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From a Pro-Russian to a Pro-Georgian Narrative

Article by Nata Dzvelishvili

July 18, 2018

From a Pro-Russian to a Pro-Georgian Narrative

The 2018 State Security Service of Georgia report[1]  set out  for the first time, the major objectives of ‘foreign intelligence services’ in Georgia:

  • to encourage anti-Western sentiments in Georgian society;
  • to damage Georgia’s image as a reliable partner at an international level;
  • to stimulate distrust, uncertainty, hopelessness and nihilism in society;
  • to create the grounds for destabilization on ethnic and religious grounds, with the aim to cultivate disintegration processes throughout the country and to promote the polarization of Georgian society.

The State Security Service report suggested that a ‘propagandist media campaign and the disinformation components’ are some of the tools for the implementation of those goals, and added ‘foreign intelligence services attempt to establish expert scientific-research centers and agencies, to affect public opinion and disseminate disinformation’.

A comprehensive list of these centers and media organizations were revealed in a study[2] published in 2015. Two organizations, the Eurasian Institute and Eurasian Choice, were the main pro-Russian organizations in Georgia. The founders of these organizations are also in charge of other organizations. The aforementioned organizations pursued their activity in two directions. The Eurasian Institute is mainly engaged in an analytical activity and the organization of conferences and seminars, whereas Eurasian Choice carries out more proactive activities by holding various rallies and demonstrations in support of the membership of the Eurasian Union. Both of them portray Russia as a partner and friend.

But today, the pro-Russian narrative has been rebranded as ‘pro-Georgian’, yet its objective still discredits the West and stimulates Euroscepticism. Some pro-Russian NGOs stopped functioning, while the number of media organizations remains unchanged. However, there is an apparent increase in Facebook pages that promote anti-Western sentiment, focusing on the cultivation of nationalist ideas and using the fear of losing national values and traditions to distribute anti-Western information, which is mostly groundless homophobic and xenophobic misinformation. However, the growth of nationalist aspirations has affected public attitudes and driven legislative changes.

  1. NGOs

Throughout the years the Eurasian Institute has been a popular pro-Russian NGO, expressing a positive attitude towards Russia and discussing the improvement of Russian-Georgian relations. There are also many other organizations such as Global Research Center, Club of Young Political Scientists, and Center for Globalization Issues which are associated with Eurasian Institute and participated in the joint conferences and organized study tours in Russia, as well as some other activities. However, they have not succeeded in becoming stronger and gaining influence. Moreover, some of these organisations have stopped functioning, while the rest have not engaged in public activities with other civil society members for a long time.

The information published by Eurasian Institute on its website, on December 21 2017, stated that the management of the Institute and its regional representatives decided to suspend the active work of the institution. Head of Eurasian Institute, Gulbaat Rtskhiladze, expressed dissatisfaction with the inactivity on the Russian side, particularly with the functioning of the Russian World Foundation (Russky Mir), the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Support Foundation, Yevgeny Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center and Sputnik Georgia. He said that Russian World could not go beyond Russian language courses,and called the activity of the Gorchakov Fund ‘beating the air’, as the Fund had spent considerable funds sending  anti-Russian Georgian-based journalists on a trip to Russia including Moscow and Grozny, but only received mocking  articles and reports in return[3].

Overall, Eurasian Institute has failed to raise funds, while its members have neither participated in expert debates nor invited to comment on issues by the media. That became the reason for the suspension of its activities. In 2018 there has been no public activity on the part of other pro-Russian organizations associated with Eurasian Institute, such as the Global Research Center, the Club of Young Political Scientists, and the Center for Globalization Issues.

2. Russian foundations in Georgia

As with the Eurasian Institute, the pro-Russian website Saqinform.ge has also published materials criticizing Russian foundations as well, saying that ‘Russian soft power doesn’t actually exist, as the efficiency of the virtual activity of those organizations in Georgia is near zero’. Even though these Russian-funded organizations have essentially ceased functioning, the activity of Russian foundations persists in Georgia implementing various small-scale projects.

