Russian and Azerbaijani pro-government outlets exploit Georgian USAID narratives
Outlets exploited Georgian government claims to push narratives blaming the US for organizing civil unrest in Georgia and running spies in Azerbaijan
BANNER: USAID Administrator Samantha Power speaks to the media as she visits an aid center for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, September 26, 2023. (Source: Reuters/Irakli Gedenidze)
After the Georgian government accused the US Agency for International Development (USAID) of funding organizations to foment civil unrest in the country, Russian and Azerbaijani government-owned outlets exploited the allegations to push their own anti-US narratives. The outlets used the allegation as the basis for additional coverage accusing the United States of fomenting revolutions across the Caucasus and running a spy ring in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani authorities later arrested six independent journalists, with pro-government outlets accusing the journalists, USAID, and civil society organizations of being part of a “US provocation machine.”
Anti-US narratives have a long history in the South Caucasus region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin actors accused the United States of instigating revolutions in the broader Eurasia region. In 2022, the US Department of State described the “plotting a revolution” narrative as one of most persistent disinformation narratives pushed by Russia, with an intent of targeting pro-democracy movements and undermining the reputation of the United States. Another widely spread and common narrative accuses Washington of funding biolabs in the region to develop bioweapons.
On October 2, the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) released a statement claiming that nongovernmental organization Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) brought three Serbian trainers to Georgia with a purpose to train activists in violent tactics to overthrow the country’s government. CANVAS is a Serbia-based nongovernmental organization focused on education and “the use of nonviolent resistance in the promotion of human rights and democracy.” The organization has offices in multiple countries, including in Georgia and the United States.
According to SSSG’s claim, however, the Serbian trainers were connected to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution as well as similar events in Serbia, Ukraine, and other countries. The SSSG also noted that CANVAS is funded by USAID.
Over the last three decades, USAID has provided more than $1.8 billion in assistance to Georgia, including to government agencies. While CANVAS has received some funds from USAID, including as one of many groups participating in the agency’s Civil Society Engagement Program in Georgia, the idea that the program foments violent revolution latest incarnation of the narrative that the United States is plotting revolutions in Russia’s neighboring countries.
In response to the charges, the US Embassy in Georgia denied the accusations, stating that USAID has “partnered with CANVAS to deliver training to mothers advocating for better cancer treatments for children, and to people advocating for the rights of elderly citizens in their communities.”
Russian pro-government outlets
Pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-owned media outlets used the Georgian government’s accusation as an excuse to recycle the Kremlin’s long-running conspiracy that the United States is fomenting a revolution in Georgia and elsewhere. The outlets also exploited the allegation to further spread narratives that the United States is dragging Georgia into war, claims that first emerged after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Referring to the SSSG’s allegations, RenTV claimed that the United States had resumed “vigorous activity” on Russia’s borders and that it wants to increase the possibility of conflict with Russia. The outlet also stated that it was “noteworthy” that USAID Administrator Samantha Power was visiting Armenia around the time of the most recent escalation in Nagorno Karabakh. Almost identical text was later published by fringe outlets such as 5-tv.ru, the website for a TV channel popular in the Soviet era.
Tsaregrad.tv and Vestnik Kavkaza exploited the case as well, claiming that the US is conducting “subversive” activities through USAID in the South Caucasus region, alleging “a coup against the pro-Russian government” in Georgia and a “series of” moves against Moscow in Armenia. Meanwhile, Lenta.ru wrote that the United States was attempting to destabilize the wider region, claiming that it is escalating tensions in Moldova and Georgia for “geopolitical confrontation with Russia.” To support these accusations, Lenta cited Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Scott Ritter, a former US Marine Corps officer and UN weapons inpsector often cited by Kremlin propaganda channels.
Iz.ru amplified a narrative claiming that the West plans to open a second war front against Russia in Georgia because it believes Ukraine will otherwise lose the war. For this reason, it alleged the United States is training Georgians to overthrow their government.
