Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Jun 10, 2020
Covid19 in Georgia: Challenges and risks

The high-level emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted all spheres of life in Georgian society and raised many questions — which are yet to be answered.

As with everywhere, the main risk in Georgia is an overloaded healthcare system. Despite the reforms implemented in the late 2000s — which modernized medical centers in every regional center — there are only 2290 intensive care beds in the country. While this figure is sufficient during regular periods, it is obviously not enough during the epidemic. There are also not enough doctors: there are only 448 resuscitators and 256 infectious disease specialists in Georgia. There are no mobile hospitals in Georgia that could have been deployed, if necessary. In the initial stages of the pandemic, there were also problems with testing. It was only by the end of the second month of the epidemic that Georgia reached the level of 14,000 tests per 1 million of the overall population. At the end of the first month, this figure did not exceed one thousand. Thus, the authorities had no other alternative but to implement strict quarantine measures and regulations. Mechanisms for protecting the population from emergencies were not developed beforehand, and the authorities had to act spontaneously and rapidly during the first days, causing great concern. However, they resolved the situation by strictly following the recommendations from the World Health Organization and Georgia’s National Committee for Disease Control. It is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions about the efficiency of the Georgian struggle against COVID-19. However, it is clear that currently Georgia’s figures are a lot less critical than the figures from neighboring countries and the entire world.

COVID-19 has created additional problems for the national security sphere. Upon gaining independence and moving towards deeper Euro-Atlantic integration, Georgia has constantly been a target of the former regional hegemon. The geopolitical value of Georgia for the region South Kavkaz and for the Middle East is fully acknowledged by Moscow authorities. Losing influence over Georgia was not only a devastating blow, but also an unacceptable course of events for Kremlin. It is not viable to describe the impacts of such a struggle in detail here, so we shall limit ourselves to reporting the current state of affairs.

Moscow has failed to retain control over Tbilisi, but the perennial confrontation has weakened its foreign policy position and the tempo of Euro-Atlantic integration. The Russian occupation of the Abkhazia and the so-called region of South Ossetia is currently the main external challenge faced by Georgia’s national security.

The presence of large numbers of Russian military forces in close proximity to the capital (less than 40km) and across the coast of the Black Sea results in a constant threat of a Russian military invasion; penetration into the internal political life of Georgia; and the possible blocking of sea ports that are crucial to the transport corridor from Europe to Asia. It is clear that Georgia cannot effectively confront Russia in the event of a military conflict. Currently, Tbilisi is not a part of any military alliance that guarantees protection against an external attack, even though it possesses a perennial institutional cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bloc. Thus, the only solution to a possible military aggression from the superior opponent would be a decisive intervention by the international community — especially by Georgia’s partner-states. However, following Russia’s aggression in August 2008, the financing of the country’s military apparatus was constantly cut. It therefore means that Georgia’s own capacity to respond to a possible Russian aggression is severely limited. This imposes an additional threat to national security, regardless of a fair chance of foreign intervention in case of a conflict between Russia and Georgia.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new risks and threats. The most illustrative example of that is the May 26 statement of Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which accused Richard Lugar’s Research Center of Social Healthcare (Lugar’s laboratory) of carrying out research and experiments in pathogens of extremely dangerous infectious diseases. Similar accusations have already been made before. However, during the COVID-19 outbreak, such statements seem like a conscious unwinding of the Lugar’s laboratory story with a clear intention to justify Russian intervention into the Georgia-USA partnership. Not to mention that if necessary, this can be used as casus belli in relation to Georgia, as the process of borderization (fortifying the line of occupation and gathering new areas in Georgia’s territory) has not stopped, regardless of the outbreak. Moreover, there are ongoing preparations for the occupation of another area of Georgia’s territory in Perevi region.

This case has two sides. On one hand, though Lugar’s laboratory has played a major role in Georgia’s battle against COVID-19, it is a convenient component of Moscow’s justification for anti-Georgian actions and critiquing the US. On the other, discussing US policies with a negative connotation will do nothing but attract Washington’s attention. All conversations about how Western partners do not care for Georgia and have no one interest in such a “miniscule matter” are absolutely invalid. The lack of any factual basis behind such statements can be proved by the continued communication from the US Congress and the European Parliament, addressing the need for compliance between Georgia’s ruling party and the opposition to the 8 March agreement. This agreement — facilitated by mediation of the US and EU embassies — suggests transition to a new election system, where only 30 deputies of parliament can be elected via majority system, while the other 120 can be elected via the proportional system. The subject of the dispute between the authorities and the opposition is the release of the political prisoners – such as the leader of “European Georgia” party Gigi Ugulava, leader of “Victorious Georgia” party Irakli Okruashvili and founder of the opposition’s TV channel “Mtavari” Giorgi Rurua. After a number of requests from American congressmen and European Parliament’s deputies, Georgia’s president Salome Zurabishvili pardoned Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili. However, Giorgi Rurua, who still does not have an official sentence, remains in the pretrial detention. This topic calls for a separate discussion. However, in the context of this article, these requests can be regarded as indicators of continued communication between Georgia’s political class and its Western partners, and their interest towards Georgia’s internal affairs. The COVID19 outbreak has no impact on this particular aspect of Tbilisi’s relations with its Western partners.

