Watchdog: Russian propaganda channels identity politics

A new study presented by Media Development Foundation (MDF), a local media watchdog, says in 2018 the Kremlin propaganda campaigns in Georgia toned down their anti-EU stance while prioritizing anti-US messages and especially enhancing the narrative line of the West presenting a threat to Georgian identity. In terms of tools deployed to serve these messages, visual manipulations were on the rise, said MDF while presenting the study on 9 July.

Media Development Foundation monitors anti-Western propaganda since 2014. Their fourth annual analyzed 18 outlets, including TV, print and online media. A total of 2,392 anti-Western comments were revealed, up by 21,6% compared to the previous year.

MDF’s study was supported by USAID-funded “Promoting Integration, Tolerance, and Awareness (PITA)” program, administered by the UN Association of Georgia.

“In comparison with 2016-17, anti-US messages as well as those focusing on the threat of losing [Georgian] identity are on the rise in 2018, Tamar Kintsurashvili, MDF chair and report’s author said.

Anti-Western message box

Propaganda messages painting Western values as incompatible with Georgian identity have doubled in MDF sample, growing from 253 messages in 2017 to 505 in 2018. The key tenor of these is that the West is imposing unacceptable social behaviors, including homosexuality and sexual depravity, as well as fighting the key markers of identity such as the Orthodox Church and ‘traditional values’.

According to the report, while these identity issues were the most popular themes for Kremlin disinformation (24.3% of all messages), these were followed by rising concerns over immigrants (19.7%) and questioning European integration -10.5%.

Interestingly, the research showed that anti-EU messages were in decline in 2018, compared to previous years. Report authors speculate, that this could be explained by Georgia achieving tangible milestones– the Association Agreement and visa-liberalization – with the EU, so that previous messaging, aiming to portray shortfalls of the two, or to paint these objectives as unreachable, have lost their appeal.

The newfound thrust in the direction of identity politics might be an indication of an adaptation in strategy, which, the report says, has three prongs, which it terms oblique-destructive, negative-destructive and positive strategies.

The denial of Russian responsibility for its actions in Georgia, casting doubts at Georgians’ own responsibility for shaping the country’s future, denial of Georgia’s sovereignty, and questioning of democracy are the key messages under the oblique-destructive approach.

On the other hand, cultivating fear: a fear of war with Russia, fear of further territorial losses – in case of NATO accession, for example, fear of biological weapons – as in the case of disinformation linked to Lugar lab, form the part of negative destructive strategy.

Stressing the invincibility of Russia, amplifying the importance of shared Orthodox brand of Christianity between Georgia and Russia and drawing on common history forms the elements of a positive strategy that focuses on framing Russia in a positive light in Georgia.

Conduits of disinformation: Media, Parties and Organizations

MDF report found out that the Alliance of Patriots and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) of ex-speaker Nino Burjanadze remain the top two parties channeling anti-Western messages.

As an example of oblique-destructive approach, the report presents the statement of UDM leader Nino Burjanadze: “How long should we continue to sacrifice interests of our country to the interests of the USA and the West and how long should we continue provoking Russia?”

From the broadcast media outlets, Obieqtivi TV is the most active in spreading anti-Western narratives. Obieqtivi is notorious for its Turkophobic, xenophobic and homophobic editorial line. It was co-founded by Irma Inashvili of the Alliance of Patriots.

The report found out that Georgia and the World website (linked to Aleksandre Chachia, a Moscow-based political analyst), Sakinformi news agency, and Asaval-Dasavali newspaper are other key outlets spreading anti-Western messages.

From civil organisations and movements, the report singles out ultra-nationalist Georgian March, and the Kremlin-funded Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Centre.

Primakov Centre’s director Dimitri Lortkipanidze has led the pro-government mobilization on July 8 in front of the Georgian Parliament. So was Levan Vasadze, self-styled knight, and Guram Palavandishvili, whose organisations Georgian Demographic Society XXI and Society of Defenders of Child’s Rights, respectively, which are also mentioned in the report as organizations disseminating anti-Western messages.

Food for thought

The Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda, with its focus on identity politics gains ground in Georgia.

“Antiliberal Populism and the Threat of Russian Influence in Georgia’s Regions” research by Liberal Academy of Tbilisi and Caucasus Research Resources Center (CRRC) noted that “liberal west fighting against Georgia’s Orthodox faith and traditions” is one of those important myths that Russia spreads in Georgia.

That research revealed that, in Kakheti, country’s easternmost region, 46% think the USA threatens Georgian traditions, 42% things the same about the EU and 39% – about Russia.  In Shida Kartli, the region most affected by Russian invasion in 2008, 42% think US threatens Georgian traditions, the while that number stands at 33% for both EU and Russia.

Kintsurashvili, says Kremlin propaganda has different narratives for different Georgian regions. Anti-Western propaganda, for example, would use one set of messages for the autonomous region of Adjara, bordering Turkey, and another for the provinces dominated by Azerbaijani and Armenian ethnic minorities, on the other.

Still, NDI Poll of April 2019 reveled that EU and NATO support remains strong among Georgians, although threatened by Russian and domestic sources saying the western alliances harm Georgian culture and values.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)