After their release on bail from pre-trial detention on January 28, Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova, two civil servants accused of trying to cede land to Azerbaijan, have been targeted in what appears to be a coordinated social media campaign aiming to discredit and vilify them.
The two former civil servants still face ten to fifteen years of prison, as they are charged under Article 308 (1) of the Criminal Code of Georgia, involving “actions directed at the violation of the territorial integrity of the country.”
The campaign, which has been egged on by some of the officials, and the public broadcaster, seems to involve active civil servants and portrays the two as traitors at the service of the previous administration. Some rogue comments also attributed the alleged treason to a “non-Georgian” ethnic provenance of Mrs. Ilychova. With spirits running high, a social media video emerged today, showing Melashvili being verbally assaulted by a young man while shopping in a downtown supermarket.
The social media frenzy was triggered by a remark Mr. Melashvili gave during his TV appearance, immediately after his release on bail, in a talk-show on the pro-opposition TV Pirveli.
Melashvili has been criticizing the spin that the authorities give to the case, namely that certain lands at the Georgia-Azerbaijan border belong to Georgia. He was arguing, that while David Gareji monastery parts of which are on these disputed lands are clearly a part of Georgia’s cultural heritage, the legal grounds for claiming sovereign ownership were not there.
“How you can claim something as yours, when it is not yours,” Melashvili remarked as he got emotional, and added that raising the political temperature won’t help in seeking compromise.
The words “it is not yours” became a trigger that unleashed scores of angry and aggressive reactions on Facebook. Often obscene commentaries called for public punishment of “traitors”. The overarching slogan of “David Gareji is Georgia” – a phrase that the pro-Georgian Dream TV Imedi used as its pre-election dog-whistle to rally supporters – has been widely used.
According to multiple reports, the identical cut footage from the talk show accompanied most of the smear messages spread on social media, pointing to a coordinated campaign. The readers could not discern the context in which the quoted words were spoken. These posts were emotionally charged, using religiously, and nationalistically tainted language, many were calling for “punishment”.
The Mythdetector said the accounts that posted the coordinated messages included government- and government-affiliated Facebook accounts, public servants, ultra-nationalist actors, clerics, click-bait websites with their IPs registered in Russia, and social media accounts that usually spread pro-Kremlin messages on social media.
Worryingly, apart from discrediting the cartographers as enemies, Mythdetector also traced some personal labeling that vilified Melashvili as immoral, insinuating his incestuous relationships and suggested Natalia Ilychova’s “non-Georgianness” as a reason for her alleged “treason”.
On the eve of the broadcast, opposition politician Helen Khoshtaria also collected up to a hundred similar posts and Facebook comments targeting the cartographers, produced in a short period of time immediately following the talk-show.
The internet plugin Vin Vin Aris (Who Is Who) developed by Georgian activists to monitor and flag bots, was used to identify numerous accounts active in re-posting or commenting as belonging to “public servants” – mostly persons currently or formerly employed and elected at local self-governmental bodies, and from quasi-governmental agencies. Many were flagged by the extension as “party activists.”
Previous smear campaigns
The Georgian Dream has been blamed for coordinated smear campaigns before. In 2019, the famous “June protests” that followed after spotting the Russian Duma MP in the seat of Georgia’s Parliamentary Speaker and were further fueled by the violent dispersal of the ensued rally, also ended up on Facebook. Back then, Georgian media and activists were quick to uncover susceptible bots and troll accounts attempting to manipulate public opinion in favor of the government.
Further disclosures followed later in 2019 and 2020, including in a series of Facebook interventions to remove hundreds of pages and accounts that were part of the “coordinated inauthentic behavior” linked with the Georgian Dream-led government.
The current coordinated campaign seems to be led by real people – seemingly since the use of bots – automated accounts – has been significantly restricted by Facebook.
Official and ruling party statements
Prosecutor in the case, Amiran Guluashvili reiterated following the release on bail, that “based on the legally obtained proof that we will present in court, Melashvili and Ilychova will undoubtedly serve time for the crime they have committed beyond any doubt. We are talking about very grave crime, which carries a sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison.”
Georgian officials gave credence and support to the smear campaign by echoing its key messages in the media. Tea Tsulukiani, former justice minister and currently the chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Education, Science, and Culture told the Georgian Public Broadcaster: “our society is shocked by what it heard what Mr. Melashvili who said, that we should not claim about something that does not belong to us. Indeed, he is quite an inflexible negotiator, but he should be sitting across the table, on the side that is against Georgia. He does that well,” Tsulukiani remarked.
Another MP, Chair of the Human Rights Committee Mikheil Sarjveladze had this to say: “We, as well as the society, see the campaign against Georgia’s national interests unfolding in front of our own very eyes. Blinded with their wish for revenge and their thirst for power, our opponents insistently and without reserve try to prove to our society that David Gareji is not Georgia.” He added, that “the [United] National Movement and other political parties acting under their full control” with “particular joy, care, and dedication” are “combatting their motherland and history.”
The Georgian Public Broadcaster dedicated its weekend program on 31 December to “David Gareji issue”, giving extensive coverage to the Defense Minister Irakli Garibashvili, the Defense Ministry cartographers, and David Gareji monastery monks who led the charge against Melashvili and Ilychova. Although Melashvili was interviewed, his interventions were incomparably briefer and portrayed as bumbled and defensive, while the government’s view dominated. Garibashvili referred to “treasonous acts” committed by the two.
The emotional charge of the campaign is linked to the sensitivity of the “David Gareji monastery issue”. The propaganda messages suggest that due to the actions of the two experts, “David Gareji was lost” – meaning that Georgia no longer exercises sovereign control over this historical cave-monastery that extends on two flanks of the mountain. The Public Broadcaster repeatedly showed shots of the monastery, which is firmly under Georgian control, while speaking about “35 thousand hectares of land” that was allegedly “lost”.
The defendants in the case have been arguing the prosecution’s actual charges had little to do with the David Gareji area. The monastery largely featured in the legal dispute partly due to the active involvement of the Georgian Orthodox Church. For years now, tensions have been building around the restrictions posed by the Azerbaijani border guards to the Georgian monks and pilgrims who want to visit several buildings of the monastery located on the other flank of the mountain. The mountain crest forms the boundary – since the border is not yet officially delimited – between the two states since the collapse of the USSR, but the control was not enforced since the late 2000s. Unsurprisingly, the matter also features prominently on the agenda of extremist, mostly right-wing forces.