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Former Soviet republic of Georgia walks a thin line between Russia and the West

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia invaded Georgia, and Russian troops still occupy 20% of the country. But the rest of Georgia continues to welcome Russians and Russian businesses, even as Georgia seeks membership in the EU. As NPR's Charles Maynes reports, it's a balancing act with no clear endgame.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Here's the scene. In Georgia's resort city of Batumi on the Black Sea, a packed crowd at a recent concert is watching the American band The Killers, who are killing it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE KILLERS: (Singing) Coming out of my cage, and I've been doing just fine.

MAYNES: ...Until they weren't. Observing a band tradition, Killers singer Brandon Flowers invites an audience member to join on drums. Randomly, he chooses a Russian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDON FLOWERS: I don't know. You know, we don't know the etiquette of this land. But this guy's a Russian. Are you OK with a Russian coming up here?

MAYNES: Many were not, and the situation quickly turned ugly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLOWERS: Are you finished yet or no? You want to flip me off? You come up here.

MAYNES: The Killers had inadvertently stepped into a controversy that his roiled Georgian society for much of its history - how to navigate relations with their bigger and more powerful Russian neighbors. It's a debate that's grown only more acute amid the current war in Ukraine.

NIKOLOZ SAMKHARADZE: The Ukrainian scenario is a copy-paste of what happened in Georgia.

MAYNES: That's Nikoloz Samkharadze, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Georgia's parliament. He's also a member of the ruling Georgia Dream party. He says the recent tensions with Moscow trace back to 2008, when Russian forces seized 20% of Georgian territory in a five-day war. The fighting broke out just months after NATO promised Georgia a path towards eventual membership in the military alliance.

SAMKHARADZE: We learned that when Russia invaded us, we stood there alone.

MAYNES: Samkharadze argues NATO's partial embrace left Georgia vulnerable to Russian aggression, which, in 2008, came without any real consequences for Moscow. Samkharadze says it was a bitter lesson for Georgia in big power politics between East and West.

SAMKHARADZE: Yeah. We had the moral support from the West. But three months later, it was, again, business as usual with Russia.

MAYNES: And that's what can make this government's current policies somewhat confusing. Today, on the streets of Georgia's leafy capital, Tbilisi, Russians are seemingly everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Many arrived in the days after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, fleeing possible military conscription. But Russians of all political stripes continue to enjoy visa-free travel to Georgia. Russian airlines restarted daily flights over the summer. Russian nationals can still buy property and easily open businesses. Russian tourism is booming. And Georgia - well, the government has refused to join the West in imposing sanctions on Moscow. In fact, trade between the two countries has only expanded amid the war in Ukraine.

SAMKHARADZE: For us, our interests are the most important.

MAYNES: Georgia is simply doing what's best for Georgia, argues Samkharadze, at least while the West is providing zero protections, military or financial, in return.

SAMKHARADZE: So by imposing sanctions, we would never manage to hurt Russian economy. But what we would manage to do is to shoot our own foot. I mean, what's the point? If you cannot harm Russia, then why should you harm yourself?

MAYNES: Government critics and would-be challengers ahead of national elections next year say Georgia shouldn't focus so heavily on the past. Giga Bokeria leads the pro-European Movement for Liberty party.

GIGA BOKERIA: I think our allies underestimated Russian threat. But does it change our choice to be part of that world instead of totalitarian dictatorships?

MAYNES: Bokeria says the current government's decision to accommodate Moscow is hurting Georgia's long-term prospects, both with the EU and NATO.

BOKERIA: They are fundamentally exploiting the natural fear of our citizens of war and Russian aggression and trying to use that threat as a justification for distancing us from free world.

MAYNES: That includes mimicking what critics say are illiberal Russian-style policies at home on issues such as LGBTQ rights. Last March, the government also adopted a controversial foreign agent law that bore a strong resemblance to Russian laws that have been used to target government opponents and crush civil society. A wave of protests in the capital ultimately saw Georgia Dream rescind the bill. But opposition politicians like Elene Khoshtaria, who rallied the public against the law, say deep suspicions of Russian influence linger.

ELENE KHOSHTARIA: When you need to survive to have the Western support and you are taking the steps that actually go against Western values, go against Western recommendations, go against your own interests, then the question is why you are doing that.

MAYNES: Three weeks ago, the European Union granted Georgia provisional candidacy for eventual EU membership while offering more encouraging assessments to Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Moldova. Khoshtaria worries that under the current government, Georgia risks being left behind.

KHOSHTARIA: For the first time in our history, Europe is watching, the West is watching towards this region. And at this very moment, they are doing whatever they can to miss this historic opportunity.

MAYNES: This Georgian debate is unfolding at a moment when the region is in flux over Russia's war in Ukraine. The outcome of that conflict, more than anything, may ultimately decide tiny Georgia's future and just how long Georgia's balancing act between East and West can last. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Tblisi, Georgia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE KILLERS: (Singing) With one big step and one big step, I move a little bit closer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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