With regard to internal security, the civil integration of Georgia’s ethnic and religious minorities is currently the biggest threat facing the security apparatus. One of the main clusters of COVID19 emerged in the Kvemo-Kartli region, where the majority of the population consists of ethnic Azeri. The explanation behind it is simple: neighboring Azerbaijan borders with Iran, which is the second country to record an outbreak after China. The inhabitants of the Kvemo-Kartli region often traveled to Azerbaijan and Iran. After the epidemiological situation in the region worsened, the government had to close it down for a strict quarantine. The flow of information has contributed to the resurfacing of xenophobia against Georgia’s Azerbaijanis in social networks, which resulted in a hostile response from the Azeri minority. Under such circumstances, the social influencers shed a positive light upon their own reputation. They strictly condemned the xenophobic statements and called for unity during times of struggle that affected all citizens. On the other hand, the authorities chose to ignore these alarming signals. Only by May end, when it became obligatory to react to the ongoing unrest, the State Security Service of Georgia launched investigations into groups that spread the ethnicity strife and gas lighted xenophobic sentiments. The lack of an immediate reaction from the Georgian authorities is indeed an indicator of the weakest link in the national security system.

Admittedly, the main challenges that all countries worldwide are currently faced with derive from the socio-economic sphere. Unfortunately, Georgia is no exception. Moreover, many experts agree that Georgia is one of the most vulnerable countries in terms of socio-economic aftermath of the pandemic. Lockdown in a country, where only five percent of the population possessed savings, and every seventh citizen is burdened with credit, can only lead to hard repercussions. During the lockdown, authorities often stated that there would be no choice between health and economy, as the government cares about both. However, the reality was different. Georgia was one of the first countries to report that the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations had provided it with financial resources amounting to $3 billion. Yet, the government claimed that it did not have sufficient funds to support the population affected by the COVID19 related countermeasures and regulations. Only state employees had their incomes intact, whereas the funds intended for other affected citizens were scarce. The allowance for self-employed citizens consisted of a one-time payment of $94. The employed citizens’ position was slightly better; their allowance consisted of monthly payments of $63 for 6 months. Citizens — who lost their jobs as a result of the COVID19 outbreak — received no financial aid during the first two months of the state of emergency and the nation-wide lockdown. Such factors can only facilitate the spread of social tension in the society. Fines, issued during the emergency, were yet another burden for the Georgia’s socio-economic sphere. The fine for breaking the quarantine and curfew was $942, which is a hefty sum for many families in Georgia. Over 7000 fines were issued throughout the lockdown, and the government refuses to look into the possibility of dismissing them. There is also a serious threat of worsening of the criminogenic situation, which improved during the state of emergency and curfew for obvious reasons.

From the beginning of June, the Georgian government has decided to cancel all restrictions. From 1st June onwards, municipal transport, and all stores and businesses in open spaces are permitted to function, and from 8th June, the government has promised to remove all internal restrictions. The government has developed a special program for helping certain sectors of the economy, along with creating behavior protocols to prevent a further spread of the epidemic. The logic of the authorities is understandable, the economy is under a severe shock and it would not be possible to postpone the removal of restrictions any further. Let us take the developing sector of the economy as an example. If the real estate transactions decreased by 10 percent in March in comparison to the same period in 2019, the decline in April was already at 92%. No deals have been closed in April. Many other sectors of the economy hit rock bottom too, especially tourism, which has long been the main source of income for a majority of the population. Besides tourism, transactions with foreign countries are one of the main sources of currency in-flow for Georgia. The government assures that upon reopening it will become the most secure country in the world. However, even if that will be the case, it would be excessively optimistic to hope that the number of visitors would be even close to 11 million — the pre-pandemic number.

It has been established that social and economic instability are the main threats to Georgia’s national security. The situation is exacerbated by political confrontation, which is inevitable since the parliamentary elections of October 2020 are approaching. The political tension in the country reached its peak in autumn last year, when the ruling party refused to follow on its promise to switch to the proportional election system, thus triggering the severe political crisis. In regards to national security threats, harsh political confrontation is directly affecting the informational security and integrity. The opposing political forces and the affiliated mass media are using the pandemic to push their agendas — some are praising the authorities, and the others are critiquing them. In the end, citizens will have a hard time navigating the flow of controversial information appearing alongside constant battles between the supporters and opponents of the authorities on social networks.

Let us draw some conclusions. Even though Georgia was able to handle the epidemic better than many countries, a risk of a recurrence remains present, and the threats to national security remain high. Secondly, the socio-economic situation remains the main challenge and without the rational use of external help, Georgia’s hardship might worsen further. And finally, the ongoing political crisis that goes alongside with the pandemic is exacerbating the external threats to national security. If the political class of the country fails to realize it, the aftermath of the crisis will be even worse. After the epidemic, we will have to live and abide by the new protocols, making life drastically different from how we knew it before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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