Russky Mir is one of the major foundations, still active in Georgia, set up[4] in 2007 by order of the President of the Russian Federation to popularize the Russian language ‘as Russian national heritage and an important cultural element of the world’. Russky Mir has been financing Russian language courses for many years in Georgia and continues to be active in the cultural field. For instance, it sponsored an essay contest for the Russia-Georgia Youth Organization, founded by Irakli (Merab) Kipiani in 2017. Kipiani is a former member of Eurasian Institute known for his pro-Russian statements. The winner of the essay contest could win a visit to Moscow. This organization was going to import chocolate with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image. According to Irakli Kipiani, he supported Vladimir Putin in the March 18th 2018 elections, and the chocolate portraying the Russian leader symbolized that support[5]. However, the chocolates didn’t make it to the Georgian market. The other activity of the organization remains unknown to the public, except for commemorating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with flowers. Their social network page has 600 likes and shows little activity.

Another organizations supported by Russky Mir is the Cultural and Educational Union called the Russian Club. Founded in 2003, it has been organizing cultural evenings over the years in an effort to establish friendly relations between Russia and Georgia[6]. The Russian Club is headed by Nikoloz Sventitsky, who is also the director of the Griboedov Theatre in Tbilisi and chairman of the Coordination Council of the Russian Compatriots’ Organization. During his press conference Sventitsky told the audience about possibilities for Georgian applicants to get free education at Russian universities[7] and other opportunities. Russky Mir conducts Dictation contest in partnership with this organization. The event is aimed at enhancing the knowledge of Russian language. In 2018, only 50 applicants participated in the contest, which is significantly smaller compared to over 100 participants in 2017[8].

Lika (Anzhelika) Zakharova who represents various organizations also collaborates with Russky Mir. The most active of these organizations is the National Congress of Slavic People, which holds discussions about the Russian language.  This organization arranged on May 9th 2018 the march of the Immortal Regiment in honor of the victory in the so-called Great Patriotic War (World War II) in various cities of Georgia, using the officially banned Soviet symbols during the rally, which resulted in conflict with the locals.  It was Lika Zakharova whom the editor of pro-Russian Saqinform, Arno Khidirbegishvili, accused of hampering ‘the spread of propaganda’, and called ‘Muscovites and their Georgian partners corrupted thieves that steal funds destined for Russian propaganda’[9].

Another Russian foundation which works in Georgia is The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund. It was founded in 2010 by decree of the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The fund’s board of trustees embraces Russian politicians and businessmen.  Similar to other foundations, the Gorchakov Fund has not stepped up the scale of its activity. Its main partner in Georgia is the Yevgeny Primakov Russian-Georgian Public Center which was founded in 2013, initially called the Russian- Georgian Public Center. In November 2017 Dimitri Lortkipanidze became the new head of the organization. Lortkipanidze a politician from the Democratic Movement[10] known for his anti-Western narrative, and is associated with Georgian March-an organization expressing fascist and nationalistic rhetoric. The Russian-Georgian Public Center is basically engaged in a limited number of activities. For instance, it offered free Russian language courses to young people, hosted war veterans on May 9, delivered a series of lectures on ‘Russian-Georgian relations in the context of the US and Europe’, the Karabakh conflict, tourism, investment policy, etc. These lectures have not reached any significant scale.

  1. Media

Studies show that Georgian-language media is the main distributor of anti-Western narratives in the country[11], as Russian-language media lacks popularity in Georgia, parallel to the declining demand for foreign language media in general[12]. As in the case of NGOs, recent years have not seen the appearance of new media outlets linked to Russian foundations on expressing Russian narrative. Russian propaganda in Georgia is mainly associated with boosting anti-Western sentiments.  This is the reason why media outlets that essentially use hate speech against the Western world and foreigners concur with the Russian narrative. Such media outlets inherently try to spread hate speech, misinformation and manipulative materials.

The websites that are seen to use profuse Euroscepticism and hate speech (geworld.ge, saqinform.ge SAQINFORM.GE, RU.SAQINFORM.GE, GRUZINFORM.GE, RU.GRUZINFORM.GE) have not made progress in terms of popularity[13]. Judging by the absence of ad banners, they generate no income from advertisement.  All domains, including geworld.ge are registered to head of the Historical Heritage NGO Taras Gagnidze. Also, political scientist Alexander Chachia has been a member of the Public Council of the National Heritage since the day of its foundation. In 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev awarded Chachia with an order for “his great contribution to strengthening friendship and cooperation with the Russian Federation”.

