Russia as a threat: the Ukraine crisis and changing public opinion in Georgia
When thinking about Russian and Georgian relations after the 2012 parliamentary elections there are a number of important events to take into consideration: the initiation of Georgian-Russian dialogue in the form of the Abashidze-Karasin negotiations, the re-opening of the Russian market to Georgian products, and the so-called borderization of South Ossetia. Obviously, the opening of Russian markets and direct bilateral negotiations are not likely causes of increased negative attitudes toward Russia, while Georgians are against the borderization policy making it a potential cause of negative attitudes towards Russia. Notably, the so-called borderization policy, which started in May of 2013, marks the beginning of a shift in attitudes toward Russia.
Another important event that may be associated with changes in public opinion is the crisis in Ukraine. While the Ukraine crisis is not directly tied to Georgian-Russian relations, Tbilisi has consistently expressed its support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity. Since the crisis there has been a very apparent change in Georgians’ perceptions of Russia as a possible threat. This is further exemplified by the responses to a question on NDI’s April 2014 survey- “which country bears the most responsibility for the crisis in Crimea?” As the graph below shows, 62% of Georgians consider Russia the country which bears the most responsibility for the crisis in the Crimea. Moreover, 66% of Georgians find Crimea’s unification with Russia unacceptable. It is noteworthy that the events in Ukraine which most experts assess as a direct and open Russian aggression against Ukraine started in March of 2014, directly before the April 2014 survey.
It is interesting that in August 2014, support for the statement that “Russia is a real and existing threat to Georgia” declined by 8% compared to April. This could mean that Russia appeared to be more threatening to Ukraine (and hence to Georgia) at the onset of the crisis, rather than now as the conflict has protracted in time. Russia's role in fueling the crisis in Ukraine may remind Georgians of Russia’s intervention in the separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s or of the 2008 August war with Russia. In sum, it seems that the events in Ukraine aggravated the sense of a potential future threat from Russia, especially considering the similar Euro-Atlantic policy orientations of both Ukraine and Georgia.
Considering the above, it is not surprising that almost half of the population (46%) believes that the actions taken by the Government of Georgia in support of Ukraine are insufficient and additional actions are needed. Notably, 63% of the population approved of the Georgian government’s condemnation of Russia’s actions in the Crimea.
This post has looked at the impact which events in Ukraine have had on the perception of threat expected from Russia. It appears that the increased level of agreement with the statement that “Russia is a real and existing threat to Georgia” in April may be linked to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. This is supported by the fact that most Georgians believe that Russia bears responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine and that Georgians are against Crimea’s unification with Russia. How Georgian public attitude will change toward Russia and whether the crisis in Ukraine will continue to influence it remains to be seen, but readers interested in exploring the issues discussed above can delve further into Georgian perceptions of Russia here.
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Taking partly free voters seriously: autocratic response to voter preferences in Armenia and GeorgiaDo voters in less than democratic contexts matter or are elections simply facades used to create a veneer of democratic accountability for domestic and international actors? Within the Autocratic Response to Voter Preferences in Armenia and Georgia project, funded by Academic Swiss Caucasus Net, CRRC-Georgia and CRRC-Armenia aimed to help answer this question, at least for Georgia and Armenia. On October 27, Caucasus Survey published the results of the project in a special issue, available here.
But what do people want?
Georgians are enthusiastic in supporting the country’s accession to the European Union. Since 2012, when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC-Georgia started tracking attitudes, three quarters of Georgians approved of the government’s goal of joining the EU, on average. What motivates Georgians to support the Union, or alternatively, to abandon support? A survey experiment included in the latest CRRC/NDI poll suggests potential economic burdens have a modest yet significant effect on support for membership. Results do not support the common belief that a potential military threat from Russia dampens Georgians’ support for the EU.
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In Georgia, a conspiracy about the US-funded Richard Lugar Centre for Public Health Research in Tbilisi has recently gained traction. As CRRC-Georgia’s USAID-funded research shows, Georgia’s far-right groups eagerly picked up on this conspiracy and blamed the centre for the seasonal flu outbreak in early 2019.
While many things could divide the public, what do the people think and which groups report more and fewer sources of division? The April 2019 NDI-CRRC poll suggests that there are fewer perceived reasons for division in rural areas and among ethnic minorities.
The 2019 survey on Knowledge and Attitudes towards the European Union in Georgia which CRRC Georgia carried out for Europe Foundation suggests that this trend is continuing in Georgia.
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Talk about political polarisation in Georgia is easy to find. Some have suggested that the recent United National Movement (UNM) announcement that Saakashvili will be their prime ministerial candidate will only make matters worse.
A new data analysis CRRC Georgia released on Tuesday suggests that this may in fact be the case. Data from several years of CRRC Georgia and NDI polling indicates that there are few ideological or policy issues that the supporters of Georgian Dream (GD) and the United National Movement (UNM) disagree about. Rather, attitudes towards politicians and political events are what divides, a fact the public intuitively recognises.
While personality in politics matters greatly for the Georgian public, data from this year shows that for Georgian Dream and United National Movement voters, policy is still important.
A recent CRRC Georgia policy brief argued that what was really dividing Georgians politically was personalities rather than policies. Data from the August 2020 CRRC and NDI survey provides further evidence for this idea.
However, the data also shows a difference between Georgian Dream (GD) and United National Movement (UNM) voters in terms of policy preferences and that economic policy is the most important issue for a plurality of voters.
With the pandemic still raging and accompanying economic restrictions still in force, Georgians are unsurprisingly pessimistic about their economic future. This holds true especially for supporters of the opposition United National Movement Party, above all other party supporters.
COVID-19 restrictions have impacted people’s economic activity heavily. This is reflected in key economic indicators such as GDP, which declined by 5.9% year on year between January and November 2020.
It is also reflected in employment, with fewer people reporting starting new jobs and more people reporting having lost one, according to the 2020 Caucasus Barometer.