Georgia’s pro-Russian party provokes ethnic and religious tensions ahead of parliamentary elections
The Alliance of Patriots installed anti-Turkish billboards in the streets of Georgia while launching anti-Turkish ads on Facebook
BANNER: A police officer talk to demonstrators during a rally to protest against the government and demand an early parliamentary election in Tbilisi, Georgia November 25, 2019. (Source: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze)
This story was published in partnership with On.ge.
The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, an openly pro-Russian political party, spread disinformation online and offline portraying Turkey as an emerging existential threat for Georgia, in a possible attempt to distract attention from threats Georgia faces from Russia. The opposition far-right party published anti-Turkish billboards in the streets of Georgia as well as online political ads on Facebook two months before the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 31, 2020.
Far-right, pro-Russian, and anti-Western political parties and groups are becoming noticeably active both online and offline as the parliamentary elections approach. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2016, during which it won its first six seats in the Georgian parliament, the Alliance of Patriots has been accused of working for Russia against the interests of Georgia by NGOs, media and pro-Western political parties. According to a recent investigation by the Dossier Center, the Alliance of Patriots is directly financed by the Kremlin, which is also handling the party’s election campaign. The party has long called for “enhancing relations” between Georgia and Russia and organizing visits to Moscow for these purposes. The Alliance of Patriots is well-known in Georgia for its anti-Western, xenophobic, and Turkophobic statements, especially spreading anti-Turkish disinformation and propaganda in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara — a Georgian region neighboring Turkey.
Turkey and Georgia have built strong diplomatic, economic, and strategic ties with one another. As Turkey is Georgia’s closest strategic partner in the region and the largest investor in its economy, the Turkish-Georgian relationship has attracted significant attention from pro-Kremlin actors. In particular, as a means of spoiling this close relationship, Kremlin allies have pushed narratives about the threat of “Turkish expansionism” in Georgia for several years. The DFRLab previously covered how Georgian far-right Facebook pages andRussian language pro-Kremlin outlets have fueled anti-Turkish sentiments in Georgia that are similar to the narratives the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots employs in their election campaigns.
Relations between Russia and Georgia have been tense since the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Russia occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s territories (Abkhazia and the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region) and wages information war against the country, including organizing cyberattacks. The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia stated the country should expect that Russia is going to interfere in the fall parliamentary elections.
Disinformation on billboards
At the end of August 2020, billboards from the Alliance of Patriots appeared in the streets of Georgia. One of the banners spotted in the region of Adjara shows the map of Georgia with Adjara marked in red, similar to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The billboard displays three arrows pointed at the region from the Turkish side, with the text “Defend Adjara! Defend your share of Georgia!” The billboard is an attempt to deceive Georgian society with the disinformation narrative that Turkey is occupying or plans to occupy Georgian territory.
Georgian pro-Western opposition parties assessed the billboard as an attempt of fueling ethnic tensions in Georgia and demanded that the Alliance of Patriots be barred from the parliamentary election. The ruling party stated that the billboard is a Russian directive against Georgia.
In addition to defending the billboards as a warning against ‘Turkey’s economic and ideological expansion” in Georgia, the Alliance of Patriots claimed that pro-Western opposition parties may have sabotaged the banner by changing its design. Following a wave of criticism from Georgian society, the leaders of the party blamed the United National Movement and European Georgia — two pro-Western parties — for changing the color of the Adjara region on the map from yellow to red, explaining that the party does not equate the occupation of two Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia to the occupation of Adjara by Turkey. However, they did not provide any evidence to support this claim.
The anti-Turkish disinformation tactics of the pro-Russian political party falls under two of the 4Ds of disinformation model — Dismiss, Distort, Distract, and Dismay — often applied by the Kremlin to craft alternative narratives of world events. The distort technique is an attempt to falsify or misrepresent the facts in a given case. The leaders of the Alliance for Patriots party have claimed that Turkey has occupied Georgian territories, referring to historical events. The distract technique is an attempt of turning attention away from the activities of Russia by launching accusations elsewhere — in this case, Turkey.
Disinformation on Facebook
The Alliance of Patriots has been using Facebook as well to spread disinformation narratives about Turkey prior to the fall elections by sponsoring anti-Turkish ads. In June 2020, Georgian civil society and media organizations sent an open letter to Facebook requesting it to authorize the Political Ad Library and API that allows users to search for sponsored political content and trace its sources. Following this request of transparency ahead of the parliamentary elections, Facebook launched the political ads library in Georgia.
According to the Ad Library, the Alliance of Patriots has run nine political ads between August 29 and September 5 2020, eight of which are anti-Turkish. The ads consist of brief videos where the leaders of the party misleadingly accuse Turkey of occupying Georgian territories and “exposing” the country’s intention to occupy Georgian cities. The majority of the videos are referring to historical events related to the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of Georgia hundreds of years ago.
The range for the amount spent on the ads is approximately $100 — $199 USD per ad, with a total of $1,910 USD spent in the above-mentioned period. The potential reach of each ad is approximately 1 million people; Georgia’s population is 3.7 million. The number of impressions each had received ranges from 125,000–250,000.
The Alliance of Patriots has diversified its tactics of spreading disinformation ahead of the parliamentary elections in Georgia, using both online and offline advertisements to reach as many people as possible. The ad campaign, which has focused on portraying Turkey as an existential threat to Georgia, distracts from the ongoing threat posed by Russia, and is aimed at deceiving Georgian society and influencing their political choices for the fall parliamentary elections.
Eto Buziashvili is a Research Associate, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.
This research is part of the #ElectionWatch Georgia project in partnership with On.ge, made possible through support from East-West Management Institute (EWMI) and US Agency for International Development (USAID). Contents of this report are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EWMI, USAID or US Government.
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