The size of the Russian news agency Sputnik’s audience has not grown significantly in recent years. It only functions as an online media platform spreading Russian propaganda. The Georgian version (sputnik-georgia.com) ranks 160th among the websites in Georgia, with its Russian language version (sputnik-georgia.ru) in 109th place[14].

Since 2015, a few other homophobic and xenophobic websites have been established. For instance, TB24.ge and marshalpress.ge, whose founders were journalists that had worked for news portal Info9.ge that belonged to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream. The founder of marshalpress.ge, Oto Stephanishvili, was also a campaigner for Georgian Dream.  The founder of TB24, Gocha Nachkebia, is a member of the board of Public Monitoring Center along with Vladimir Bedukadze that took the spotlight after disclosing footage of inmate tortures in prison[15]. TB24 got an authorization for broadcasting but failed to start broadcasting. According to the data of the regulatory commission, the company did not have any income.  As for broadcasters, Obiektivi TV which is founded by members of the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia party remains as a homophobic and xenophobic media outlet with pro-Russian narrative[16].

  1. Facebook pages of neo-Nazi and fascist forces

The failure of NGOs and media outlets to make progress has led to those promoting illiberal values increasingly using Facebook to get their message across with their Facebook pages seeing a rapidly growing number of likes.  And even though the content distributed by those pages do not portray Russia as a positive power, describing it as an enemy (a sensible tactic given the lingering resentment following the 2008 war), their basic narrative nonetheless complies with the primary messages of Russian propaganda- that the West tries to destroy national identity. Consequently, recent cases witness the transformation of anti-Western sentiments into a nationalist narrative, with the appearance of groups generally organized through social networks and trying to discredit the West with their content, accusing it of assaulting national values, traditions and identity, and striving to impose homosexuality. This is why they promote racist, xenophobic and homophobic sentiments.

The protest rallies following the police crackdown on nightclubs on May 12th 2018 and May 17thInternational Day against Homophobia and Transphobia have consolidated the country’s neo-Nazi and fascist forces. They have joined forces and organized a counter-rally to stave off so-called ‘LGBT propaganda’ and protect ‘nationality’, fear of which was given by police as the reason for preventing a subsequent rally by liberal opponents of the polices behaviour and supporters of drug liberalisation. The Interior Minister informed the organizers of this rally of the government’s inability to stop the counter-effort of fascist and neo-Nazi forces and asked them to cancel the rally in order to prevent further clashes.  They were then taken away by police-escorted buses from the location, which was later taken over by the neo-Nazi and fascist forces.

A few days later the activists were unable to celebrate International Day against Homophobia on May 17, as they had no security guarantees from the authorities. As a result, neo-Nazi and fascist forces once again managed to occupy Rustaveli Avenue.  The groups actively employ dozens of pages on social networks mostly created after 2017. These pages are used for spreading their particular narrative and for organizing rallies, as well as for sharing videos and arrangement of events. Currently, their content has thousands of views. The pages often stress their goal to win the information war for against, the liberally thinking society. Some pages manage to increase the number of likes by 2-3 thousand a month.

These pages were banned by Facebook administrators in May 2018. Soon they re-opened

Neo-Nazi forces start to show up in Georgia since 2015 with the appearance of Georgian Power, followed by the creation of Georgian March, which has been an active organization since 2017. Both staged protests with xenophobic appeals. Georgian Power is a more ideology-oriented entity backed up by the youth, while Georgian March is ruled by former politicians and individuals expressing pro-Russian views (Dimitri Lortkipanidze, Sandro Bregadze, Guram Palavandishvili). They have good relations with Levan Vasadze, a businessman with a Russian background who is also lashing out at the so-called LGBT propaganda.

Though the narrative of the nationalist powers comply with Russian propaganda, it’s difficult to prove that they are funded by the Kremlin.  However, it’s evident that Georgian March is similar to the xenophobic marches in Ukraine, Russian and Moldova, therefore it is obvious that they have similar agendas. And the fact of its leadership being comprised of former politicians with obvious pro-Russian views confirms these doubts.

As for Georgian Power, its leader is Nikoloz Burnadze, a US citizen living in the USA, which criticizes Georgian March, saying that pro-Russian people manage this organization, which is unacceptable to him.

