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Georgians protesting against the “foreign agents” bill in front of the Georgian Parliament © facebook.com/dissidentsforgeorgia

It was the late, great, Ray Charles who sang: “Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.” Set to music or not, it seems that Georgia (the country, of course, not the American state) has been very much on the minds of those who would prefer to have the Kremlin in charge of things, as well as those who would prefer otherwise. And, despite protests and demonstrations, there are plenty of them. An enormous demonstration was staged in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, against the ruling Georgian Dream party’s plans to introduce a bill on “foreign agents” (which seems to mean anybody who doesn’t support the Kremlin and may have some ability to persuade others). It is supposed to restrict “foreign influence” in Georgian affairs. Critics say the proposed new legislation resembles laws used by Russia to silence dissent. The EU has warned that the measures, if adopted, would seriously undermine Georgia’s chances of succeeding in its application for membership.

A protest march against the proposed legislation stretched for a kilometre through the capital, Tbilisi, but there has been no sign that the government is taking much notice. Demonstrators have, however, been detained by police, which suggests that the similarity to the way things are done in Russia is very real. That includes a fair voting system.

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The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has also strongly condemned the violence: “I strongly condemn the violence against protesters in Georgia. Georgia is an EU candidate country, I call on its authorities to ensure the right to peaceful assembly.Use of force to suppress it is unacceptable”

For instance, in a vote for new members of a top judicial body, five opposition politicians switched to support Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party to ensure the election of pro-government candidates. By an odd coincidence, one of those who voted that way received a favourable ruling to end a long-running land dispute over two sports related companies, giving the governing party complete control of the judiciary. The MP involved told journalists that the timing had been “pure coincidence”. That often seems to be the case when Russian interests are involved. Indeed, I suspect that Moscow sees nothing wrong with such clearly dishonest fiddling, nor with the lies that follow.

Much the same applies in Slovakia, which has just elected Peter Pellegrini, a pro-Russia candidate, as its president. Just in case anyone feared that it would mean a lot of Russian interference in Slovakia’s affairs, he offered this reassurance: “I can promise that I shall be president of all Slovak citizens. I can promise I’ll always be by the side of Slovakia.” Certainly not on the side of Ukraine, however. Slovaks apparently fear political interference by the European Union’s institutions and believe that Russia would provide a surer path to peace. For one thing, Pellegrini’s Slovakia would end the war in Ukraine, if only by handing sovereignty to Moscow. Former Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, who is seen as pro-Western, conceded defeat. Disagreements over the war in Ukraine dominated the election campaign, with Pellegrini and populist (and pro-Russian) Prime Minister Robert Fico, questioning Ukraine’s sovereignty and its people’s right to self-determination. Both men have called for peace with Russia and an end to the war (surrender, in other words).

“I informed Ursula von der Leyen that from now on, Slovakia will have its own opinion in Brussels,” said Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico on October 2023 while meeting Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission © Europa.eu

After the vote, Pellegrini said in Bratislava that his victory was “a huge satisfaction” and that he would ensure that “Slovakia remains on the side of peace and not on the side of war,” which seems to mean giving in to Russia to end the fighting. Various analysts had stated that a victory for Pellegrini would put liberal democracy at risk in Slovakia. The result, although clear, has worried some, including the defeated pro-Western candidate. “It turns out that it is possible to become the president of the Slovak Republic by spreading hatred,” Korčok said. “The campaign can also be won by making me a war candidate.” Fico had accused Korčok of being a “warmonger” for supporting Ukraine. Fico said of Korčok that: “he will support everything the West tells him without hesitation, including dragging Slovakia into the war”. But then, Fico is on the side of Russia there, and would seem to be in support of whatever Moscow tells him. Journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée had previously suggested a link between Fico and the Italian Mafia, which had led to Fico’s resignation, but that is all in the past; Kuciak and his fiancée were both murdered soon afterwards. It’s not wise to impugn the integrity of the Mafia and then propose to write about it.

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Murdered Martina Kušnírová and Ján Kuciak © Wikicommons

| MORE THREATS

Georgia has applied to join the NATO alliance and has cooperated with it on a number of operations, while NATO for its part has supported Georgia’s reform efforts. Georgia takes part in the NATO-led Operation Sea Guardian and has helped in various other areas. Allies agreed at the Bucharest NATO Summit in April 2008 that Georgia will join NATO as a full member, as long as it meets all necessary conditions. This has since been reconfirmed at various NATO summits. The Alliance stands firm in its support for Georgia’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy, free from outside interference.

