Relations with the Russian Federation
Georgia’s relations with Moscow are troubled; Russia invaded the country in 2008 and continues to occupy a quarter of its territory – recognizing Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia regions as independent entities and sponsoring their quasi statehoods. Moscow is also in ardent opposition to Georgia’s long-sought aspirations of joining NATO and the European Union, and has effectively deferred the country’s bid to become a member of the Alliance.
Despite these challenges, the incumbent Georgian government maintained pragmatic relations with Moscow; since 2012, when it came to power, replacing a far more assertive administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili, it has invested heavily in dialing down the tensions, including through softening its rhetoric and engaging in new trade talks with Russia. At the same time, the Georgian government has continued to pursue a policy of mobilizing the support of the international community in the face of the Russian aggression.
The government’s policy has yielded some positive results: physical security in and around the occupation line has considerably improved and bilateral trade with Russia has dramatically increased. Yet, no major political breakthrough has been achieved. Fundamental differences on the status and the future of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, combined with Moscow’s step-by-step political and military integration of the two occupied regions, as well as its gross human rights violations targeting ethnic Georgian remaining the two regions, continue to hamper any further progress in the bilateral relations between the two nations.
Political acknowledgement of the threat
Senior Georgian politicians, including Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze have admitted existence of the threat of Russian disinformation and other hostile influence operations.
The government has also prioritized the issue in its strategic documents. For instance, the government’s Communication Strategy on Georgia’s Membership to the EU and NATO for 2017-2020 reads that the Kremlin is “actively engaged” in propaganda to deter the country from joining the two organizations. The document also notes that Moscow’s information war against Georgia aims at “weakening the societal consensus, discrediting anti-western values and reducing trust towards EU and NATO.”
In a much similar manner, the Defense Ministry’s Communication Strategy for 2017-2020 names “hybrid warfare” among Georgia’s top security challenges, and stresses that the Russian “soft power” operations in the country aim at “weakening Georgia’s state institutions, discrediting Euro-Atlantic integration and strengthening pro-Russian and anti-Western forces.”
Government Activities against Russian Influence & Disinformation
Despite near-universal consensus in the political leadership, the authorities take little concrete actions to counter the Russian influence operations and disinformation, and when they do, their activities lack necessary resources and inter-agency coordination.
The Information Center on NATO and EU, an entity under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, which is tasked to raise awareness on Georgia’s foreign policy priorities, carries out an undoubtedly positive work, especially in reaching out to vulnerable populations across the country, but the scope and the influence of its activities remain to be limited, particularly in the absence of a whole-of-government approach.
Mixed messages from the authorities play its share as well. Some ruling party lawmakers, for instance, have themselves voiced strongly anti-western narratives. More alarmingly, the Media Development Foundation, a Tbilisi-based media watchdog, found that in 2015 the government agencies continued to sign service contracts with media outlets openly voicing pro-Kremlin narratives.
The authorities have also been accused of relaxing pressures on Moscow-funded non-governmental groups, one of the most active information mediums in pro-Russian hostile operations.
The Approach of Intelligence Agencies to Russian Interference
Georgia is a key target for Russian intelligence operations. The 2017 annual report of the State Security Service, the country’s domestic intelligence agency, describes extensive foreign intelligence operations in Georgia, including that by the Russian Federation.
According to the Security Service, the main objectives of foreign intelligence services are: “instigating anti-western sentiments in the Georgian society; undermining the image of Georgia as a reliable partner on the international arena; establishing distrust, uncertainty, hopelessness, and nihilism in the public; creating destabilization on ethnic and religious grounds in order to cause disintegration processes and polarize the Georgian society.” To achieve these objectives, according to the Security Service, the foreign intelligence services employ the hybrid war tactic, including “propagandistic media campaigns, disinformation, cyber-operations and cyber-attacks, destructive political groups and public organizations.”
Despite the fact that the State Security Service recognizes the threat of hostile foreign influence and has a reasonable understanding of how disinformation and subversion operations are conducted in the country, no information is available as to what the authorities are doing to counter the hostile Russian influence. In the similar vein, there has been no publicly known cases of Russian spies being expelled from the country since the incumbent government came to power in 2012.
Activities of the Non-Governmental Sector
The Georgian civil society organizations are the most active players in countering the Russian activities online, in terms of monitoring and combatting disinformation, and advocating the topic’s importance before the authorities and the public.
Some civil society initiatives stand out particularly, including the monitoring and myth-debunking efforts by the Media Development Foundation, civil society organizations’ campaign Defend Liberty, profiling of anti-western websites by mediachecker.ge, the study of the ownership of online media outlets (including pro-Kremlin websites) by the Transparency International Georgia and the more recent Information Defense Legion, an initiative of the Strategic Communications Training Center aimed at mobilizing Facebook users for countering disinformation and producing pro-western narratives.
Despite these measures, however, the reach and the scope of the civil society activities remain limited, not least because of financial and other resource-related constraints. These projects and organizations also often fall short in coordination.