A fascist organization Georgian National Unity popped up in 2016, and has already managed to conduct a number of demonstrations with xenophobic messages. Regardless of the differences, all three groups (Georgian March, Georgian Power and Georgian National Unity have consolidated under a national idea of ‘fighting against LGBT propaganda’. They engaged dozens of their Facebook pages to organize their protests.

The page Iberian Unity was created in 2017 and became proactive in 2018. It promotes neo-Nazi ideas and claims that users with pro-Russian or pro-Turkey ideas will be blocked. The page shares posts of other anti-liberal pages, supports demonstrations against LGBT people.

Another Facebook large page, the Anti-Liberal Club, appeared in 2015 and has approximately 44K followers posting homophobic and xenophobic’ statuses’ using disinformation and manipulation. The administrator of the page is Shota Martinenko, who also owns web site altinfo.com, which is used for distributing anti- liberal opinions. Its articles are shared by above-mentioned pages.

Georgian Idea is the Facebook page of a political party with the same title founded in 2014 and participated in 2016 parliamentary elections. The leader is Levan Chachua, who was arrested after a fight at TV Kavkasia in 2010. 3 years later he was released as a political prisoner.  Georgian Idea cooperates with Georgian March and other neo Nazi groups, participating in homophobic and xenophobic demonstrations.

  1. Change of popular sentiments and legislative regulations

The new ‘pro-Georgian’ narrative basically relies on the fear of losing traditions and national identity, and has manifested itself in two directions- an increasingly negative attitude for foreigners and the ‘protection of families’ from LGBT propaganda. Both issues have translated into particular activities and have also affected the policies of decision makers. Moreover, an entry appeared in the constitution in 2017 defining agricultural land as a resource of special importance that can only be owned by a Georgian citizen, thus precluding foreigners from the acquisition of land in the country. Another entry defined the marriage as a union between man and woman, and being the only kind of union that entitles to marriage-related civil rights. These restrictions did not exist in the Georgian constitution until 2017.[17]

NGOs, media outlets and neo Nazi forces discussed support both, for the protection of Georgian land and the consolidation of heterosexual families. The sharp increase in negative popular attitude for foreigners can be clearly seen in corresponding studies. Period between 2015 and 2017 saw the increase of people dissatisfied with foreigners staying in Georgia over three months from 5 to 16 percent [18], and the number considering Georgian land exclusive property of Georgian citizens, regardless of the type of use, increased from 41 to 64 percent[19].

The Orthodox Church of Georgia has also contributed to the protection of Georgian national values in the fight against LGBT propaganda by declaring May 17, commonly associated with International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, as the International Family Sanctity Day. The decision was preceded by violent actions by Orthodox believers and clergy against LGBT rights defenders.  May 17 has never been celebrated without incidents in Georgia. The already high number (71 percent) of people believing that the proper citizen must protect traditions has increased by 5 percent[20].

The overall increase of negative attitude against foreign citizens and the growing fear of losing traditions, which in turn boosts reluctance towards the Western world, also revealed itself in 2017 data suggesting an increase in the number of people opposing Georgia’s accession to the EU. The number dropped in 2018 and stopped at 15 percent and one of the main reason for 14% is the fear of losing national identity.

Unlike in other post-Soviet countries, it’s very difficult to create an image of ‘saviour’ from Russia, as it had occupied 20 percent of Georgian territory. This is why explicitly pro-Russian organizations and media outlets have failed as ‘shapers’ of popular opinion, having instead turned into marginal groups. The main objective – slurring the West and boosting Euroscepticism- now implements a new strategy, emphasizing the negativity of Europe and America, rather than Russia’s positivity.

This particular narrative is a conveyor of xenophobic and anti-liberal content that seemingly protects national identity, while in fact promoting anti-Western sentiments, which naturally implies resistance to European membership, claiming the West to be the main power that wants to strip national values and traditions. The State Security Service has recognized the peril of Russian propaganda, but has not specified the exact responsibility for the distribution of anti-Western or nihilistic sentiments in the country which has dramatically increased[21]. These organizations have clearly made certain progress in their mission. In these conditions the government’s action plan to respond the looming threats of Russian propaganda becomes ever more important.

