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Russian Influence in Georgia: December 2022

The degree of Russian influence over Georgia depends largely upon the situation on Ukraine’s battlefield. As recent stages of the war have not gone well for Russia, its influence in the region has declined

Russia keeps using multiple instruments to influence Georgia. These instruments include but are not limited to:

  1. Direct military threat;
  2. Leveraging the occupied territories: threats of annexation, creeping “borderization,”[1]
    exerting pressure on Georgian population that still live in these territories;
  3. Manipulating access to the Russian market;
  4. Hybrid threats, including disinformation and manipulations of pro-Russian social, political, and religious groups.

There are other tools of influence as well, but their impact is limited or unclear. Among them are: Russian energy exports to Georgia, ethnic Russians living in Georgia, including recent migrants, Russian state media.

This report will mainly discuss the main four tools of influence but will touch upon secondary threats as well.

Direct Military Threat

Russian invasion of Ukraine made it abundantly clear that Russia disregards international law. The Kremlin claimed that the existing international order is unfair, and Moscow is willing to use force to change it. Rules and principles of non-use of force, territorial integrity and sovereignty, Geneva Conventions, freedom of navigation, freedom of trade, nuclear safety have no meaning for the Putin regime. Moreover, this regime is willing to pay huge price in terms of international isolation, sanctions, and economic decline to achieve its objectives. This tectonic, albeit not so sudden, shift immediately put Russia’s every neighbor in a much more dangerous strategic environment.

Despite major differences regarding the ways of handling the Russian threat, Georgia’s political class uniformly understands its severity. The Georgian government opted for a low-key approach: Georgia aligns with the West in voting in the UN and other international bodies and condemns Russian aggression, but refuses to join Western sanctions,[2] declines to provide even symbolic military support to Ukraine, and, moreover, tries to use the Ukraine war for its domestic propaganda purposes, presenting itself as the only force capable of preventing military action from reaching Georgia. Opposition, civil society, and most of Georgia’s international partners harshly criticize this approach.[3] Indeed, it has caused major friction between Georgia and its Western partners, who have taken a clear and principled position supporting Ukraine. Georgian opposition and civil society criticize the government because they think that the government should ally with Ukraine and the West not only because it is morally justified, but because it also provides Georgia with the only security guarantee. General population overwhelmingly supports Ukraine, but is also afraid of Russian invasion, which it had witnessed not so long ago—in 2008. Among international volunteers fighting on Ukraine’s side against Russia, Georgia has possibly deployed more combatants than any other country and so far suffered the greatest number of casualties—36 as of December 14, followed by Belarus and the U.S.

To be fair, Russia has not made any public threat to Georgia or undertaken any military deployment that would show hostile intent, but latent threat causes major friction both within Georgia and between Georgia and its partners.

As the Russian army gets bogged down in Ukraine and is taking major losses, threat of invasion of Georgia is decreasing. 

Occupied Territories

South Ossetia has turned into a recruiting ground by the Russian military.[4] This occupied has already lost 23 men fighting in Ukraine. While there are no reliable data on South Ossetia’s population size, it has been reported that about 7,000 people participated in the recently held “presidential elections.” Assuming that the entire population amounts to 15,000, this territory could thus have lost 0,15% of its people to the Ukraine war.

The September 28 visit of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to Abkhazia heightened fears of possible Belarusian recognition of Abkhazia. For Lukashenko, that would be highly damaging, because Abkhazia and South Ossetia could then join Russia-Belarus Union, diminishing the Belarusian dictator’s status and legitimacy. However, such a move cannot be ruled out since Lukashenko’s autonomy is highly questionable.

Outright annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains a possibility for the Kremlin, although the Russian army’s fumbling in Kherson makes it less likely. The Kherson debacle has also shown that annexation can be reversed.

Meanwhile, even as Russia has withdrawn significant number of troops from its bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the “borderization” process did not subside. Ethnic Georgian population in both regions remain vulnerable as demonstrated by the continued detentions[5] of local Georgians on occupied territories as well as across the administrative boundary line (ABL)
in South Ossetia. After losing their Abkhaz passports, ethnic Georgians get deprived of their political rights.