Russian tanks invading Georgia in 2008 © Redstar.ru/.png

Russian forces invaded Georgian territory in August 2008 and the Allies have repeatedly reiterated their belief in Georgia’s territorial integrity and right to remain independent within its established borders. Of course, it’s more complicated than it sounds, and NATO has had to call on Russia to withdraw the forces it stationed there (without the country’s consent, of course), and also to reverse its decision to recognise the independence of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. A NATO-Georgia package for mutual defence involves a number of support activities at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, including conducting regular joint NATO-Georgia exercises.

It’s something that members of the NATO alliance take very seriously. At the 2022 Madrid Summit, the Allies endorsed a set of support measures, tailored for Georgia, as one of NATO’s partners most directly affected by external threats, especially in the current security environment resulting from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Memorial dedicated to soldiers of the Georgian Legion killed during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the base of the 9 April Memorial in Tbilisi © Giorgi Abdaladze

These measures increase both political and practical support for Georgia. The political measures aim to intensify the dialogue between Georgia and NATO. The practical measures are designed to help Georgia accelerate its transition from using Soviet-era equipment to equipment meeting today’s NATO standards and also to enhance Georgia’s situational awareness. Georgia is one of four countries that now have enhanced opportunities for dialogue and cooperation with the Alliance (known as ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partners’) in recognition of their particularly significant contributions to NATO operations and other Alliance objectives. The other Enhanced Opportunity Partners are Australia, Jordan and – perhaps significantly – Ukraine.

Coincidentally, Slovakia (yes, really) became only the second NATO country to promise fighter jets to Ukraine, although that deal may now be shelved, at least it looks that way at the time of writing Interestingly, they were MiG-29 aircraft bought in to replace Slovakia’s own fleet, grounded in 2022. However, they have been overtaken by events, with the delivery of some of the fourteen US-built F-16 “Block 70” fighters, a delivery that has been seriously delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile air policing of Slovakia’s skies has remained in the hands of the Czech Republic and Poland, although their patrols were due to end in 2023. Slovakian pilots began training on the new F-16 aircraft in 2019, some of it conducted in the United States. With the latest Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars and other innovations, Slovakia’s air force will become a force to be reckoned with, but despite the country’s NATO membership, it remains to be seen how the aircraft will be used and on whose side.

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Prime Minister of Slovakia Peter Pellegrini and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 at the Kremlin © Kremlin.ru

With both Fico and Pellegrini taking a pro-Russian stance against any kind of help to Ukraine, it’s hard to see how the arrival of the new aircraft could benefit Kyiv. After all, Pellegrini has become Slovakia’s sixth president since the country gained its independence and he succeeds Zuzana Čaputová, the country’s first female head of state. She had staunchly backed Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion but said she would not seek re-election after receiving death threats. Politics in the former Communist countries is a hazardous game to play.

| ANOTHER LONG MARCH?

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Bidzina Ivanishvili © Facebook

It’s clear that Putin’s dislike of Western-style democracy is dictating events. He denies a free press and freedom of thought, which suggests cowardice on his part. He seems afraid that people may not like him if they’re allowed to voice their thoughts and opinions. It’s called politics, Vlad. Grow up and get used to it. Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, he has Georgia on his mind (and in his sites). It’s been claimed that the country has been ruled from the shadows for more than a decade by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has nurtured relations with Moscow after it grabbed swathes of the Caucasus country, while also continuing to promise a future inside the EU. Clearly, that would not please Putin, who has no love for the EU, nor indeed for any part of western Europe, having threatened to turn it into a radioactive bomb site on one occasion.

Furthermore, he is inclined to show off, especially on his walks from his office in the Kremlin towards the glittering Andreyevsky Hall for his inauguration as President. It’s a long walk but his entire journey is invariably filmed, although it appears somewhat odd to those of us in the West. Meanwhile, Russia appears to have won the support of bankers and investment specialists in the West because of the vast amount of Russian money pouring into, for instance, the City of London.

Back in Georgia, Ivanishvili has declared that NGOs are “enemies within” and that he is determined to control them with a revived Moscow-style “foreign influence” bill, a plan which provoked massive public protests. Last year he was appointed “honorary chairman”, which empowers him (despite a lack of popular support or a vote of any sort) to appoint all those who will hold positions of power. He is also steering his country away from its path towards EU membership. He seems to share Putin’s dislike of the Union. Russia, of course, dislikes any country that is not under its control. Recently, a GPS jamming attack took place in the Baltic region, causing a Finnish airline to pause some flights to Estonia for a month. It appears that the jamming signal was almost certainly launched from Russia. Jamming incidents are part of a continuing pattern of GPS interference now thought to be centred on St. Petersburg. The number of such incidents has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, apparently targeting countries that have borders with Russia. Suspected Russian jamming of GPS signals in the airspace above the Estonian capital, Tallinn, began in 2023, increasing dramatically from the

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Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margus Tsahkna © vm.ee

beginning of 2024, with up to thirty reports each day from various airlines. Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margus Tsahkna, has described the latest spate of such indents as a “hybrid attack” by Russia. Another transmitter identified by analysts for frequent jamming attacks of GPS signals above Poland, Sweden and Germany that affected more than 1,600 flights, as well as affecting ships in the Baltic Sea, has been tracked down to Kaliningrad – the Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland and undoubtedly Russian in origin.

