Five years have passed after the regime change in Georgia, which, many thought, would have diverted the country from its Western course and made it vulnerable to Russia’s influence. These five years saw a surge of Russia’s “soft power” around the world, including in the South Caucasus; however, on the ground, the soft power still remains of limited nature and has failed to achieve major breakthroughs. The aim of this article is to analyze past achievements, limitations and future threats of Russia’s soft power from the Georgian perspective. հայերեն
The Exploits of Russia’s soft power
In May 2017, Georgia adopted the new Strategic Defense Review document, where it has officially recognized Russia’s soft power as a major threat to its security. It was the first time that this was officially manifested in the state strategy, and thus, can be viewed as a result of what Russian propaganda and influence have accomplished over the last few years.
One of the major triumphs of Russia’s growing soft power in Georgia has been the advancement of Eurosceptic political parties, which may not be entirely pro-Russian but advocate close ties with Moscow. This, on the other hand, fully corresponds with Russia’s soft power policy abroad, since on the international level, Russian propaganda seeks to capitalize on the problems and frictions in the target country to undermine the credibility of democracy and the West. In the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia, the “Alliance of Patriots” passed the electoral threshold, gaining 6 seats in parliament and one in the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara. Nino Burjanadze’s party, “United Georgia” also managed to install its representative in the latter that came as a surprise to many. It is noteworthy, that besides being a well-known tourist destination, Adjara has its own distinct identity, which can be “comfortable” for Russia’s influence there, however we will further discuss this problem in detail below. Promoting the political legitimacy for anti-Western parties that enjoy direct links with Moscow is what Russia has so promptly sought to achieve across Europe and the post-Soviet space.
Another significant and visible impact of Russia’s soft power is strengthening its anti-Western, traditionalist and messianic image in Georgia, while emphasizing centuries-long mutual religious and cultural ties with Russia. One of the agents of Russian soft power in this regard is the Georgian Orthodox Church, which remains one of the conservative strongholds in the country, enjoying trust and support of the majority of the population. However, it is believed that the pro-Western faction within the Church serves as a relative counterweight to the pro-Russian advocates, thus making the institution less prone to Russian influence than it seems from the outside. In addition, projections of the West as a morally degraded part of the world have also found their way into Georgia. Here, in such a masculine society, the image of Putin, as a strong, brave leader greatly contributes to the positive image of Russia, as a defender of Georgian traditions and culture from external threat.
Despite these achievements, it seems that Russia’s efforts in Georgia are more anti-Western rather than pro-Russian, thus transforming its soft power into mere propaganda and limiting its scope of action, which I will discuss in the next section.
Limitations of Russia’s soft power
The idea that Russia’s soft power has struggled with efficiency is not novel, neither to the outside world nor to Moscow itself. The considerable gap between words and actions makes it harder for the South Caucasus states, and especially for Georgia, to trust the sincerity of the Kremlin’s interest in the region. Also, Russia’s economic and normative power is not strong enough to become an alternative to the West, which makes it even less attractive.
First and foremost, a key limitation of Russia’s soft power in Georgia is its continuing military occupation and infringement of Georgia’s territorial sovereignty. The 2008 Russian-Georgian war and its severe legacy regarding the shifting borders, presents Russia as an imperial power and an existential threat to the country, thus diminishing the trust and confidence in Moscow’s actions. In addition, Georgians see Russia as one of the major barriers to the former’s economic development, since two unresolved conflicts pose a risk to financial stability. Meanwhile, the media and political parties reproduce Russia’s threatening image on a daily basis, which leaves practically no room for sympathy, hence, making Moscow’s efforts irrelevant in this domain.
The second limitation of Russian soft power is its low competitiveness. The amount of financial, political and intellectual resources spent by the U.S. or the EU in Georgia is extremely asymmetrical compared to Russia’s attempts. While there is significant support in political, civil, educational, scientific and cultural spheres from the West, same cannot be said in the case of Russia. Seemingly this tendency will continue and become even stronger, especially if we take into account all those opportunities that Georgia gets via Association Agreement with the EU. Even those NGO’s that have been active supporters of the Kremlin’s policies in Georgia have struggled economically during recent years; there has been much written and said about these organizations, but after just a few years of operation most of them proved extremely ineffective in changing public attitudes or gaining socio-political weight. This clearly shows that Russia is still unable to “export” its infant civil society abroad. This, ultimately, makes it rather difficult for Russia to penetrate Georgian elites, the majority of which comprise western-educated young people, who have neither the nostalgia nor the desire to live under Moscow’s shadows. One of the main indications of this argument are the researches, showing that despite Russian media’s recent revival and launching of Georgian language websites, attitudes towards Russia among young generations are mostly negative or neutral. The only viable option is for Russian propaganda to exploit older people, who have linguistic (although with tourist flow from Russia the Russian language is also returning to Georgia) as well as personal bonds with Russia; however, not all members of this group are susceptible to its policies. Thus, in the future, Russia’s influence in this domain will be even weaker, since the replacement of the older generation with youngsters can significantly reduce its supporters in the country.
