Pro-Kremlin outlets capitalize on the political crisis in Georgia

Amid the ongoing crisis, pro-Kremlin outlets

Pro-Kremlin outlets capitalize on the political crisis in Georgia

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Amid the ongoing crisis, pro-Kremlin outlets launched accusations of Russophobia against Georgia and the country’s opposition politicians

Georgian opposition supporters hold a rally near parliament to demand the release of the United National Movement (UNM) leader Nika Melia and call for fresh parliamentary elections in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 2, 2021. (Source: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze)

Amid the ongoing protests in Georgia, pro-Kremlin outlets in Russia found fertile ground to put forward anti-Georgian and anti-Western narratives. They tried to connect the current political crisis with the existence of anti-Russian sentiment in the country. Certain pro-Kremlin commentators also tried to capitalize on recent Western criticism of the Georgian government over the arrest of key opposition figure, Nika Melia. While these narratives failed to gain traction in terms of online engagement, they highlight how pro-Kremlin outlets and commentators hope to shape the perception of the crisis in Georgia for their audience.

On February 23, 2021, Georgian police stormed the building of the United National Movement (UNM) political party and arrested its chairman, Nika Melia, accused of inciting violence during anti-Russian occupation demonstrations in Tbilisi in June 2019. Melia’s arrest took place in the midst of a protracted political crisis in Georgia related to the disputed results of October 2020 parliamentary elections. Against this background, Georgia’s Western partners expressed deep concern over Melia’s arrest, in particular the fact that the charges pressed against him appear to be politically motivated.

The Georgian government’s issues with Melia go back to June 20, 2019, when massive protests erupted in Tbilisi after the Deputy of Russian State Duma, Sergei Gavrilov, ended up sitting in the Chairman’s chair of the Parliament of Georgia and leading a session of Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. Georgian police violently dispersed the spontaneous protests, and accused Melia of inciting violence. Subsequently, he was charged and ordered to wear an electronic bracelet and subject to monitoring by law enforcement. Following the announcement of the election results in November 2021, Melia removed the bracelet in front of the public during an anti-government protest, and the Prosecutor’s Office ordered him to pay bail. He refused, and was arrested on February 23, 2021.

The Kremlin sees Russophobia behind the current crisis in Georgia

Pro-Kremlin outlets and commentators expressed satisfaction with Melia’s arrest and doubled down on narratives about prevailing Russophobia in Georgia. Fringe pro-Kremlin outlet News Front claimed that Georgia had plunged into a deep political crisis as a result of Russophobia and that the country is repeatedly paying the price for hysteria organized by “Russophobes” in June 2019. The author of this article offered Georgia as an example of how Russophobia harms an entire country. Along similar lines, fringe media outlet Mirovoe Obozrenie asserted that after Melia’s arrest, “there is one less Russophobe in Georgia,” and that he was arrested for provoking unrest “in an anti-Russian spirit… as well as inciting interethnic hatred.” Other outlets also asserted that Melia was a Russophobe.

Russian outlets tried to portray Russophobia as the main reason behind Georgia’s political crisis by accusing Nika Melia of being a Russophobe. (Sources: News Front/archive, top left; Vzgliad/archive, top right; Tsargrad/archive; bottom left; Mirovoe Obozrenie/archive, bottom right)

The Kremlin uses the specter of Russophobia to attack its critics and unfriendly countries. By calling its critics Russophobes, it tries to dismiss them without discussing the substance of their criticism. Thus, Russophobia is a rhetorical tool often used in the absence of evidence-based arguments.

Kremlin outlets also exaggerated the current situation in Georgia by employing hyperbole. Moskovskiy Komsomolets asserted that Georgia is on the verge of “civil war” and that the former president Mikheil Saakashvili is trying to plunge the country into chaos. Russian Federal News Agency (RiaFan) interviewed pro-Kremlin political analyst Yuri Sovetov, who called Georgia a “failed state” under external control since it declared independence. According to the most commonly accepted definition, the term “failed state” denotes a country in which “the basic functions of the state are no longer performed” — a description not applicable in the case of Georgia, even during the current polical crisis. These statements can be seen as part of the Kremlin’s effort to denigrate former Soviet countries who chose Western integration instead of remaining close to Russia. Pro-Kremlin analyst Anatoly Wasserman also told RiaFan that Georgia tries to portray itself as an independent and strong country, but the more it distances itself from Russia, the less real its independence becomes.

“Russia can be the only real ally for Georgia”

Russian politicians reproached the U.S. for applying double standards and unfair treatment to Georgia. Russian senator and prominent critic of the West Vladimir Dzabarov contended that although the U.S. arrested a significant number of protesters following the Capitol Hill riots in January 2021, Washington prohibits other countries from doing the same under similar circumstances. Therefore, Georgia should understand that the country does not have reliable partners in the West and that “Russia can be the only real ally for Georgia.” Sputnik Georgia conveyed a similar message, arguing that, after having experienced the storming of Capitol Hill, the U.S. had no right to express concern regarding the situation in Georgia.

Pro-Kremlin media also tried to take advantage of the current criticism of the Georgian government coming from the West. An article in Vzgliad alleged that the anti-Russian behavior of Nika Melia triggered a conflict between Georgia and the West. The author points out that authorities arrested Nika Melia for his anti-Russian actions, which triggered harsh criticism from Western countries. News Front asserted that the Georgian government pays a high price as well for its overly deferential attitude toward the pro-Western opposition, quoting one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream party as saying that the government’s lenient approach toward the opposition (up until Melia’s case) led to an increased number of political crimes, as well as greater polarization and radicalization. The article also praised Georgian Dream for providing a “tough response” to the United States. Regnum also praised Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili for ignoring criticism from the U.S. State Department and members of the U.S. House and Senate over Nika Melia’s arrest. The author summed up that by promoting popular slogans and calling for democratic actions, the West was actually trying to reinsert former President Mikheil Saakashvili into Georgian politics.

Pro-Kremlin outlets criticized the West for double standards and praised the Georgian Dream for a tough response to criticism from the West. (Sources: Sputnik Georgia/archive, top left; Vzglyad/archive, top right; News Front/archive, bottom left; Riafan/archive, bottom right.)

Prime Minister Gharibashvili indeed reproached some Western politicians who criticized the Georgian government over Melia’s arrest. His return to power triggered worries among the political opposition that the Georgian government may take a more confrontational tone toward the West than it traditionally has, which would perhaps adversely affect Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, but please the Kremlin.

The current political crisis in Georgia represents a serious challenge for the country’s democracy and Western integration. In view of this, the Kremlin has taken advantage of ongoing domestic polarization in Georgia and put forward unproven claims in order to undermine trust toward the West and accuse the Georgian opposition of being Russophobic. Georgian political actors, primarily the government, should be aware of how hostile countries can capitalize on their actions and the country’s vulnerable political climate.

Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.

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