There has been a consensus in the Georgian society that there can be no military solution to the problem of occupied territories, even if Russia continues to be humiliated on Ukrainian battlefield. However, as shown by most the recent escalation in Nagorno Karabakh, areas once dominated by the Russian military are turning into power vacuums, which get quickly filled by other powers—by Turkey in the Karabakh case. This also signifies that, going forward, the EU might play a much more important, even crucial role in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Market Access Manipulations

Manipulation with access to its markets remains a prominent feature of Russian foreign policy. In 2006-2013, Russia almost entirely denied access to its market for Georgian agricultural products over disagreements—and later war—with Tbilisi. Following the change in the Georgian government, Russia promptly reopened its market to Georgian fruits and wines thus creating one of the most effective leverages against Georgia. Moscow has clearly demonstrated that it will not hesitate to shut down markets again when it quickly moved to close air traffic between Russia and Georgia after the so called “Gavrilov’s affair.”[6]

As Georgian export to Russia increases, Georgian government acts with increased caution. Threat of losing the Russian market is one of the key reasons why Tbilisi refuses to join sanctions against Russia. It is mostly government-affiliated businesses that take advantage of the trade with Russia as well as significant numbers of impoverished farmers in the Georgian regions where other jobs are scarce.

One the other hand, after most of the land transportation routes between Russia and Europe were closed over the Ukraine war, transit through Georgia has increased dramatically. Georgia can now feel safer, because Russia will find it much more difficult to lose Georgian transit should it consider imposing embargo against Georgia.

Hybrid Threats

Disinformation

The Kremlin’s narrative in Georgia before the war was based on the following major premises:

  1. Russia is militarily strong; it is located next door and willing to use force; the West, while also militarily strong, is far and is not willing to fight for Georgia. (This created a false impression that Russia is militarily stronger than NATO.)
  2. Russia is the only market for Georgian goods (fruits, vegetables, wine, mineral water), while nobody needs these goods in Europe.
  3. Georgia and Russia are co-religionists, and Russia is the power that guards ancient traditions, while the West is promoting modern values that are alien to Georgians.
  4. Putin is a strong and successful leader, while Western leaders are weaklings and losers.
  5. After the Ukraine war broke out, new items were added to this list: Zelensky is a clown and a drug addict, the West is equally or more to blame for the war than Russia.
  6. And, most importantly, no matter what is happening, Russia is somehow still going to win the war.

Naturally, Russia’s resort to hard power and especially brutalities in Ukraine, undermined its soft power influence. The common values argument suffered the most: nobody believes in the Kremlin’s support of the Christian or humanist ideas anymore. As Russian economy takes a dive over sanctions amidst growing expectations that the worst is yet to come, Russian market’s importance will likely suffer as well.

Now, when Russia claims that it is fighting against the entire North Atlantic Alliance, it cannot simultaneously claim that the West has no willpower to come to Georgia’s aid.

Therefore, one can expect that Russia will work harder to shift the blame for war to the West and claim that it is the West that brought so much destruction on Ukraine to achieve its strategic goals—and that it will gladly sacrifice Georgia, too. “Evil Anglo-Saxons provoking the war between brotherly nations to consolidate global domination” will likely become the next slogan of the Kremlin propaganda as Russia’s military humiliations continue. Another Georgia-specific argument that Russian propaganda will likely advance will be that “even if Russia loses in Ukraine, Georgia should stay quiet, because Putin might turn to Georgia seeking a new small victorious war.”

In the medium-to-long term, however, it is clear that Putin has staked his reputation and the power of the decades of propaganda on the results of the Ukraine war. His regime cannot survive a clear military defeat, no matter how hard Moscow claims that war was provoked by the West.[7] If, however, Russia can claim some success after the war ends, the propaganda’s power will be preserved.

Pro-Russian groups

1. “Democratic Movement—United Georgia” party and Ms. Nino Burjanadze.

