On November 8, 2023, the European Commission recommended that Georgia be granted the status of a candidate country for the European Union. As a prerequisite for accession negotiations, one of the specified conditions is that Georgia must actively combat disinformation and foreign information manipulation. The country is required to counter disinformation directed against the European Union and its core values.
This article was prepared under the PMCG project “Challenges of modern disinformation under the presence of foreign military forces” by Nana Tchanturia.
This condition became necessary, among other things, because instead of fighting Russian disinformation, the Georgian government has been repeating some of the Kremlin’s narratives and building an alliance with one of its main ideological allies in Europe, Viktor Orbán.
Propaganda is a weapon in the hands of the Kremlin. It dulls critical thinking by appealing to the base emotions. It is also used to persecute journalists and civil activists who resist the Kremlin’s propaganda manipulations and try to fill the Russian information vacuum.
Georgian Government’s Inaction in Combating Disinformation
Russian disinformation in Georgia is a significant challenge with deep historical and geopolitical roots. Disinformation campaigns lead to the polarization of Georgian society and foment mistrust in the political spectrum, which hurts the quality of democracy in the country.
Russia views Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations with alarm. Consequently, disinformation campaigns portray these aspirations as detrimental to Georgia’s values and national interests.
ISFED’s monitoring from October 2021 to April 2023 showed that the Georgian government pays insufficient attention to Russian propaganda. For example, only a few posts on the social media pages of government stratcoms are devoted to hybrid threats emanating from Russia. Most of it is dedicated to criticizing media reports and media critical of the ruling party.
Georgia is particularly vulnerable to Russian propaganda because some of the local political forces carry the anti-Western, anti-liberal, nativist, and conspirationist discourses that provide fertile ground for the spread of the Kremlin’s narrative. To make matters worse, the current ruling party increasingly appropriates the political narrative the ultra-conservative groups – both domestic and foreign.
Guarding Traditional Values
The ideological and narrative lines of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda align with the ideology of far-right, pro-Kremlin, nationalist, and radical Orthodox groups. This helps Russia shape, reinforce and amplify the local actors, that portray the West and “liberal ideology” as contradictory to Georgian cultural values and historical consciousness. In Georgia, far-right groups often appeal to the dangers of “losing Georgian identity” and favor an alliance with conservative Russia, which “shares common values” and opposes the West.
The Russian disinformation machinery frequently exploits traditionalist values in Georgia, particularly in its messaging against women and the queer community. According to the report on anti-Georgian and anti-LGBTQI+ mobilization in Georgia published by the Media Development Fund (MDF), most of the messages on the topic of values on the social network are anti-Western in content. In these messages, Kremlin actors portray Orthodox Russia as a counterweight to the West, which is fighting for the “LGBTization” of the world. Family issues are dominated by messages about abortion, in which all forms of abortion are considered a “sin” and “murder.” Liberals and queer people, as well as “propaganda of homosexuality” are caricatured as threats to children.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili often exploits the “traditional sentiment” associated with pro-Kremlin groups. A recent example was his comments on education reform, where he highlighted the perceived threat of “changing the Georgian DNA” through a liberal education program. The prime minister attributed this initiative to the previous government.
Waltz with Orbán
Most Georgians balk at reusing the Russian narratives, so the ruling party and its affiliated media have increasingly resorted to using the statements of European ultra-conservatives. They try to align themselves with this faction by presenting it as a kind of “alternative Europe”.
The most obvious example of this was PM Garibashvili’s speech at the annual conference of the conservative political movement organized by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on May 4, where he focused on traditional values, family and Christian religion. This speech cost “Georgian Dream” the associate membership of the mainstream European family of political parties, the European Socialists.
Orbán, especially after winning the 2010 parliamentary elections in Hungary, is building an ideology focused on traditional and “family values” and calling himself the so-called leader of “illiberal Europe.” He has a powerful propaganda machine, through state-controlled traditional media and social media, especially Facebook. This machine is aimed at undermining women in politics, democracy, women’s rights and liberal values. Orbán is increasingly positioning himself as the global leader of the “anti-gender” movement, building strong ties with far-right movements around the world and providing ideological support to Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Europe.
At the May 4 conference, Prime Minister Garibashvili described Orbán as a person who “protects the interests of his brave nation Hungary, stands on guard for fundamental values, and is truly an exemplary politician, a Christian fighting man.” The alliance with a political figure known for promoting radical ideologies and demonstrating loyalty to Russian interests is of great concern to Georgia’s European partners.
The Orbanist views also spill over into foreign policy. Both international partners and local NGOs criticize the ruling party and the government for its ambiguous position on Russia in the context of its aggression against Ukraine and for inaction against accompanying disinformation. At the very beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, PM Garibashvili artued the sanctions against Russia were ineffective, and took up the Kremlin narrative of “punishment of Ukraine” for its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. After that, Tbilisi tried to maintain as neutral a position as possible toward Russia, which lent it praise from the Russian politicians and propagandists.
It is imperative for Georgia to implement comprehensive countermeasures against Russia’s ideological tactics in order to safeguard democratic institutions, foster community unity, and uphold Euro-Atlantic integration aspirations. This is especially crucial in the run-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections, as the Russian propaganda machine aims to undermine democratic processes, emotionally influence voters, and use various levers it holds in occupied Georgian territories to manipulate public opinion.
Countering the influx of Russian disinformation is unlikely due to the ruling party’s electoral interests and foreign alliances. However, this goal is explicitly stated in policy documents as the responsibility of the civil service. In 2024, it appears that the media, civil organizations, and ordinary citizens will play a frontline role in combating Russian disinformation. Establishing closer cooperation with European partners is crucial, in line with the recommendations of the European Commission.