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Юлія Даниленко
Юлія Даниленко головна редакторка SPEKA
30 June 2022 10 minutes reading

«Do you want another war with Russia?» Kremlin propaganda uses fear, confusion and misdirection to shape Georgian public opinion

Before Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24th of February, 2022, there was Georgia. Russia's aggression in Georgia was not only physical (even though it was, very much so). It heavily used its propaganda to destroy opposition, confuse Georgian population and deter Georgia from joining the EU and forming independent international policies. 

SPEKA spoke with Marta Ardashelia, editor-in-chief and a founder of SOVA, an independent Georgian media outlet, about main Russian propaganda narratives and their goals in Georgia, for the SPEKcheck project. 

What are the main narratives of Russian propaganda in Georgia? Did they change before and after the 2008 war?

After the 2008 war Russian propaganda changed its strategy here in Georgia and switched their narrative to Georgian language. Before, there were a lot of media and TV channels in Russian language, and quite popular ones. 

But after 2008 Russian propaganda understood that Georgian people are not really happy about the war, so they need to change their approach. What do they do? They switch to Georgian language, and create a lot of different information sources affiliated with Russia. It's really successful here, because now Georgian people are more affected by these media. 

These media are not always openly pro-Russian, but they push the narrative of traditional values, christianity and so forth. 

Today Russian propaganda is almost identical to the narrative of our current ruling party, Georgian dream. The most visible it became after the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine. Our government has declared that we will not join anti-Russian sanctions, because we don't need or want problems with Russia. Another, the main message box is «we do not want a war with Russia». They are trying to promote the idea that support for Ukraine means war with Russia. They ask everyone who shows Ukraine some support «Do you want a war?”

And this is the continuation of the narrative Russia was promoting in 2008; it was saying like this war was personally Saakashvili's responsibility, they pushed the question «Who started the war?» In every election, this question is the first and the main one for Georgian parties. Journalists are able to identify who`s pro-Western and who`s pro-Russian based on the answer to this question. It's a sort of a universal identificator for us. 

So now this is the modification of this topic, and Georgian dream switched to another angle of the same question. «Do you want another war with Russia?»

And the thing is that in Georgia nowadays we have a kind of pro-Russian government that has the same message boxes as the Kremlin. We have two or three TV stations that are promoting a pro-Russian radical agenda. They are trying to shape Georgian public opinion in a conservative way. 

It was all created after the war in a very sophisticated, very «nice» way. And now we have a whole ecosystem of forces providing Russian narrative. It's a very tough situation. 

Do they still use fakes excessively? 

They moved the fakes to the side. I honestly really admire these guys – they are very good at what they do here in Georgia. I'm sure Georgian dreams and those channels I mentioned have Russian curators who study Georgian character, psychotype, they know what we're reflecting on and how to lead the society where they want us to go. I'm pretty sure they are doing the same in Ukraine. 

It didn't begin yesterday or even in 2008. We have a long history of Soviet influence and even before. Of course they know the behavior of our society. 

They use this vulgar principle, where they hide the fake among the true statements, then add another fake, and instill this doubt in the audience whether anything's true or not. And society that is confused, scared, that has no certain values is easier to manipulate. 

We are a small country. We do not have a huge army, and we'll never have an army like Ukraine has, because we are only 3,5 million. We couldn't win any war with Russia, of course. We need to find other ways of dealing with it. But to put it this way «Do you want a war with Russia?» is, of course, absurd. 

I'm 37, and I myself can remember four Russian-Georgian war, and the world recognizes only one of them. 

Our nation is severely traumatized. That is why Georgians are so emotional about Ukraine. Go to the streets of Tbilisi or Batumi, and you'll see Ukrainian flags everywhere.

But at the same time Russian propaganda plays on this fear of war, and I can understand the fear of a person watching the footage from Ukraine. 

Russia is also trying to compromise the West and Ukrainian government – they say «the war has been going on for more than 100 days already, and no one's come to their aid». They don't consider military aid, weapons, or political support enough. So it's how it is. 

So they say unless NATO sends its soldiers to Ukraine, it's not helping. 

Yes, this is the conservative narrative they are pushing. 

What is the audience that's the most susceptible to the Russian propaganda in Georgia? 

I do not have the exact figures, but it's mostly the 45+ rural population of Georgia. It's people who remember Soviet times when they were young and happy, and at the same time it's the population that doesn't have access to travel. 

Socio-economic situation in Georgia is very hard right now, many people are on the verge of poverty, so they can't even afford to take a low-coaster to the EU from Kutaisi. The middle class mostly supports the EU. 

The thing is, we also have an internal agenda here. Lots of people here are against Mikheil Saakashvili's party. And Russian propaganda and Georgian utilize it like «if you are against Saakashvili, you have to be pro-Dream». They switch the narrative to the internal agenda of Saakashvili vs. Ivanishvili instead of the bigger question about EU integration. 

What is Russia's endgame in Georgia in your opinion? 

Its endgame is clear. It wants to turn Georgia into its Soviet counterpart: no EU integration, no NATO, no army, no sovereignty, no state institution. And our government even says «we have a visa-free regime with the EU, if you don't like something, you are free to leave». Bidzina Ivanishvili declared it. This is really crazy. 

Russia as an «empire» has this horrible mission to strip us of our sovereignty, but they sell it as patriotism and loyalty to their older audience. They also say «If EU sanctions Ivanishvili, it means they go against Georgia as a whole». What does sanctioning an oligarch have to do with Georgia? It's a rough approach, but unfortunately they still have supporters and huge administrative resources. 

How can independent media fight Russian propaganda? 

Georgian dream seems very confident but at the same time very hysterical in their narrative. I have a feeling they somehow suspect they are doing something wrong. 

Because if they are so strong, why are they fighting against the pro-European minority so hard? 

They also managed to dismember a critical and popular channel Rustavi 2, with it splitting into 2 different channels, also critical of the current government and Russia. 

We do not have a strong opposition force that can have a serious impact on the situation, but our main hope is many independent online media, who have no affiliation with Saakashvili or someone else and who are able to make an agenda. 

Recently we have seen a very interesting thing on one of Ivanishvili TV channels: a young anchor was very critical of Ivanishvili's ally Khaindrava, who's protecting Ivanishvili and pushing pro-Russian agenda. This young anchor criticized Khaindrava and said he's on the wrong side of history, as Georgia's European vector is protected by our Constitution. So maybe pro-Russian forces should be aware of youngsters who consider themselves Europeans, not Russians. Who have never been to Moscow and often don't understand the Russian language. 

We have such an example with the Gavrilov scandal, where young people were the main source of protest. It was such an impressive protest that even their Soviet-type parents were like «okay, okay, this is your country, do as you want». 

«Ночь Гаврилова»: как новая Грузия сказала России нет

Ukrainian Hromadske and Espresso.tv started as small media created by young people, too. 

The difference is, Russians are learning a lot from their mistakes. We remember that Yanukovych was direct in his refusal to sign the Association agreement, thus provoking the Maidan. Georgian dream does not act this way. They say «We want to be part of the EU, but the EU has problems with Ivanishvili who is the leader of the Georgian people and the kindest person in the world». 

In the beginning you mentioned Russian propaganda switching to Georgian language. Does this work even on young people?

Yes, and it's very dangerous. We can't expect everyone to be media literate. And they use the same technique in Ukraine right now. 

There is a bubble of very educated people who are sure in their position and know how to fact-check, but there also are people from smaller towns, who are not as educated and might not know any foreign language. They are affected by their surroundings, and their local community has more sway over them. Often, this local community might have more Soviet-style perception of the world, and it affects them a lot.