The attacks included one lasting 63 hours. Some experts suspect a deliberate attempt to bring ships and aircraft into conflict with each other. It seems to be a simple case of mischief, as if Russia has cast itself in the rôle of wasp at the picnic, irritating, annoying and worrying people, but in Russia’s case with the added intention of causing bloodshed and perhaps even war, if it can. Wasps, after all, are famously aggressive predators and very destructive, while bees are innocent pollinators. Putin is certainly more wasp-like than bee-like.

So, what does all of this mean for Georgia and for Slovakia? Predicting Putin’s actions is never easy, partly because he changes history to suit himself and no Russians are allowed by law to contradict him. He won’t allow people to voice their opinions, although as I wrote earlier, that suggests cowardice. In his view, those parts of Ukraine that Russia has seized are now parts of Russia, however illogical that may seem. The Georgian government is still advancing its proposed new laws on “foreign influence”, despite continuing protests and demonstrations. The People of Georgia clearly oppose the idea of Russia-inspired laws to silence them and cut off access to other news sources. But the government isn’t listening; it knows it has the backing of the Kremlin, so it will go its own way, even if that means abandoning its population’s dreams of joining the EU. At the beginning of May and despite the protests, Georgia’s lawmakers voted by 83 votes to 23 to adopt the law for its second reading.

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Georgia’s PM Irakli Kobakhidze (seen here (left) with President of the European Council Charles Michel in Brussels in February 2024) has accused the US of encouraging violence amid enormous rallies against the “foreign agents” bill in the country. He also accused the US of meddling in the country’s affairs and making “false statements.

There seems little doubt that it will go through, despite pleas to the contrary from the United Nations, the EU and the United States. Politically, it makes no sense, other than that it will silence critics with the force of law and the threat of judicial punishment for offenders. Despite its support for NATO in past operations, Georgia seems destined to remain forever outside the EU but inside Putin’s “inner circle”.

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Ľuboš Machaj © RTVs

Turning our attention to Slovakia, things look bad there from a democratic standpoint, too. Robert Fico has been attacking the media, including the state TV channel. He says that current RTVS boss, Ľuboš Machaj, will be dismissed and one of the top candidates to replace him is Lukáš Machala, who recently argued that the Earth isn’t round. Fico’s government recently approved a controversial proposal to scrap public broadcaster RTVS altogether and replace it with what many fear could be a mere mouthpiece for the ruling coalition. Fico has often criticized RTVS for not being “sufficiently objective” in his view. In other words, it hasn’t always agreed with him. The EU is worried that Fico’s team are lurching towards the repressive government style of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, by such acts as the abolition of the anti-corruption office (corruption, it seems, is celebrated there), halting any support for Kyiv and repeating whatever talking points Moscow dictates. In effect, the Eastern and formerly Soviet-supporting countries of Europe would revert to type, just in time to join a third world war, choreographed by Putin for his own personal advantage. Fico says he just wants to bring the Slovakian media to heel, obeying the government and not questioning its decisions. I’m sure that all over the world governments wish the media would refrain from criticism, but life (I’m pleased to say) just isn’t like that.

| NEW DIRECTIONS OR NONE?

Where do we go from here? That’s a worrying question, because it seems that Putin and his allies want to pick a fight with the West. Given that one of his team seems to believe in a flat Earth, perhaps he seems his potential enemies as “little green men”, or invaders from Mars, although Russia’s admirable scientific community and army of brilliant physicists know it’s all utter nonsense. Nonsensical it may be, but there’s no space for logic or common sense in the claimed political beliefs of Putin’s allies, nor in the new governments of, say, Slovakia or Georgia. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want a war, although that fact will hardly impinge on Putin’s strange way of thinking. He’s turning what was a wasp at a picnic into a nuclear bomber with deadly intent. Perhaps it’s because at 71 he knows he hasn’t got as much time left as he would like in which to reframe the world to his design. It’s an awful design and it means a lot of people will die, but don’t worry: with his bunker under the Kremlin he’ll probably stay safe while he makes lots of money. It seems like an attempt to turn the clock back to the 1960s when we all lived in fear of a devastating East-West confrontation and, of course, the inevitable and long anticipated nuclear war. It didn’t happen then, because ultimately common sense triumphed. Let’s hope it does again, and we honest workers can still triumph, too. «Пролетарии всего мира, соединяйтесь!», as it was put: “Proletarians of the world, unite!”. Another vodka, anyone?

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