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Tbilisi's Police: The Next Berkut?

Since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly disastrous war against Ukraine, the question of ‘Why don’t the Russians rise up?’ has occasionally been posed, particularly after the rare public protests that took place in the early days of the invasion.

To outsiders, it may seem entirely logical that they should - and it is hardly an unheard of phenomenon, since it was Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution that brought to power successive governments that have incurred so much of Putin’s ire.

Yet this is to ignore the high blood price that Ukrainians paid to topple the pro-Russian then-President Viktor Yanukovych, as well as the fact that there is simply not the popular support for Western institutions amongst the Russian public. However, it is also because endemic corruption in post-Soviet states entails senior politicians ensuring the compliance and loyalty of law enforcement.

(Photo by Mike Godwin/MikeReports)

The Euromaidan protests provide the best proof of this. The casualties sustained by the Euromaidan protestors were inflicted by the Berkut unit, a ‘special purpose’ corps of the police loyal to President Yanukovych. These men fled with Yanukovych when he took refuge in Russia, and have continued their careers within Russian Federal police structures.

A motivating factor for these sorts of politically-affiliated law enforcement bodies is doubtlessly the knowledge that the fall of the government means - at best - the loss of their job; naturally, in the case of the Berkut unit this would also have involved criminal charges, including murder. But it suits politicians to keep the police at this level of distance: dependent on the authorities, but without the risk of them becoming a modern counterpart to the Praetorian Guard (this is also prevented by the myriad of law enforcement agencies and military services common to former Soviet countries).

(Photo by Mike Godwin/MikeReports)

The Georgian protests of March 7 against the government’s ‘Law on Foreign Agents’ - which requires any entity receiving funding from abroad as an “agent of foreign influence” - were met with an aggressive response from the Georgian police, who used CS gas and rubber bullets in attempts to disperse the crowds.

(Photo by Mike Godwin/MikeReports)

This has already drawn comparisons with the use of rubber munitions in 2019, when protestors rallied against the Georgian government’s invitation of a Russian politician to Tbilisi - and to sit in the chair of the Parliament Speaker. The incident is also remembered as a proving incident of the authorities’ covert subservience to Russia, and the excessive force used by police resulted in the partial blinding of a number of the protestors.

If the ruling Georgian Dream party is ever ousted - via election or a more kinetic method - then it is likely that those police officers involved in attempting to violently put down the protests will become targets for arrest and prosecution by a new regime. Of course, this is exactly what will bind them to the authorities - as perhaps the government is aware. It is, after all, a method that has proved effective in allowing President Putin to retain his seat in the Kremlin.

(Photo by Mike Godwin/MikeReports)

Although the Russian government has proven itself to be deluded in international affairs, it has clearly learned from its history on the domestic front. Putin and his clique will be well aware of how the Tsar was brought down by the shock siding of the Cossacks with the Bolsheviks in the Revolution of 1917 - doubtless steps have already been taken to protect his position.

Whether the Georgian government has built a similarly symbiotic relationship with their law enforcement remains a matter of speculation, but the violence used against the protestors both in 2019 and 2023 suggest that the police will be dependent on the current authorities retaining their posts. It can only be hoped that it does not take a Euromaidan-style bloodbath to dislodge the offending officers from their positions.

Cover photo from Mariam Nikuradze

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