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Georgia’s international promotion during the United National Movement and Georgian Dream eras

Article by Ana Dvali and Revaz Koiava

March 21, 2017

Georgia’s international promotion during the United National Movement and Georgian Dream eras

Georgian government efforts to improve and promote the country’s international image have both political and economic dimensions. As Euro-Atlantic integration has become a major theme of the Georgian political agenda, the government has sought international support for the country’s integration into Western structures. The economic dimension is equally important, because Georgia’s two major political parties, United National Movement (UNM) and the Georgian Dream (GD), both consider direct foreign investments and tourism development as key to economic growth. Respectively, both UNM- and GD-led governments used public relations campaigns as a foreign policy tool of choice to promote the country’s international image, though their tactics and the scale of their efforts in this direction greatly differ.

 

UNM and the national branding build-up

After the 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’, the Georgian government set very ambitious goals, which required the intensification of efforts to promote the country’s international image, alongside radical reforms within the country. The United National Movement (UNM) Government’s national branding and international promotion policy was largely determined by the personality of the President, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was directly involved in policy planning and implementation. The vertical organisation of executive power and the government’s control over mass media allowed the UNM government to tailor the country’s international image in accordance with the political elite’s plans and priorities.

 

The great focus of the UNM on nation branding and international promotion drew frequent criticism from the opposition and part of the public, mainly because the image of Georgia that UNM strove to create was a far from the real situation in the country, especially with regard to economic conditions, the level of democratisation, protection of human rights and media freedom. Another reason for public frustration was that, against the backdrop of the economic hardship that a majority of Georgian citizens had to endure, the amount of money that the UNM government poured into these programmes was largely perceived as a wasteful use of public funds that could have been spent more beneficially for the people. However, UNM representatives usually cite the following reasons to justify their branding/promotion policy:

 

  1. Firstly, it was essential to erase the perception of Georgia as a post-Soviet country. Prior to the Rose Revolution, Georgia was often viewed as a failed state. As a result, the UNM government made institutional development and state building its top priority. Along with institutional reforms, another important goal of the government was to inform the international community about its ambitious reform agenda.

 

  1. Secondly, it was necessary to present Georgia as part of Western civilization in order to smooth the country’s path towards integration into – and eventual membership of – Western structures. The UNM national branding policy was based on the narrative that Georgia’s 1991 declaration of independence was the first step on its way to return to its ‘European home‘, and that the country actually started moving towards the goal in 2003. To fulfil its objectives, UNM needed to portray Georgia as a pro-Western, democratic nation.

 

Georgia – ‘the beacon of democracy’ and a reformist country

Due to Georgia’s Soviet legacy, the country has little experience of democracy. Therefore, the new government, which took power in the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution, attracted great attention and fuelled heightened expectations. Immediately after taking office, the UNM government ‘rolled up its sleeves’ and launched an intense effort to create an image of Georgia as a democratic and reformist country. Given the lack of democracy in neighbouring countries and the other countries of the region, Georgia’s efforts to establish democracy was a rather ‘exotic’ regional phenomenon. UNM took advantage of this niche and used it as one of the main instruments in its international public relations (PR) policy. In addition, UNM representatives and Mikheil Saakashvili often cited international rating agencies, most often the World Bank Doing Business reports and Freedom House Country Reports, both to drive its point home and to prove its efficiency in the eyes of the international community.[1]

 

The reforms were used as another significant international PR instrument for the UNM government. Police reform, reorganisation of public services, and economic improvements were at the forefront of the government’s publicity campaign.[2] According to a personal interview with a former official of the National Security Council, two policy areas were major priorities: firstly, to share experiences, and in some cases ‘export’ reforms to other post–Soviet countries, and secondly, to represent Georgia as a reformist and democratic state to Western countries.

