to “normalise” relations with Moscow appear to have borne little fruit. Since 2008, Russia continues to push into the illegally occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, slowly but surely pushing the “administrative boundary line” outward.

Illegal detentions plague the lives of ethnic Georgians. Between October 2021 and January 2022, the occupied regions witnessed at least 44 cases of illegal detentions.

In this vulnerable context, some will say that the Georgian Dream’s policy is merely “pragmatic”. But I would argue it is precisely this vulnerability that undermines the case for an ambiguous stance over the war in Ukraine.

Russia, as the past decade shows, has been able to advance its influence and threaten Georgia’s security without resorting to a full-scale military aggression. Further appeasing Moscow does not give a country any guarantees that there won’t be another military escalation from the Russian side.

Finland’s historic decision to apply for North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership, which could yet inspire Sweden to follow suit, shows the way forward. The military bloc recognised in 2008 that Georgia would one day join. The time is now ripe, with more than 70% of Georgians backing their government’s stated goal of joining the alliance.

The integration will require efforts from both parties. On the one hand, NATO must open its arms to the South Caucasian country. On the other, Tbilisi will need to heed calls to reduce its economic dependency on Russia and restore its relations with Ukraine.

Such steps would also boost Georgia’s credentials within the Euro-Atlantic community, as it awaits the European Union’s decision on its membership application and fears of a spillover of the conflict into Moldova continue to mount.

More broadly, overcoming narrow party politics and abandoning unfriendly rhetoric toward Ukraine can be a first but important step to reducing intense political polarisation and avoiding further deepening the divide between the government and the public.

Ana Andguladze is a PhD student in political science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.