Georgian-Russian Relations Suffer A New Blow As TV Host Calls Putin “Stinking Occupier”

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 9 July 2019
Georgian-Russian Relations Suffer A New Blow As TV Host Calls Putin “Stinking Occupier”

Tensions run high between Tbilisi and Moscow after Georgian opposition TV host lambasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for, what he said, for the occupation of Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ad for the latest scandal in parliament of the country which triggered a new wave of anti-Kremlin protests inside this tiny South Caucasus country.

In the meantime, soon after the criticism of the Georgian TV host, Russian State Duma unanimously approved a statement on the introduction of economic measures due to Georgia’s “anti-Russian provocations”.
Parliamentarians recommended the Russian government to consider the feasibility of imposing sanctions on Georgia and categorically condemned “anti-Russian provocations”.

“The open attacks of the radical forces of this country lead to the further degradation of Russian-Georgian relations,” the document reads. State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called inadmissible insults to the country, citizens and the president.

He explained that the restrictions should target the import of wine and water and remittances.

What is behind the latest spat?

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow sharply deteriorated on July 8 after a Georgian TV host unleashed an expletive-laden tirade against President Vladimir Putin, triggering a rebuke from the Kremlin and condemnation at home.

The on-air rant, broadcast on 7 July evening, came after two weeks of violent anti-Russian protests in Tbilisi, culminating in a Russian government ban on direct flights between the two countries. The ban took effect Monday, disrupting travel for thousands of passengers.

Speaking in Russian, Rustavi-2 host Giorgi Gabunia called the Russian leader a “stinking occupier” and a rash of obscenities, told him to “f--- off,” cursed his dead parents and promised to defecate on his grave. Gabunia also described Russians as “slaves” and told them to immediately get out of Georgia.

“The insulting remarks are totally unacceptable and deserve condemnation,” Putin’s Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it viewed the incident “as another all-out provocation by Georgian radical forces aimed at undermining Russian-Georgian relations.”
Ties between the neighbors are at their lowest ebb in years.

In 2008, hostilities erupted into a full-scaled war when Russia backed the separatist South Ossetia region, and Russian troops invaded Georgia proper. Relations gradually got back on track, with trade and tourism between the two fully re-established by 2013.

But there are sharp divisions within Georgian society about what role its much larger, politically influential northern neighbor should play. Polls show that the majority of Georgians favor joining NATO, which would infuriate Russia.

The anti-Russian protests were sparked last month when a Russian lawmaker, invited to address Georgia’s parliament, delivered a Russian-language speech from the speaker’s chair. Furious protesters tried to storm parliament, and police acted quickly. Since then, protesters have staged daily demonstrations to demand the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia over the police crackdown, which injured several people.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili and Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze condemned Gabunia’s TV performance as a “provocation.” Both leaders are backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has moved to forge closer ties with Russia in recent years, angering the opposition and many ordinary Georgians, who see Moscow as an occupier.

Russia has military bases in South Ossetia and the other breakaway region, Abkhazia — two regions that make up a fifth of Georgia’s territory. The Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, said it would put Gabunia on a wanted list and seek his extradition so he can be tried in a Russian court, although it was not clear what he would be charged with.

The opposition-owned Rustavi-2 channel, which was picketed by protesters opposing the anti-Putin diatribe, went off the air for six hours Monday after some of its workers were hurt in the demonstrations.

Some Georgians worry that the government’s condemnation of Gabunia’s actions could work in Moscow’s favor. “Unfortunately, the statements released by the Georgian government are in line with the Kremlin. This is a scary development,” Eto Buziashvili, a researcher, said.

The travel blockade on all Russian and Georgian flights operating between the countries poses a serious economic challenge to Georgia. The southern Caucasus country, which has a population of nearly 4m, receives about 1m Russian visitors a year. Although Russian tourists will still be able to enter Georgia by road or indirect flights, the financial blow to Tbilisi is expected to be considerable.

Russia has said the ban, which was signed by Putin, is intended to protect its citizens from “Russophobic hysteria.” Some Georgians have responded to the measure by creating the social media campaign #SpendSummerInGeorgia, hoping to attract non-Russian tourists to visit the country’s Black Sea coast and spectacular mountains.

Separately, the Russian Duma said Monday that it would ask the government to ban imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, as well as freeze money transfers between the two countries.

Georgia’s wine - a hallmark export - is beloved by Russians, and its sale often has been viewed as a barometer of relations between the former Soviet countries.

Russia previously banned Georgian wine imports between 2006 and 2013 over what Moscow described as poor quality standards, but Russians and Georgians alike largely viewed the move as politically motivated.

End of the normalization of relations?

With all the tragedy and partly absurdity of what is happening in recent days in Georgia, the feeling is that playing the “anti-Russian” card will only increase in the near future. It is clear that the topic of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia considers independent and Georgia as occupied, is unlikely to ever be closed.

However, several months ago, despite the absence of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, it seemed that relations between the two countries were beginning to normalize. In 2018, 1.7m Russians visited Georgia, according to the Russian Union of Travel Industry.

In 2018, businessmen from Russia invested about $60m in the Georgian economy. In absolute terms, in fact, not so much - Russian tourists spend 10-12 times more in total. Nevertheless, despite the fact that official relations between states are practically absent, 5% of total foreign investment ($1.2bn) is an excellent indicator.

"Nothing personal, just business"

In late June 2019, the relations between the two nations took another direction and Moscow described it as “Russophobic”, accusing Tbilisi of distracting attention from domestic conflicts.

President Salome Zourabichvili, after the outbreak of the protests, called Russia “the enemy and occupier,” because of which the aggravation of internal contradictions occurred.

“After Russian President Vladimir Putin decreed seizing of air flights between the two countries, Zourabichvili changed her tone, saying that tourists from Russia are always welcome and they should come to rest on Georgian resorts, no matter what. It sounded like this - let the politicians understand, and we are waiting for your wallets,” according to Russian media.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova slammed the Georgian president and said her statement was prepared "with the help of a calculator". According to her, there is also a fear of losing profits, while practically hostilities take place in Tbilisi. “Nothing personal, only business,” Zakharova summed up.