28 June 2019

Russia is losing the battle for Georgia’s future

By Kato Kopaleishvili

“I’m here to send a message to the Kremlin — we will not surrender and we are not buying their political manipulations!” said one of the young protesters to me as I was filming the anti-occupation protests in Tbilisi, Georgia, this week.

Russia’s hybrid warfare is well known to Western audiences. Interference in elections, poisoning of former spies on foreign soil, fake news, funding for radical parties — these are all tools employed by the Kremlin to destabilise the West and polarise its politics. The strategy encompasses political, military, economic and cultural elements — it attacks on all fronts and aims to cause confusion, mistrust and social unrest.

In countries that it considers as part of its “legitimate spheres of influence”, the Kremlin employs the concept of “Ruskiy Mir” (Russian World) — emphasising historical and religious ties to foster anti-Western sentiments and portray the West as incompatible with conservative and Orthodox values. As Maria Snegovaya rightly underlines in her CEPA report, Putin capitalises on Soviet nostalgia, by putting forward “the so-called ‘brotherly’ or ‘fraternal’ people united by culture and language”. He has done so for years and done so quite successfully.

However, the recent protests in Tbilisi suggest that Russia has overplayed its hand.

The protests started on June 20, when Russian Communist MP Sergei Gavrilov, was invited by the Georgian Dream government to chair an Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian Parliament from the seat of the Chairman. This caused public outrage. While Russia occupies 20 per cent of Georgian territory, Gavrilov, who has supported the independence of the occupied regions and fought against Georgia in the 1990s, sat in one of the most powerful seats of the democratically elected parliament advocating in Russian closer ties between the two countries and emphasising their shared religion.

The government officials stated that it was a “protocol mistake”; Georgians weren’t buying it. Thousands protested on Thursday evening, with EU flags and “Stop Russia” shirts.

The Georgian Dream (GD) government, in power since 2012, has tried to balance normalising relations with Russia and satisfying pro-Western citizens, which constitute an overwhelming majority of the population. Dissatisfaction with the government runs high, while worries that it does not fight Russian propaganda robustly enough continue to grow.

Despite the violent crackdown of the anti-occupation protests, Georgian youth activists, civil society members, and journalists have been kept going for eight days now. Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made his money in Russia and the Chairman of Georgia Dream party, has satisfied two of the protestors’ demands. After these victories, the protests continue, with peaceful protesters demanding the resignation of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, whilst playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Georgia’s national anthem.

It’s a slap in the face for Putin, who for years now, has not only used military and economic instruments but also culture and identity to influence the politics of Russia’s small pro-Western neighbour. In reaction to protests, Putin announced a suspension of Russia-Georgia flights and called for the return of all Russian tourists travelling in Georgia. The decree will hit the Georgian economy, as Russian tourists do constitute a majority in Georgia’s tourism industry. Georgian airlines were also forbidden to fly to Russia whilst Georgian wine imports will be tightly checked. The reaction shows the Kremlin’s deep-rooted fear that it is losing influence and is failing in one of the key places.

Russian disinformation is not new — the panic in the West on ‘fake news’ is old news for countries on the frontline. In Georgia, disinformation is built on local grievances and is centered around three pillars – military, economic and cultural/religious. The Kremlin employs media, political parties, the Orthodox church, NGOs as well as radical-fascist groups to foster anti-Western sentiments by creating an image of a pervasive West and polarize a society which is still fighting a battle between establishing itself as a European liberal democracy and succumbing to Soviet legacies and Russian influences.

Anti-government and anti-Russian protests came in the midst of social tensions — in the beginning of June, as the LGBTQ activists were preparing for the first “Tbilisi pride”, the Georgian government refused to protect the security of its members, while the Church, who actively presents Russia as Georgia’s “Orthodox brother”, called for a cancellation of events planned during the LGBTQ week. Levan Vasadze, who has close ties with Russia and is also affiliated with figures such as Aleksander Dugin, called “real Georgian men” to form an army that would threaten and suppress the LGBTQ community and its supporters if they marched. Citizens were attacked for having piercings or colorful curtains in their homes.

Kremlin attempt to destabilise Georgia around the LGBTQ theme and present itself as Georgia’s “Orthodox Ally” failed, and instead the Kremlin witnessed anti-Russian youth protests in its neighbouring country. Duma deputies asked Georgia for an apology but received “Putin Khuylo” songs instead. Georgian Youth angered the Kremlin and reminded them that despite the government’s appeasing policies, the Georgian public does not want friendship or brotherly ties with a country that occupies 20 per cent of their land.

On the other hand, restoring Russia’s voting rights in the Council of Europe this week, stripped since the annexation of Crimea, sends the wrong signal to Russia’s neighbouring pro-Western countries — they need Western support and most importantly, the West needs them. If Russia is not stopped at the borders of Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics, past experience has shown that Russia, opportunistic, will continue, when it knows it can get away with it. The European political elite instead of warming relations Russia, should  have a clear integration policy for frontline countries fighting a war against the Kremlin on land and in the minds of people. Moreover, it should develop a united and comprehensive strategy to challenge the Kremlin on all fronts as economic sanctions are not enough to address the threat Russia poses.

Despite the Kremlin’s efforts and Europe’s unclear, indecisive policy, the protests have shown that Russia is not winning in Georgia, which stands strong against Russian occupation and propaganda. Kremlin’s attempts have backfired. The youth is teaching a lesson not just to Russia,  but to the GD government too – it should not play with fire when it comes to Georgian sovereignty and national interest.

Kato Kopaleishvili works at Free University, Tbilisi as a Teaching Assistant and writes for Forbes Women.