Why were Georgians protesting in Tbilisi?

2019-07-18

Violent protests erupted in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, protesters even laid siege to the parliament building after Russian MP Segei Gavrilov held a speech in Russian in the seat of the speaker of the Georgian Parliament during an international Orthodox event. In response to the incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped direct flights between the two countries, quoting a threat to Russian tourists. We discussed the background of the events, the Georgia-Russian war that has overshadowed bilateral relations between the sides since 2008 and Russian disinformation campaigns with the director of the Media Development Foundation, Tamar Kintsurashvili.

Political Capital: Violent protests erupted in the Georgian capital Tbilisi after Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov had been invited to speak from the seat of the Georgian speaker of the House to address an assembly of legislators from Orthodox Christian countries held in Tbilisi. Why was Gavrilov’s appearance perceived so scandalous considering that he had been invited by Georgian officials and took part in a mostly cultural event?

Tamar Kintsurashvili: Initially, the protest erupted when the Ambassador of Ukraine to Georgia Ihor Dolhov left the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in protest while the Communist Party-affiliated Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov was addressing the audience in Tbilisi. Dolhov refused to listen to the Russian MP and explained his protest by Russia’s continued occupation of Ukraine and Georgia. Later, the appearance of the Russian communist MP sitting on the chair of the speaker of the Georgian Parliament became the starting point for wider protest. The pro-Western opposition did not allow Gavrilov to sit on the chair of the speaker of Georgian Parliament. Sergey Gavrilov was among the Russian politicians who voted in favour of the recognition of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions in August 2008, only a few days after the Russian-Georgian war. Thus, it is difficult to consider his visit as a purely cultural one, but the disruption of the session and the protests had not been planned in advance and happened spontaneously.

The wider context of the ongoing process is that Georgian society considers the Georgian Orthodox Church and its clergy to be the main tool of Russian anti-Western influence in Georgia and Georgian society, especially the Georgian youth, who have been the most active in these protests. They are tired of controversial messages coming from the "Georgian Dream" government in this regard. It seems that the Georgian government plays a two-sided game: on the one hand, the ruling party declares it is following a pro-Western policy; but on the other hand, it is trying to avoid upsetting Russia. The mixed messages about the country’s pro-Western orientation from Georgian Dream also contributes to creating ambiguity among citizens.

Does this incident or the harsh Russian response to ban direct Russian flights and limit tourist visits to Georgia further destabilize Russian-Georgian relations or the rule of the Georgian Dream party and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and leader of Georgian Dream?

In 2007 Russia restricted the import of Georgian wine to Russia, but revoked the restriction after Georgian dream came to power. Russian sanctions appeared to help improve the quality of Georgian wine and diversify trade markets. It is considered a fact that despite the WTO agreement, Russia always uses trade issues for political aims, so depending solely on the Russian market is not secure anyways, and Georgia should improve its tourism infrastructure and diversify tourism oriented campaigns.

You and the Media Development Foundation are monitoring Russian propaganda on a regular basis. What are the main direct or indirect aims and tools of Russian disinformation in Georgia currently?

The Kremlin’s information influence activities to shape public opinion against the West employ both negative destructive and oblique-destructive strategies. The goal is to polarize public opinion on foreign policy issues and divert focus from key issues. For instance, the message of far-right parliamentary opposition political party Alliance of Patriots’ and the TV Channel affiliated with it is “if Russia is occupier, why not consider Turkey one,” referring to the historical occupation of Georgia by Ottoman Empire. Thus, it is trying to shift focus from the real security challenges to a historical one. The oblique-destructive strategy aimed at diverting attention from key issues is about neglecting Russia’s responsibility in the conflict, saying that “we are sacrificing the interests of our country to the interests of the USA/the West.” In parallel to demonizing the West, a positive, i.e. constructive strategy portrays Russia as an alternative to the West. This strategy has become more vivid in the past few years, progressing gradually.

How could this diplomatic row or the protests be used by the Kremlin to spread pro-Russian messages? Do you think the international or domestic perceptions of the current political events in Georgia have been already been distorted by such disinformation?

Russia tries to speculate more on economic backlash. I do not think that international or local perception is distorted, but Kremlin narratives are already framed and their goal to present these developments not as a protest of Georgian citizens but as one orchestrated by radical extremist groups and the opposition. There are attempts to link this event with the US and predict an economic disaster without Russian tourists. 

You stated in your previous analyses that Russia uses human-rights issues, conspiracy theories about for example the loss of Georgian religious identity or the “legalization” of homosexuality, to halt Georgia’s Western integration. Since the first planned LGBTQ march was called off parallel to these protests, do you see anti-Western disinformation being spread related to this new political scandal?

The weaponization of religion is the most powerful instrument for Russia to influence post-Soviet countries and consolidate them around a common religion and common memories. Far-right groups affiliated with Russia were actively mobilizing public opinion against the Pride, but these two developments are not directly interlinked, since protest against Gavrilov were mostly spontaneous.

 

Bio:

Tamar Kintsurashvili has been the executive director of the Media Development Foundation - MDF since 2017. Tamar is an author and co-author of numerous researches and publications on hate speech, anti-Western propaganda, the Kremlin Influence Index, media literacy, and the freedom of expression. She is an editor-in-chief of the fact-checking online portal Myth Detector and runs Deutsche Welle Akademie youth project Myth Detector Lab for Media Literacy in Georgia aimed at enhancing youth critical thinking. Tamar is a member of Deutsche Welle Akademie Media and Information Literacy Experts Network (MILEN).

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