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Soviet-era apartment buildings in Rustavi. Photo: Dave Lawler/Axios

TBILISI and RUSTAVI, Georgia — An enormous winged insect buzzed through the room, causing continual disruptions and hovering close to the conversation. Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who had been addressing us in a low monotone about constitutional reform, deadpanned: "It's Russian."

Russia is ever-present in Georgian politics. Kremlin propaganda and misinformation are rife, and the rise of far-right groups — which aren't explicitly pro-Russian but instead anti-Western — can be linked directly to Russia.

  • Given the dynamics surrounding oligarchs who made or hope to keep their fortunes in Vladimir Putin's Russia, it's also not entirely clear whether Ivanishvili is outside of Moscow's gravitational pull.

It's not just politics. Many priests and members of the Georgian Orthodox Church hierarchy trained in Russia. Some almost certainly had (or have) links to Russian intelligence. The church tends to be closer to socially conservative Russia, and more suspicious of Europe, than the population at large.

  • The church is the most trusted institution in Georgian society, and Patriarch Ilia II is one of the most influential figures. He tends to reflect the pro-Europe views of the country as a whole. He's also 85 and in ill health. His successor is likely to have a different view.
  • The Georgian church hasn't taken a position on the granting of independence to the Ukrainian church, a dramatic split that infuriated Moscow. There's concern in Tbilisi that if Georgia backs Ukraine, Russia could support independent churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, exports to Russia have been gradually rising. Zurab Kachkachishvili, director of the International Chamber of Commerce, says Russia is viewed as "a savior" by some in the agricultural sector, but he's urging them to diversify.

  • Moscow wants Georgia to be reliant on the trading relationship, he says, to increase the pain when it cuts back.

The bottom line: David Usupashvili, a presidential candidate who ultimately finished fifth, put it this way: "The fragmentation of society is reaching a very dangerous level. And there is Mr. Putin. And he is waiting."

Go deeper

Biden to sign executive orders focused on women's rights

President Biden. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Biden will sign executive orders Monday establishing a Gender Policy Council and directing the Department of Education to review the federal law Title IX, according to administration officials.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is signaling its priorities to advance gender equity and equality as women, particularly women of color, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

3 hours ago - World

Report: U.S. calls for UN-led Afghan peace talks

Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, D.C., in February. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a letter outlining a plan to accelerate peace talks with the Taliban that the U.S. is "considering" a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghan outlet TOLOnews first reported Sunday.

Why it matters: In the letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, also obtained by Western news outlets, Blinken expresses concern that the Taliban "could make rapid territorial gain" after an American military withdrawal, even with the continuation of U.S. financial aid, as he urges him to embrace his proposal.

Harry and Meghan accuse British royal family of racism

Photo: Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via Reuters

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle delivered a devastating indictment of the U.K. royal family in their conversation with Oprah Winfrey: Both said unnamed relatives had expressed concern about what the skin tone of their baby would be. And they accused "the firm" of character assassination and "perpetuating falsehoods."

Why it matters: An institution that thrives on myth now faces harsh reality. The explosive two-hour interview gave an unprecedented, unsparing window into the monarchy: Harry said his father and brother "are trapped," and Markle revealed that the the misery of being a working royal drove her to thoughts of suicide.