Apart from the limitations described above, a substantial impediment for further advancement of Russian soft power in Georgia, and in the region, is Russia’s unstable and weak economy, which does not provide an alternative for Western-style development. Georgia, with its high poverty rate, is looking for a model, which can end its social hardships and it is a common understanding that Russia cannot offer anything viable with its largely corrupt and inefficient system. The Ukrainian crisis, the plethora of sanctions imposed against Russia, and the decrease in oil prices have once more strengthened this argument among the Georgian public.
The fact that Georgia has officially recognized Russia’s soft power as a serious security threat leads us to believe that Tbilisi sees potential cleavages in society that Russia can exploit for its interests.
Regions populated by ethnic and religious minorities can become one of the major target groups for Russia’s soft power. Promoting its interests in the peripheries, where there is a significant discontent towards the center, can become an effective tool for manipulation. This we have already seen in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 90’s and are currently observing this process in Ukraine. Two regions are noteworthy in this regard: Javakheti and Adjara. The first is a region populated by ethnic Armenians, where Yerevan’s further integration into Russian security and economic projects can have its echoes in and galvanize pro-Russian public attitudes. The second is a region, which has a more or less distinct identity and has been left with a fictional autonomy. A spontaneous violent protest in March 2017 in Batumi, which was triggered by the local population’s discontent towards the police, was an illustration of how ineffectively current distribution of powers between Tbilisi and Batumi works in the case of crisis; and how fragile current political and economic system is as a whole. However, Turkey’s growing influence in the Adjarian region can be regarded as a main challenge and potential target of Russia’s soft power. In light of the existing historical memory and interests of foreign actors, the Georgian central government needs to stay focused and strengthen its support in Adjara region even more.
Growing xenophobic and chauvinistic attitudes among certain social groups in Georgia can indirectly become a tool for Russia’s anti-liberal and anti-globalist propaganda war in the country. The “March of Georgians” organized in July 2017, united thousands of radical nationalists across the country. On the other hand, the organizers of the event are quite notorious for their pro-Russian statements, which raise suspicions and serious concerns about Moscow’s support and involvement in these processes. It is expected that in light of social hardships and the influx of tourists from eastern countries, such attitudes will tend to strengthen and become a serious matter of political debate; hence, the government needs to stay alert in this aspect as well.
Another potential risk zone is once again the Georgian Orthodox Church. The so-called “Cyanide Case”, when one of the priests allegedly tried to poison Patriarch’s secretary, is an illustration of the existing situation in the patriarchate. As it was visible throughout the past years, conflict between different groups within the Church is quite fierce and they are already trying to reinforce their positions in the eyes of the next potential Catholicos-Patriarch. At this stage, it is quite difficult to make predictions, but it is clear that the opposing parties are looking for support both within, as well as outside the country, which, in theory, can enhance Russia’s influence on one of the conflicted factions that might be expressing sympathy towards Russia. Therefore, it is vital, that the Georgian government, civil society and media closely monitor the unfolding processes that have the capacity to radically change the situation on the ground.
Russia’s soft power in Georgia is the same in its essence as elsewhere, but happens to operate in a totally different environment. During Russia’s military occupation and widespread anti-Russian attitudes in Georgia, Moscow has been left with a limited scope of action, thus, it has chosen a pragmatic and tacit approach to penetrate the hearts and minds of Georgians who advocate for closer ties with Russia on the political or social levels. There is no denying that the Kremlin has had specific success in this regard; however, it seems that the future for Russia’s soft power in Georgia is hazy. Due to the advanced age of its primary target group, it is expected that Russia’s influence can only increase within the short- to medium-term, but in the long run, with the emergence of new elites and generations, it is doomed to become even more limited.