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Russian interference in Georgia’s elections. How will the government respond?

A recently released investigation provides grim evidence of Russian interference into the Georgian election process. The Kremlin’s goals for this are clear: to create instability and derail Georgia from its Euro-Atlantic path. The government, however, has been quick to dismiss these claims.

September 28, 2020 - Anastasia Mgaloblishvili - Hot Topics

Photo by Adam Reichardt

As Georgia prepares for this year’s parliamentary elections, Russian footprints in the process are already becoming evident. A recently-released report by the Dossier Center, a London-based organisation led by exiled Putin critic and former owner of Russia’s largest oil company Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, has revealed that the Georgian far-right and anti-western political party Alliance of Patriots is directly funded and guided by the Kremlin.

Unlike most democratic countries, where Russian interference in domestic political processes is met with investigations and legal processes, Georgia’s current government has demonstrated little concern. Aside from threatening Georgia’s national security, the government’s impassiveness puts into question whether the Kremlin’s interference complements the goals and strategies of the ruling party, Georgian Dream.

At the end of August, the Dossier Center released email exchanges, budgetary documents and step-by-step instructions from the Kremlin to the Alliance of Patriots. The Alliance is allegedly guided by the Moscow-based company “Politsecrets”, which is supervised by Kremlin associate Vladimir Chernov, chief of the Russian Presidential Directorate for Interregional Relations and Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries. The released documents revealed that the Kremlin has provided the party funding in the amount of eight million US dollars and provides advice on the party’s campaign slogans, banners and political narratives.

These guidelines are in line with Russia’s broader disinformation campaign in Georgia which, as the media watchdog Media Development Foundation has found, mostly exploits ethnic nationalism in Georgia to create anti-western sentiments and revive tensions among the country’s ethnic minorities. Ethnic nationalism is the Achilles heel of the country. According to a Caucasus Barometer survey from 2019, the majority of Georgians believe you must be a Georgian Orthodox (71 per cent) and born in Georgia (63 per cent) to truly be considered Georgian. Similarly, according to the same survey, 87 per cent of the population disapproves of doing business with a homosexual, as a large proportion of the population remains susceptible to homophobic rhetoric.

The Alliance of Patriots has continuously exploited this by scaring the population with the possibility of losing their values and traditions should the country get closer to the West. The Kremlin’s instructions, which are in line with this narrative, suggested the party use narratives to emphasise that “those in favour of getting financial aid from the United States will also be willing to accept experiments on children in the name of ‘early sexual education’ as well as support a tolerant attitude towards LGBT people.” The Alliance of Patriots also held a meeting outside the US Embassy in Georgia, demanding that the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) – non-partisan and non-profit US organisations that work on consolidating democracy in the country and provide valuable data and public opinion research – be kicked-out of the country.

In addition to anti-western rhetoric, another strategy that Russia has been employing in Georgia has been reviving tensions among Georgia’s ethnic minorities. A combination of the Soviet legacy that divided Georgia’s ethnic and religious minorities into different autonomous oblasts and republics and the subsequent ineffective integration by the government has left these minorities isolated and detached from the rest of the population. Beyond exploiting this and occupying 20 per cent of Georgian territory, Russia uses online disinformation campaigns to stoke tensions between the minorities and the general population. This was reflected in the Alliance of Patriot’s campaign banner in Adjara – a region with a large Muslim population – that read “Protect Adjara. Protect your Georgia!” written on it with a map of Georgia that had Adjara, like other occupied territories, filled in red with arrows pointing at Adjara for greater emphasis. The banner was clearly aimed at diverting attention from Russia on to Turkey as a threat to Georgia and reviving historical tensions with the religious minorities of the region.

Photo: Elene Khoshtaria / Facebook

Naturally, Russia continues to advocate for Georgia to pursue a policy of non-alignment along with demilitarisation. After a visit of representatives from the Alliance of Patriots to Abkhazia (which in itself was a highly controversial event), the Kremlin provided step-by-step instructions on what narrative to take, according to the Dossier Center report. Correspondences revealed the party was told to “emphasise the private nature of their visit [gifting a St Mary icon to the Ilory Church], avoid another deadly war [with Russia] and advocate for non-alignment and an Austria-Switzerland type of military”. These exact points were emphasised by the party leader Irma Inashvili after her trip to Abkhazia.

Finally, the Dossier Center report highlighted another important instruction from the Kremlin to the party. This was to “facilitate/support conflicts between opposition parties, especially if they are in a coalition. This can be done by focusing on insignificant details. The main idea is to emphasise that the opposition parties are aggressive, cannot negotiate, hate each other and can betray each other any moment”. The mostly pro-western opposition has been focusing on uniting for the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections and, with some exceptions, have presented united majoritarian candidates in Tbilisi. Clearly, the Kremlin does not want this strategy to succeed.

Although the Kremlin has provided the Alliance of Patriots with more detailed points, such as holding a counter-demonstration on the day that Russia invaded Georgia which the party said they could not manage, their overall messages and goals are clear: to create instability in the country and derail Georgia from its Euro-Atlantic path by reviving tensions among ethnic minorities and undermining the democratic process. Although the leaders of the party have denied support from Russia, they have confirmed receiving consultations via a Russian company.

Concerning the political response, the first Georgian politician to react to the news was Elene Khoshtaria, a member of the Georgian Parliament from the opposition European Georgia party and a candidate in the 2020 elections. The day after the news broke, Khoshtaria submitted a request to the prosecutor’s office to begin investigating Russia’s direct interference in Georgia’s elections which is illegal by national law. Additionally, European Georgia began collecting signatures to submit a request to the court to ban the Alliance of Patriots party. Finally, a member of a newly created opposition party “Lelo” tore down the abovementioned provocative banner in Adjara.    

Nevertheless, the prosecutor’s office downgraded Khoshtaria’s request by handing the investigation over to the state audit office, which clearly undermined the significance of the issue. Some leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream party took a similar position. One of the party’s leaders, Gia Volski, stated that banning the Alliance of Patriots from parliament based on a “piece of paper” would be ridiculous. The Georgian Dream’s stance should not be surprising given their policies towards Russia – the founder and leader of the party, Bidzina Ivanishvili (believed by many to have ties to Vladimir Putin), is a billionaire who made his money in Russia and has continuously advocated for “normalised” relations with the country. Last year, Facebook revealed that many organised trolls and bots spreading anti-western narratives were affiliated with the Georgian government. Consequently, it is not surprising that relations between the Alliance of Patriots and the Georgian Dream appear somewhat close. The Alliance publicly supported and spent financial resources on the presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili (in theory an independent candidate but in reality a part of Georgian Dream) during the 2018 presidential elections. Similarly, recent statements by some representatives of the Alliance of Patriots indicate that the party would not rule out the possibility of a coalition with the Georgian Dream.

Keeping all this in mind, one can argue that the Kremlin’s interference in Georgia’s elections does not only work to the advantage of Russia and the Alliance of Patriots, but to that of Georgia’s ruling party as well. Their disinterest in dealing with a clear case of foreign interference in Georgia’s internal politics is a dangerous development for the country’s democratic autonomy.

Anastasia Mgaloblishvili is a recent graduate of the College of Europe’s Masters in European politics and governance. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in international relations from Tallinn University of Technology. Her previous work experience includes the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office and Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security.

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