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A call for the U.S. to step up in Georgia, Russia's new front

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

As Russia's ground war in Ukraine continues, one analyst warns that there's another country that's vulnerable to Vladimir Putin's ambitions - Georgia. The country has had a long relationship with Russia, including in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. There are fears it is now sliding towards authoritarianism and that the country's leadership is cozying up to the Kremlin.

I spoke about this with Nino Evgenidze. She's the executive director of the Economic Policy Research Center, which is a think tank that does research on the Georgian economy. And she recently wrote about Russia's growing influence in Georgia for foreign affairs. We began by talking about what she says is a big divide between the people of Georgia and its government.

NINO EVGENIDZE: Eighty-five percent of the Georgian population feels and thinks that the war in Ukraine is their war, you know. And the 4,000 Georgians are fighting there to help the Ukrainians, and already 42 Georgians died there. And we are No. 2 country after the Ukrainians with the casualties, you know, because every Georgian believes that the war in Ukraine is their war, and we have to stand with our Ukrainian friends. And the Georgia was the first country where this big, like, you know, the demonstration to support the Ukraine started.

And the current Georgian government, they do not represent the will of the Georgian people because they do not represent the Georgian people anymore because, you know, if before the war in Ukraine, they were somehow navigating or being in this gray zone and lying to the European partners that, oh, we are the Europeans, and you know that we have this European aspirations - and internally, inside of the country, doing everything to big sliding from our democratic development.

NADWORNY: Let's talk about Georgian dream, a populist party that's gained a lot of power in Georgia. You say that the party has been pivotal in the country's slide towards authoritarianism. Could you tell us what the party stands for and how much power they have there?

EVGENIDZE: They have in the Parliament constitutional majority in the Parliament. All these members of the Parliament, they are, like, connected with the corrupt connection with this oligarch, Zina Ivanishvili, and the whatever message box they are delivering in the morning. They are all like, you know, the political party members from the Georgian Dream government - they are just, like, repeating this, even not changing any words in a sentence. You know, it's well organized, some kind of, like, you know, the political group who, together with this Russian oligarch just to capture the state, you know? - because all institutions including the judiciary system, prosecutor's office, election commission, you know, all of them are under their control.

NADWORNY: The party Georgian dream, who is the founder and why is he so important?

EVGENIDZE: The founder is this Russian oligarch, Zina Ivanishvili. He founded this party in 2012, and then he was a prime minister of Georgia in 2012 and '13. And then he left this party, and then he was a chairman of this party for three more years. And now he went to the shadow. But he's still in politics, you know. He's, like, this kind - very close to the Russian - like, you know, the Kremlin.

And even from the very high-level Russian officials, like minister of foreign affairs of Russia, Lavrov and some other people, high-level officials, they're getting the credit. Look at Georgia, how great they are behaving. They're not giving up of the West. Like, a pressure and this kind of like, you know, the - you know, the statements from the Russia and the same time, the current Georgian government and the party, they're doing everything to sabotage their own country, not to get the European Union membership or like, you know, candidacy status. And if we miss this opportunity right now, then I don't know. We're going to be forever - we'll stay on the Russian, like, sphere of influence. And it's going to be very tough, and it will take many, many years to get out from this, like, orbit then again.

NADWORNY: So if you were advising President Biden, what would you tell him he should do?

EVGENIDZE: I would love to tell him to sanction the Russian oligarch Zina Ivanishvili and his closed circles who are in the government of Georgia. Not the sanctions against the country because, as I mentioned, the people are different, and people are dedicated, motivated and ready to fight for their freedom. But this Russian oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his close surrounding who are in the government of Georgia - please, President Biden, finish your job just to get out from these Russian oligarchs who are trying to undermine democracy and who are trying everything to get the freedom and the values and the democratic values from their own people, you know? They have to stop them for sure because it's not only threat for the Georgian society or the Ukrainian society or the Russian society. It's threat for all democratic and liberal world, you know? They are threatening and they're bullying everybody, and they have to stop.

NADWORNY: Nino Evgenidze is the executive director of the Economic Policy Research Center. You can check out her piece titled "Russia Is Winning In Georgia. America Needs To Get Tough On Tbilisi" in Foreign Affairs magazine. Nino, thanks so much for joining us.

EVGENIDZE: Thank you so much for having me. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.