It has been several months that protests have been raging against the construction of the Namakhvani Hydropower Project in the Rioni Valley of Western Georgia, citing economic, environmental, and related concerns. The protesters, who proved successful in mobilizing large and loyal crowds to their cause, say they are now facing discrediting campaigns in both traditional and social media.
In its May 13 statement, the Rioni Valley Movement, the main organizer of protests, warned against a disinformation campaign led by what they see as dozens of Facebook pages created on purpose “through sponsored so-called fake news” ahead of the Movement’s planned rally in Tbilisi on May 23. The pages, the movement said, “often deliberately use names similar to our page, or voice false information under the names disguised with patriotic ideas,” the movement says.
Certainly, the protest movement targeting a hydro-energy plant has its own, legitimate and sincere detractors. Many in the government, but also in opposition parties argue that the “anti-development” protest is blind to the energy security needs of the country and is targeting investments that the country badly needs.
But behind this political and ideological challenge, some campaigns question the motives behind the protests and advance multiple – often conspirationalist – theories. After Levan Vasadze, ultra-conservative and nativist businessman announced the new party on May 6, some media outlets started to link Vasadze with Namakhvani protests. Below are some of the examples we found on the internet.
Social Media Campaigns
Several social media pages have emerged lately targeting the Rioni Valley cause. The most prominent of them is Rioni Valley Youth Movement, a Facebook page created on December 28, 2020, after the protests entered the active phase.
The page, which currently has five thousand followers, regularly shares media pieces, expert opinions, but also satirical content discrediting Namakhvani protests and their leaders. It is designed to closely resemble the Save Rioni Valley page run by Rioni Valley Movement, and those looking for information about the protests may easily mix up the two.
The content shared by Protectors of Truth, a relatively new Facebook page created on April 27, 2021, also openly and exclusively targets the Rioni Valley protests and its leaders, particularly Varlam Goletiani, a 28-year-old charismatic activist that was propelled into the spotlight amid the protests.
Patriots’ Union Iberia, in turn, is a Facebook page created in August 2020 that has been regularly posting visual content about prominent Georgians. Recently, however, the page ran sponsored ads pointing at the links between Vasadze, far-right groups, and the Rioni Valley movement. The advertised cards also try to portray the rallies of May 16 and May 23 as two events with a single cause.
TV and Online Media Outlets
In a 9 minutes-long journalistic piece, Imedi TV which has an openly pro-governmental editorial line, slammed anti-HPP stances as “anti-development,” arguing they are based on “false calculations” and are “willingly or not” feeding the interests of Russia, which is against Georgia’s energy independence.
The Imedi TV piece also pointed to Vasadze’s vocal stance against the Namakhvani HPP and his stated support for ongoing protests, painting him as someone “who is as happy about the Rioni Valley developments as is the Northern neighbor [Russia].” This fact will not change “no matter how much we talk, claim that” he has nothing to do with the processes unfolding in Rioni Valley, the piece added.
In the May 6 dated article, Newpost.ge, a Georgian online media outlet with over 700,000 followers on Facebook, suggests Vasadze’s May 16 rally may be a “rehearsal” for the May 23 demonstration. It went further claiming Goletiani is to be among the top figures on Vasadze’s new political team. The article then referred to social media rumors alleging that the Vasadze and Namakhvani protests “coincide” in time because they share the political cause.
Pia.ge, another Georgian online news agency with over 100,000 Facebook followers, also published a similar article on May 6 with a headline reading: “From no-to-HPPs to down with the government – the common idea of ‘Alt-Info’ and ‘Rioni Valley Movement’ and their unity against the government.”
The article bases allegations on the stance of the groups who openly support both ultra-nationalist and anti-HPP causes, and draws attention to “clearly Russian and post-Soviet red lines” behind Namakhvani protests.
What Do Activists Say
Ever since the Namakhvani protests came into the spotlight, the Rioni Valley Movement had to struggle with xenophobia and right-wing labels towards the cause, including from government officials and some opposition politicians.
The allegations are usually based on reports that ultra-nationalist groups, including those linked to Alt-Info, express strong support for Rioni Valley protests while channeling this support into their characteristically anti-Turkish, xenophobic discourse. Turkey-based ENKA company, the largest investor in the HPP project, is usually directly targeted.
Leaders of the Rioni Valley Movement have continuously and vocally distanced themselves from xenophobic stances and repeatedly called against the involvement of politicians or political parties in the protest. The activists, who currently hold meetings in various parts of the country in preparation for the May 23 rally, also denied any plans for joining forces with Vasadze.
Follow our Namakhvani HPP tag for relevant updates about ongoing protests.