There is a “rising frustration” among Georgia’s political elites and the public over the country’s slow pace of Western integration. What’s more, the “increasingly effective Russian propaganda” might slow or suspend Tbilisi’s efforts towards Euro-Atlantic integration. These are the claims made by a new Threat Assessment report presented by the US Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.
The assessment that Tbilisi might rethink its Western facing stance, did not come as a surprise to many Georgia watchers. A number of articles have discussed the probability of a Georgian-Russian reset. This report, however, is the first official government document to predict a serious turnaround in Georgian-Russian relations, and in such a plain and explicit manner.
It is no surprise, therefore, that senior Georgian officials were quick to react to the report. A day it was published, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tbilisi, Nicholas Berliner, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, to discuss the report. At a meeting with the First Deputy Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani, Berliner underlined that the United States has “absolutely no doubt that this government is committed to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration”.
As paradoxical as it may seem, both statements – of Clapper and of Berliner – are supportable.
Over the past two years Georgia has signed the Association Agreement with the European Union, successfully fulfilled criteria for visa liberalisation with the EU, and inaugurated the NATO-Georgian Joint Training and Evaluation Centre just outside of Tbilisi. These are just a few of the strong arguments supporting of Berliner’s case.
At the same time, the country’s political leadership has sent mixed messages to the West and to its public, a claim that Clapper would likely agree with. Internationally, Tbilisi has toned down its rhetoric against Russia and engaged in new trade talks, despite Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Political flirtation with Russia was mixed with a “tit for tat” politics domestically aimed primarily at Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro-Western United National Movement and more recently, Georgia’s biggest independent TV station Rustavi 2. Georgia has also relaxed pressures on Russian-funded organisations, giving them an unofficial carte blanche to operate freely, while failing to engage in any activities to counter the pro-Russian influence of these organisations.
As a result of this policy the Georgian public has been widely exposed to Russian propaganda. A media monitoring report conducted by the Tbilisi-based Media Development Foundation, which studies anti-Western propaganda, documented a significant increase in the intensity of anti-Western and pro-Russian discourse in Georgian media in the past year. The portrayal of the West as the troublemaker in both Ukraine and Syria conflicts and as an enemy of Orthodox Christianity and traditional family values (two of the most important features of Georgia’s cultural identity), caters to the doubts and concerns of society’s conservative and religious segments, while breeding scepticism towards the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration path.
Russia has also been manipulating public consciousness using its traditional hard power techniques: by seizing land that was previously outside of its control, as well as through formalising agreements with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in order to work towards ensuring further military and political absorption of these regions. Russia’s moves to fortify the two territories and its flagrant violations of the rights of ethnic Georgians living within the occupied territories, has been met with a distinct absence of countermeasures from Georgia and its Western allies, which further diminishes the confidence of the Georgian public towards the West.
The growing disaffection of the public over the country’s economic performance and the devaluation of its national currency has also played into the anti-Western narrative, especially in light of the painful economic reforms to bring the country’s legislation in line with EU-Georgia agreement on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.
Now that the Georgian 2016 parliamentary elections sit on the near horizon, political pressure from Russia is likely to accelerate. However, on the surface, the problem does not seem as striking as it might sound. Eight months ahead of elections, pro-Western political forces still dominate the domestic scene. The three parliamentary factions – the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the opposing United National Movement and Free Democrats – are pro-Western. The current political configuration reflects the 2012 parliamentary election results, which, however, provides a relatively dated indicator of public attitudes. In subsequent elections, the two openly pro-Russian parties have fared comparatively better than in parliamentary polls. For instance, in the 2013 presidential elections Democratic Movement (led by Nino Burjanadze, a pro-Russian former parliamentary speaker) obtained 10.2 percent of the vote and in the 2014 municipal elections the Democratic Movement and the Alliance of Patriots won 10.4 percent and 6.4 percent of nationwide votes respectively.
While a total of 17 percent is far from being a game changer in national politics, it is a dangerously high number considering the degree of political volatility in Georgia. Backed by Russian propaganda and supported by the polarisation of pro-Western parties and the demoralisation of their support base, Putin’s affiliates in Georgia might score considerably higher in the upcoming parliamentary elections and possibly, as James Clapper suggested, slow or suspend Tbilisi’s efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration.
Tornike Zurabashvili is a Research Fellow at Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS), a non-partisan, non-governmental policy watchdog and think-tank based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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