The government and donor organizations should have common strategic view for countering propaganda and anti-western narratives. Georgian high quality media needs support, increasing their accessibility especially in the regions near the border and the occupied territories is crucial. The government should create relevant legislation to bolster media pluralism. As the main source of funding for independent high quality media is donor organizations their strategy should be renewed support and engagement. There remains a need for investment in the institutional development and sustainability of media companies and also in promoting media literacy amongst society to reduce vulnerability to media manipulation and disinformation.

Author : Nata Dzvelishvili is the executive director of Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics. Prior to this, Nata worked on media issues for NGO Institute for Development Freedom of Information (IDFI). She also was one of the authors of media criticism portal mediachecker.ge and the project coordinator of the Training Center for Liberalism. Both projects were implemented by the Charter.  From 2010-2014 Nata worked as a journalist for www.media.ge website. She is the author of several papers and studies

[1] The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia, 01.01.2017-31.12.2017 https://ssg.gov.ge/uploads/%E1%83%90%E1%83%9C%E1%83%92%E1%83%90%E1%83%A0%E1%83%98%E1%83%A8%E1%83%94%E1%83%91%E1%83%98/SSSG%20Report%202017.pdf

[2] Nata Dzvelishvili and Tazo Kupreishvili. Russian influence on Georgian NGOs, May, 2015 https://www.academia.edu/36353738/Russian_Influence_on_Georgian_NGOs_and_Media

[3] Eurasian Institute statement, December 2017 http://politforumi.com/geo/1677/evraziis-institutis-gamgeobis-shemajamebeli-kreba.html

[4] Information about the Russky Mir Foundation https://www.russkiymir.ru/en/fund/index.php

[5] Dmitry Alexandrov, Candy with the image of Putin on the label is planned to be sold in Georgia, January 2018 https://vz.ru/news/2018/1/20/904401.html

[6] Information about The Cultural and Educational Union Russian Club  http://russianclub.ge/content/view/13/38/

[7] Free learning for Georgian Students – Chances and Advices, Sputnik Georgia, February, 2018 https://sputnik-georgia.com/reviews/20180206/239202953/ufaso-swavla-ruseTSi-qarTveli-abiturientebisaTvis-Sansebi-da-rCevebi.html

[8] Total Dictation 2017 – Participants and winners were awarded in Tbilisi, Sputnik Georgia, May 2017 https://sputnik-georgia.com/society/20170501/235818422/totaluri-karnaxis-shedegebi.html

[9] Arno Khidirbegishvili: Moscow pests (in Georgian), 2018, http://saqinform.ge/news/36195/arno+xidirbegishvili%3A+moskoveli+mavneblebi.html

[10] The centre-right opposition party headed by Nino Burjanadze with a notably pro-Russian orientation

[11]  Anti-Western propaganda, Media Development Fund, 2017 http://mdfgeorgia.ge/uploads/library/89/file/anti_dasavluri_propaganda_2017_-_GEO.pdf

[12] Gela Bochikashvili, trust and source of information – tendencies based on NDI polls, mediachecker.ge, May, 2018 https://www.mediachecker.ge/ka/mediagaremo/mimokhilva/article/52005-informaciis-mighebis-gzebi-da-gavlena-tendenciebi-ndi-s-mikhedvith

[13] Geworld.ge rates 1076 among Georgian websites, saqinform.ge -2650.

[14] Source: www. alexa.com

[15] Bedukadze served at No.8 establishment of the penitentiary department and recorded inmate tortures, and was also accused of participating in the violence. He was later released on plea bargain, as he noticeably contributed to the victory of Georgian Dream by releasing the so-called prison footage in the pre-election period.

[16] The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, Results of Media Monitoring for the 2017 Local Self-Government Elections in Georgia, December 2017 http://mediamonitor.ge/uploads_script/accounts/MM_FINAL_REPORT_2017_ENG.pdf

[17] Constitution of Georgia, article 31, https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/view/30346

[18] The Caucasus Research Resource Centers, Caucasus Barometer 2015/2017 http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/cb2015ge/IMMIGATT/

[19] The Caucasus Research Resource Centers. Knowledge of and attitudes toward the EU in Georgia, 2015/2017 http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/eu2017ge/LANDOWN/

[20] The Caucasus Research Resource Centers, Caucasus Barometer 2017 http://caucasusbarometer.org/en/eu2017ge/ICITTRAD/

[21] International Republic Institute, Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Georgia, April, 2018 http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2018-5-29_georgia_poll_presentation.pdf

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