Georgia on His Mind?

Vladimir Putin’s Latest Little Jab at Donald Trump

It may seem like a small thing that the Russian foreign minister is visiting a breakaway republic, but everybody in the region understands. Does Trump?

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

MOSCOW—This week the Kremlin showed symbolically it’s not about to back away from its imperial ambitions in the so-called near abroad, which is to say the old Russian empire. And if its measures flout international law or the laws of its pro-Western neighbors, so be it.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to attend the official opening ceremony of a new complex at the Russian embassy in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, a home for thousands of Russian troops.

In the republic of Georgia, which views Abkhazia as territory under Russian occupation, the gesture was seen as “a mockery” of Georgian laws—and a direct challenge aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump.

At a time when the new U.S. president is trying to assert American power around the globe, these are the kinds of little incidents that chip away at Washington’s credibility before many people there even know what’s happening.

From a technical standpoint, members of parliament in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, noted that Lavrov’s visit would violate Georgia’s Law of Occupied Territories, which bans travel to Abkhazia without the Georgian government’s prior consent.

The law obliges all perpetrators to pay an administrative fine of 400 Georgian lari ($169). “Mr. Lavrov did not ask us for a permit to travel to occupied Abkhazia. The minister is violating both Georgian legislation and our constitutional sovereignty,” Georgian MP Georgi Kandelaki told The Daily Beast.

“It is time for the Georgian prime minister to take a minute of his time and call President Donald Trump,” says Kandelaki, “so Washington could articulate its attitude for this mockery of international laws—it would give a very important message to our people.”

Only last week, people in Georgia proudly toasted the European Parliament’s decision to grant Georgians visa-free travel to countries in the European Union. NATO and United Nations flags flew over Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main street, to symbolize the country’s westward-looking future. This is the kind of thing that infuriates Putin.

But amid the toasts, there was also ample cynicism.

“I was in the crowd on the square when we showed our love for George W. Bush,” local businessman Shota Kutalia told The Daily Beast. “We even named a street after Bush, but Bush did not help us bring back Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and neither will Trump.”

Georgia and its 4.4 million people have paid a high price for the country’s pro-Western stance, losing swathes of land and many lives as their sovereignty has come under assault. In 2008 the Russian Federation closed its embassy in Tbilisi, and Lavrov’s visit to Abkhazia is seen as one more bit of payback for Georgia’s pro-American, pro-European policies.

“Relations were spoiled further last week when Georgia decided to stop buying Russian gas,” the deputy head of Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies, Vladimir Makarkin, told The Daily Beast. “So Moscow sees Georgia as if it were amputated, gone from its influence.”

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Yet NATO, in which Georgia has put so much faith, has done little to help the country and its thousands of internally displaced people return home to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No EU leader has made any serious effort to compel Russian officials to stop violating Georgian laws.

The situation on Georgia’s border with the breakaway regions has been tense since its five-day war with Russia in 2008. In the past two years, Georgia has reported human rights violations on its soil by Russian and pro-Russian militants.

Local politicians have grown bitter about the West ignoring Georgia’s geopolitical troubles: “When the president of the United States and the chancellor of Germany, the two main leaders of the free world, meet, and both mention Ukraine while neither mentions Georgia, this is a problem,” the vice speaker of Georgia’s parliament, Sergi Kapanadze, told reporters earlier this month.

“When the U.S. secretary of state visits Moscow and presents a list of demands to Russia that does not include Georgia, this is a problem,” said Kapanadze.

Trump himself ought to be well informed about Georgia’s long-lasting conflict with Russia and the country’s struggle for democratic reform. Five years ago Trump visited the ancient mountain nation, praised its “amazing leadership,” and noted that he was proud to build a partnership with “the No. 1 reforming country” in the world.

“Mr. Trump learned a lot about the Russian-Georgian conflict in his previous life, before the presidency,” Kandelaki told The Daily Beast.

Back then, foreign investor Donald Trump and the Trump Organization signed $250 million deals for the Silk Road complex that included Trump Tbilisi Tower on Rose Revolution Square and the Trump Riviera Tower, a casino, an exhibition hall, and a marina in the resort city of Batumi, which Trump reportedly referred to as “the Monte Carlo of the region” on his visit back in 2011.

But in January of this year, the Trump Organization pulled out of the real estate project “to avoid a potential conflict with Donald Trump’s role as president,” Trump’s business partner told Reuters.

Moscow, for its part, does not seem worried about criticism from abroad.

When asked, Makarkin could not think of a Western political leader who would initiate more economic sanctions to punish Russia for Lavrov’s visit to Abkhazia.

“The Kremlin does not pay attention to what the West has to say about our relationship with Georgia,” Makarkin told The Daily Beast. “Since Moscow and Tbilisi have no diplomatic relations, it seems that Sergei Lavrov has no plans to travel to Georgia anytime soon, and it is unlikely that President Trump is going to argue with President Putin over Georgia.”

This story was updated to amend a quote.