Democratic Movement—United Georgia is a political party founded in 2008 by Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of the Georgian parliament. Georgian opposition and experts criticize Burjanadze for her pro-Kremlin statements, visits to Moscow, and narratives against Georgia’s NATO membership. On November 4, Obieqtivi TV aired excerpts from the 60 Minutes, a talk show on the Russian state’s Rossiya 1 TV channel, where Ms. Burjanadze discussed Russian military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 and occupation of Ukraine’s territory in 2014, claiming that the new Ukrainian government were making the same mistakes that former Georgian authorities had made before them by yielding to provocations and getting involved in the armed conflict with Russia. She also alluded to some “serious forces that wanted to portray Russia as an aggressor and enemy of Ukraine, as it had happened in August 2008 with respect to Georgia,” according to mythdetector.ge.

2. Alliance of Patriots

Alliance of Patriots is a Georgian political party founded in 2012 by Irma Inashvili and Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, leaders of the Resistance Movement, which opposed Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. The party is known for its campaigns against Turkey and the West—the powers that oppose the Kremlin’s policies in the region. The party’s leaders are known to have visited Russia in attempts to establish the so-called “groups of friendship” with the State Duma deputies, even though they had been given no mandate from the Georgian parliament. They are also implicated in making xenophobic, anti-LBTQ+, anti-democratic statements. Alliance of Patriots lost almost all credibility during the 2020 election campaign when the Dossier Center published evidence of the party’s cooperation with the Kremlin.[8]  

3. Alt-Info, party and movement

Alt-Info is a right-wing private TV company and an online media outlet founded by Shota Martinenko and Ciala Morgoshia in 2019 to “counter aggressive liberal censorship.” One of its sponsors is Georgian businessman Konstantin Morgoshia, founding member of the Georgian March, a national-conservative party and movement, and the aforementioned Alliance of Patriots. Alt-Info organized several protests, including one against the 2021 Tbilisi Pride, resulting in over 50 journalists being violently beaten by the Alt-Info members.[9] On December 7, 2021, members of Alt-Info created a new political party called the Conservative Movement. Both the party and the media outlet are known for hostile rhetoric towards minorities, aggressive actions and threats against pro-democracy actors, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin statements.

Over the past decade, the openly pro-Russian political parties in Georgia have been getting increasingly more radical. If Nino Burjanadze’s party[10] had avoided calls for violence, the Alliance of Patriots,[11] which replaced it, was more eager to use provocative, violent rhetoric, but still relied on political methods in its work. The Alt-Info[12] (which includes both a political party and a TV station under the same name), which, in turn, replaced the Alliance of Patriots in the winter of 2022, appears more as a group of thugs than a political entity. Alt-Info did not enjoy much success: their claims that Russia would destroy Ukraine in three days and then would possibly focus on Georgia turned out to be completely wrong. Reportedly, this group had ties with General Sergei Beseda of Russia’s FSB.[13] Allegations against Beseda resulted in his summons to Moscow and cutting of the funding for the pro-Russian organizations abroad. Revival of Alt-Info is highly questionable.

Pro-Russian electorate, which now styles itself as “pro-peace,” is mostly affiliated with the ruling party, the Georgian Dream. As its relations with the West deteriorates, the alliance of pro-Russian forces is probably going to strengthen. The Georgian government hopes that this can help it maintain electoral majority.

Other tools

  • Unlike much of Europe, Georgia is not threatened by Russia’s energy cut-offs in any important way. It imports almost no gas and only small amounts of electricity from Russia. Georgia’s oils imports from Russia have increased dramatically taking advantage of lower price.
  • The Georgian government has announced that about 112,000 Russian citizens have arrived in Georgia since the outbreak of the Ukraine war.[14] Although vast majority of the Georgian public disapproves of this massive immigration flow, so far, no major problems have been reported. Russians have settled mostly in Tbilisi and Batumi.
  • Russian state media enjoy very limited viewership in Georgia. Azerbaijani and

Armenian minorities have generally switched to broadcasting in their respective languages. Russian propaganda is also delivered in local language rather than in Russian.