 

Obviously, international ratings do not reflect the full picture of democratic processes in a country. Accurate assessment of democratic development requires much more than to measure democracy and its components on the basis of an international organisation’s pre-defined indicators. However, international ratings can be instrumental in promoting a country’s image in the international arena. The democratic image of Georgia that the UNM government tried to promote was in stark contrast to the real situation, which was brought to light in the later years of the UNM administration such as the 2012 prison scandal and subsequent events.[3]

 

Unlike its predecessor, the Georgian Dream (GD) government pays much less attention to international ratings, even though some international agencies have upgraded Georgia’s rating in certain areas. For instance, after 2012 Georgia has consistently received a rating of 3 (where a score of 1 represents the highest level of democratic freedom and 7 the lowest level) in Freedom House surveys, as opposed to scores of 3.5 and 4 during the second term of UNM rule (2008-2012). According to Transparency International, the country’s performance in the Corruption Perception Index has also improved.[4] The GD government’s shift of focus away from the international PR campaigns can be explained by two factors: Firstly GD was one of the most outspoken critics of the UNM government’s excessive penchant for PR campaigns, which it said were out of touch with reality; secondly GD is reluctant to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, because it is well aware that such a policy can backfire. UNM’s overzealous international publicity campaign turned a blind eye to the country’s domestic problems and deeply annoyed the Georgian public, which eventually led to growing public indignation.

 

Post-war strategy

The 2008 war had a significant impact on the government’s national branding and international PR policy. As a result of the war with Russia and the economic crisis that ensued, the UNM government faced new challenges. After the war, Russia began laying the groundwork for recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia (SO) as independent states. The Georgian government responded with a new foreign policy initiative – non-recognition policy – and intensified its efforts to win support not only from Western nations, but also from Latin American and African countries (as Russia succeeded in persuading several countries[5] from these regions to recognise Abkhazia’s and SO’s independence). For instance, the government opened Georgian embassies and consular services in Latin America and Africa, to try to prevent more countries from recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

 

During and after the 2008 war, amid Russia’s anti-Georgian propaganda, Tbilisi has increased its cooperation with Western (mainly American) lobbying companies in order to promote Georgia’s positive international image, attract world media attention to Georgia’s situation and establish communication lines between the Georgian ruling elite and US decision-makers.

 

According to Institute for Development of Freedom of Information research, based on lobbying companies’ reports to US Congress, the Georgian government paid around $7 million (USD) from public funds (mainly from the National Security Council budget) for the services of lobbying firms between 2008 and 2012, and $2.6 million USD in 2013-2015 (GD government).[6] After the 2012 elections, the government curtailed public funding for lobbying activities. However, according to news agency Netgazeti, GD employed contract lobbying services in the USA during election campaigns[7] that means the government is using lobbying mainly to support its party.

 

 

 

Economic dimension – tourism and investments

The economic dimension of national branding and international promotion policies has gained more prominence since the 2009 economic crisis. While before the 2008 conflict, UNM was anxious to create and promote Georgia’s image as a democratic and reformist country, the post-war economic recession forced it to rethink its priorities and make economic recovery a centrepiece of its policy. Priorities were therefore shifted towards measures to facilitate tourism development and attract foreign investment. To achieve its objectives, the government enacted massive economic liberalisation. Free trade agreements were signed with many foreign countries, and taxes were cut to one of the lowest levels in the world during the period of UNM rule. In addition, the government greatly eased labour regulations, giving employers a free hand in deciding employment terms: hiring/dismissals, the number of working hours a day, and wages for normal and extra working hours. The main motivation for these changes was to create a comfortable environment for foreign investors. The Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Georgian embassies) were actively involved in the effort to attract as much foreign investment as possible. All Georgian ambassadors were instructed to do their best to encourage foreign investors to invest in Georgia. It is noteworthy that the need for foreign investments prompted the government to interact and communicate more actively with Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. Despite the growth in foreign investment[8], its importance was exaggerated, as the economic conditions of the Georgian residents and the unemployment rate remained largely unchanged. According to official data, the share of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Georgia’s GDP in 2007-2012 ranged from 19% (the highpoint in 2007) to 6% (average during 2009-2012)[9].

