Georgia’s Internal vulnerability resonates with Russian disinformation

This is the first in planned series of articles which is partly based on research completed by Jaba Devdariani and Zviad Adzinbaia for the East-West Management Institute (EWMI/ACCESS) and the United Nations Association of Georgia (UNAG). The research was made possible with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government, EWMI or UNAG.

Georgia’s democratic cohesion is fraying. Public trust in democratic institutions is weak, and mainstream politicians struggle to respond to popular expectations. The rift between the government and the opposition, as well as with civil society organizations is widening. Even though some 80% of Georgians support EU and NATO membership, our research shows that quarter to a third of respondents share the Kremlin’s underlying cynical view of the world politics.

The degree of malign information influence that the Kremlin exerts on Georgia is disputed. Non-governmental researchers such as Media Development Foundation, DFRLab and others suggest Russia’s disinformation footprint is considerable. In many ways, Georgia – just like the Baltic states – has been a testing ground for the development and application of Russian information warfare techniques since 1990s and stepped up their efforts in the past decade.

But in Georgia the homegrown anti-liberal and anti-Western messages are often just as strong as those emanating from the Kremlin and thus difficult to disentangle from official Russian propaganda. There are political and institutional actors in Georgia who profess the worldview that largely dovetails with the Russian disinformation narrative. Many of them do not identify themselves as pro-Russian, some even claim being hostile to the Kremlin.

It is a common refrain in Western European handbooks aimed at countering disinformation (here is an example from Sweden), that the democratic system shall not stifle legitimate internal debate, but it must resist external subversion. When handling the Kremlin influence in Georgian context, this is easier said than done.

Mark Galeotti, one of the leading thinkers of disinformation, argued in his 2017 policy brief , that when a country is vulnerable to accept Kremlin’s worldview and mindset, Russia gets “traction in the political process”, which creates “a certain vicious circle”, aligning of external pressure and internal political process in a way that gradually forces the country away from the European consensus and towards the “Russian world”.

Shared values, shared enemies

Uniquely in its post-Soviet neighborhood, Georgia succeeded in institutional reforms in the past decade. The country also showcased decades of popular support for Euro-Atlantic integration hovering around 70-80%. Joining the EU and NATO has also been an official policy of the successive governments. It is now even inscribed in the Constitution. Democratic state-building and Euro-Atlantic integration are Georgia’s two main forward-looking objectives.

Logically, the key objectives of the Russian campaigns are to discredit liberal values and the democratic process, and to undermine the national cohesion and institutional resilience. If it attains these objectives, the Kremlin may hope to turn increasingly fatigued and disillusioned Georgians away from the West and lure them back into Russia’s orbit.

According to the most recent public opinion poll by IRI 83% of surveyed Georgians regard Russia as the country’s top political threat, 72% consider Moscow as Georgia’s top economic threat and 77% believe Russian aggression against Georgia is still ongoing. So, Russia cannot credibly pose as Georgia’s friend or as its political role model.

In our study we saw, that the Georgians do not trust Russian disinformation messages when they are presented with them straight up – in our web-poll, less than 8% believed so called “Lugar Lab” was experimenting on humans, or that Russia was innocent in downing the Malaysia airlines plane.

But Moscow can effectively draw on more deeply anchored, socio-cultural elements of affinity. By pushing the socially conservative and anti-liberal messages and amplifying the nationalist and conservative quarters of the Georgian politics, the Kremlin aims to create a perception that Georgia shares identity with Russia, and that this identity is intrinsically opposed to that of the West. Often, this shared identity is framed in quasi-religious terms – as Orthodox Christian unity, opposed to ethically and morally decadent, atheist West.

The quasi-religious framing is also used to distort the perception of the enemy and to deflect the criticism from Russia. Pro-Russian outlets sow discord with Georgia’s neighbors and vital security partners. These efforts are primarily directed against Turkey and Azerbaijan, but by extension linked to xenophobic messages against other Muslim-majority states, as well as against Muslim migrants or tourists. Even though a direct connection with Russia is not always possible to establish in such cases, a recent study by DFRLab identified several recurring anti-Turkey narratives among openly pro-Kremlin Russian and Georgian media outlets and Facebook pages.

These narratives work, because they resonate with the considerable layer of Georgian historiography (especially furthered during the Soviet period) and literature which portrayed the Georgia as a Christian outpost opposing onslaught from the neighboring Muslim empires. Recent study by ISFED, another CSO, found that the anti-Muslim posts – while representing 2% of the total messages – received most interactions on extremist Facebook pages. These messages also draw on a potent stream of anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment in Western Europe, so the pro-Kremlin outlets can credibly cover their tracks by deploying “white supremacist” or “Christian-conservative” language and iconography from the West.

Somewhat paradoxically, portraying Georgia as closer to Russia by values, is accompanied by promoting Russia’s disproportional ability to impose prohibitive security costs. This dismaying tactic works especially well in the context of an objective security vulnerability already imposed by Russia.

The Kremlin’s Sword of Just Retribution

The Kremlin has stoked tensions in Georgia since the 1990s and engaged Tbilisi in a direct armed conflict as recently as in 2008. Currently, Russia occupies two Georgian provinces – Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia – together constituting about 20% of the country’s territory. Moscow has been steadily advancing toward their annexation through signing a plethora of “treaties” that tie the military, security, economic and welfare systems of the two provinces to Russia. This has been accompanied by additional land-grabs – the so-called “creeping occupation.”

The danger that Russia objectively represents to Georgia is inflated further by the Kremlin propaganda machine and its Georgian satellites, to build an image of the Kremlin’s invincibility.

The Kremlin propaganda dedicates considerable efforts to promoting Russia’s role as a powerful spoiler in international affairs, and to demonstrating the costs that it might impose on disloyal states or individuals (think Litvinenko, Skripal case, Ukraine, Syria…).  This message is subject to blanket dissemination, for internal and external audiences.

Resonating with this global narrative of invincibility, the nativist, xenophobic, and obscurantist movements customize this message inside Georgia. They portray pro-Western change as unnatural for Georgia and hostile to Georgian society. Liberal change is implicitly or explicitly linked to moral catastrophe and physical punishment. Russia is the sword of just retribution, it strikes down the individuals and states alike for disobedience to common values, for becoming the “lackeys of the west”, depraved and unnatural (aggressively homophobic discourse works very well in this context).

The combination of the Kremlin’s global propaganda with locally targeted messaging of the illiberal groups is potent. It creates an expectation of “impending doom” and utter confusion in people, activates “unthinking” and gummies up democracy. Subjects become apathetic – thus paralyzing democratic system (falling rates of democratic participation), paranoid – thus promoting populists that target liberalism, or anxious, easily triggered into seemingly unwarranted aggression, which can be weaponized to blow up the political process inside the country (think homophobic protests, mobilization of the Orthodox church in defense of “family values”) .

In our next article, we will try to discuss how this challenge can be met.


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