  • After Ukraine has sanctioned Bidzina Ivanishvili’s (founder of the ruling party) family members[15] for helping Russia avoid sanctions, corruption has come to the forefront of public discussion. Fight against corruption is also one of the twelve conditions Brussels has put forward for Georgia’s achieving the status of the candidate member of the EU.[16] Corruption seems to be a very serious long-term problem for Georgia.

Overall, the degree of Russian influence over Georgia depends largely upon the situation on Ukraine’s battlefield. As recent stages of the war have not gone well for Russia, its influence in the region has declined. However, things look more complicated in Georgia, where the so-called “peace coalition” is trying to take advantage of the situation, while corrupt ties between Georgian and Russian ruling elites seem to be strengthening.


[1] Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies: Borderization – Creeping Occupation. URL:
https://gfsis.org.ge/maps/view/georgian-territories-occupied-by-russia

[2] “Why does Georgia not join anti-Russian sanctions?” Jam News. June, 2022. URL:
https://jam-news.net/lack-of-political-will-why-georgia-does-not-join-anti-russian-sanctions/

[3] “The face of Georgia’s turn from the West.” OC-Media. August, 2022. URL:
https://oc-media.org/features/irakli-kobakhidze-the-face-of-georgias-turn-from-the-west/

[4] “South Ossetian troops fight for Russia in Ukraine.” EurasiaNet. March 2022. URL:
https://eurasianet.org/south-ossetian-troops-fighting-for-russia-in-ukraine

[5] “Georgian citizen detained near occupation line.” Civil.ge. December 2022. URL:
https://civil.ge/archives/517215

[6] “Gavrilov’s night in Tbilisi.” OC-Media. June 2020. URL:
https://oc-media.org/protesters-mark-gavrilovs-night-anniversary-in-tbilisi/

[7] “Putin blames the West for war in Ukraine.” BBC. May 2022. URL:
https://www.pubaffairsbruxelles.eu/eu-in-the-media/russias-putin-blames-west-for-war-in-ukraine-in-victory-day-speech/

[8] Russian Watchdog: Kremlin Interferes in Georgia Polls, Aids Alliance of Patriots, Civil.ge 2020. URL: https://civil.ge/archives/363628

[9] Activities of the Alt-Info in Georgia. ISFED. July 2022. URL: https://isfed.ge/eng/blogi/220711014334test 

[10] Nino Burjanadze is a Georgian politician and lawyer who served as a chairperson of Georgia’s parliament in 2001-2008 and was acting head of state twice: first, from November 23, 2003, to January 25, 2004, during the Rose Revolution, and then again, from November 25, 2007, to January 20, 2008, when then-president Mikheil Saakashvili stepped down to rerun in an early presidential election.

[11] Russian Interference in Georgian Politics: The Activation of Ultra-Right Forces.” Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 2021. URL: https://jamestown.org/program/russian-interference-in-georgian-politics-the-activation-of-ultra-right-forces/

[12] “Face of Georgian pro-Russian group Alt Info dropped as party leader.” OC Media, April 2022. URL: https://oc-media.org/face-of-georgian-pro-russian-group-alt-info-dropped-as-party-leader/

[13] “Russian Beseda’s party in Georgia.” Alia. April 2022. URL:
https://www.alia.ge/koka-morgoshiam-da-zura-makharadzem-phuli-ver-gaiqhves-erthmaneths-phulis-gaphlangvashi-adanashaulebdnen-media/

[14] “112,000 Russians have relocated to Georgia this year.” CNBC. November 2022. URL:
https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/25/georgia-armenia-turkey-economies-boom-with-russian-wealth-migration.html

[15] “Ukraine sanctions Ivanishvili’s relatives.” OC-Media. September 2022. URL:
https://oc-media.org/ukraine-sanctions-ivanishvilis-relatives-and-business-partners/

[16] “Georgia recommended for EU candidacy, but with conditions.” EurasiaNet. June 2022. URL:
https://eurasianet.org/georgia-recommended-for-eu-candidacy-but-with-conditions

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