On October 2, 2023, the day when the SSSG leveled its accusations against USAID, the Georgian branch of Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik dedicated at least ten articles pushing the “US-backed revolution” narrative. Other local branches of Sputnik also exploited the case and used it as a basis of their stories as well.
Azerbaijani pro-government outlets
On October 5, Mikroskop Media, an independent Azerbaijani media outlet operating in exile, reported that Azerbaijani government-controlled media outlets had similarly targeted USAID with articles featuring identical text. The DFRLab investigated further and found that Azerbaijan state-run and pro-government media outlets prominently featured the accusations against USAID, using the claim as a platform to recycle preexisting narratives surrounding both nongovernmental organizations and civil society within the country.
These reports propagated the narrative that USAID operates under the guise government aid donor while pursuing its own hidden agenda, establishing a network of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations aimed at exerting pressure on the political authorities of the host countries. Among other things, these reports alleged that during the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, USAID helped orchestrate anti-war campaigns aimed at downplaying Azerbaijan’s success in the conflict.
Content analysis of coverage in Azerbaijani state-run and pro-government media showed that the outlets pushed similar narratives. While amplifying the allegations about USAID activities in Georgia, the Azerbaijani reports also utilized the more general USAID hidden-agenda narrative, including in reports on the television stations Real TV (“USAID: Aid or spy network”), Space TV (“World’s ‘USAID’ trouble”), and Xezer TV (“The name ‘USAID’ has always been involved in scandals”).
Azerbaijani outlets made additional accusations about USAID activities in the Caucasus. For example, Trend News, APA, Qafqazinfo, and state-run news agency Azertac all published reports that USAID operates as a sub-branch of the US Central Intelligence Agency to disguise its operations while interfering in domestic policies of host countries. Among other claims, the reports pushed the narrative that USAID has been used to create “a fertile environment for chaos, coups, and instability” by interfering in other country’s internal policies.
Media coverage also leveraged accusations against USAID to promote alternative narratives regarding civil society and NGOs in Azerbaijan, which the government see as a threat. For example, some of these outlets alleged that USAID tried to interfere in Azerbaijan but had failed. Another narrative targeted Azerbaijani feminists, the LGBTQ+ community, and anti-war activists by claiming that the United States had “changed tactic” in Azerbaijan after the 2020 Karabakh war strengthened public support for the government. The text continued by leveling accusations that USAID financed the LGBTQ+ community, “which is a great danger to national values,” feminists “who are promoting immorality,” and anti-war activists “who try to devalue victory.” The DFRLab found two news agencies using identical text within their coverage, which in turn were re-published by multiple news websites.
Azerbaijani independent journalists arrested in the wake of anti-US narratives
While both Russian and Azerbaijani pro-government outlets exploited Georgia’s accusations against USAID to recycle old conspiracies blaming the United States for organizing civil unrest across the Caucasus, Azerbaijani media also used them as an excuse to fuel suspicions regarding the intentions and actions of local NGOs and civil society groups that receive Western funding.
Following the initial amplification of the Georgia USAID narrative in October 2023, anti-USAID and anti-US reports in Azerbaijani pro-government media outlets surged during November, including speculation over the US running a spy ring in the country, with one video report positing in its headline, “Will ‘spy hunting’ begin in the country?” Within two weeks, Azerbaijaini authorities arrested four journalists affiliated with the independent media outlet AbzasMedia and two journalists from the independent Azerbaijani internet TV station Kanal13. Following the charges against AbzasMedia journalists, pro-government media outlets published reports accusing them and additional civil society groups as being part of a “US provocation machine.”
Meanwhile, on November 21, Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy advisor of President Ilham Aliyev, posted a tweet targeting USAID Administrator Samantha Power and her recent criticism of Azerbaijan’s latest military operation in Nagorno Karabakh. “Mask Off!” he concluded his tweet. “There is no place for USAID operations in Azerbaijan any longer!”
Cite this case study:
Eto Buziashvili, “Russian and Azerbaijani pro-government outlets exploit Georgian USAID narratives,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), December 7, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/12/07/russian-and-azerbaijani-pro-government-outlets-exploit-georgian-usaid-narratives.