 

Since 2003, as part of its international promotion policy, the government has made substantial efforts to present Georgia as a country of great tourism potential. Tourism became a priority economic sector under the UNM Government. The Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA) was created as one of the mechanisms to increase Georgia’s popularity abroad.To attract tourists to the country, GNTA actively employs TV and online video ads about Georgia, and takes part in various international exhibitions. It also assists Georgian tourism companies to help them improve their communication and cooperation with their foreign partners. The main target regions of the GNTA’s tourism development strategy are post-Soviet, neighbouring and Middle Eastern countries; this represents a clear deviation from the UNM government’s course, which tended to prioritise tourists from Europe and North America. Another visible difference is that the UNM government had a major focus on TV advertisements, while today, the greater focus is on social and digital media.

 

The GD government continues down the same path in terms of tourism development. The GNTA budget and apparatus has been steadily increasing in recent years, doubling employee numbers, (the budget was increased from 10 416 990 GEL in 2011 to 22 963 000 GEL in 2016), a clear indication that tourism development remains high on the government’s priority list.[10] The tourism industry is one of the main sectors of the Georgian economy. The number of foreign tourists visiting Georgia has been steadily growing in recent years. According to official data, 5 million more tourists arrived in Georgia in 2015 than in the previous year, a 2.2% increase.[11]

 

Conclusions

The current government’s PR policy is much less aggressive than the PR policy of its predecessors. In the UNM government, decisions were made on the highest political level. However, from 2012-2016, decisions were made differently: GD, as a coalition of very diverse groups, struggled to agree and implement a coherent strategy in many aspects. It is important also to note that the national branding policy used to be personally directed by Mikheil Saakashvili. This aspect, together with the centralised political system, eased the decision-making process. It remains to be seen, however, whether the GD is willing to embrace its predecessor’s approach and carry out a national branding and promotion campaign similar to the UNM’s. The international promotion of Georgia was a top priority for the UNM government, which channelled substantial funds into its PR campaigns (including payments for lobbying firms and international TV ads). The current government has focused mostly on traditional diplomacy with less spending on various aspects of public relations, trying to be less salient in the international arena regarding their positions on political issues.

[1] Internet.GE, Georgia in 9th place in the Doing Business ratings, October 2012, http://www.internet.ge/?l=GE&m=2&sm=0&ID=13832

[2] Mikheil Saakashvili – Georgia is in Highest League of World Championship in Doing Business, October 2009, http://www.interpressnews.ge/en/politicss/11135-mkhe-sksh–geog-s-n-hghest-legue-of-wod-chmponshp-n-dong-busness.html?ar=A

[3] Leaked videos of torture and harsh treatment of inmates.

[4] Freedom in the World, Freedom House 2017 report https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_FIW_2017_Report_Final.pdf

[5] Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru.

[6] Georgia’s lobbying activities in USA, 2008-2015, Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, p.11, https://idfi.ge/ge/lobbying-georgia-usa-2008-2015

[7] Net Gazeti, Georgian Dream’s contracts with American lobbyists during election campaign, January 2017, http://netgazeti.ge/news/168332/

[8] From 1996 to 2003, the foreign direct investment ranged from 82.2 to 265.3 million USD, in contrast to UNM period, when the FDI ranged from 499.1 to 2015 million USD.

[9] Geostat (National Statistics Office of Georgia), August.2013, http://www.geostat.ge/cms/site_images/_files/georgian/bop/FDI-2012-GEO-.pdf

[10] Caucasus Business Week, Georgia is Attractive Tourism Destination for All Four Seasons; November 2015;

http://cbw.ge/economy/georgia-is-attractive-tourism-destination-for-all-four-seasons/

[11] Tabula, The year of 2015 saw an increase of tourists by 2.2 percent in Georgia, January 2016, http://www.tabula.ge/ge/story/103466-2015-tsels-saqartveloshi-shemosuli-turistebis-raodenoba-22-it-gaizarda

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