Does Russia have soft power? The Case of Georgia
Ghia Nodia| Academic Essay | 2021
Since a little bit more than the last ten years, Russian and later also Chinese soft power became a popular subject of discussion. Initially at least, this new line of research was considered somewhat counterintuitive and paradoxical. Since Joseph S. Nye, Jr., an American scholar, coined this new term in 1990,it has been tacitly presumed that soft power is primarily a preserve of liberal democracies, first of all of the United States; soft power was something that helped liberal democracies prevail over autocracies relying on sheer force.
Now it appears that illiberal and undemocratic regimes could also wield such power and, moreover, use them against liberal democracies. It certainly may be used to counter western influence in different countries who may still oscillate between democratic and autocratic values; however, especially after Donald Trump was elected president of the US, possible Russian (and maybe also Chinese) involvement in inner workings of established western democracies became an important topic of discussion as well.
Initially, not all western analyst presented Russia’s “discovery” of soft power in a negative light. Rather, this was seen as a sign that Russia started to behave as a “normal” country, also in its neighborhood: that is, it relied on soft power-based tools instead of coarser mechanisms of military, political or economic pressure usually referred to as “hard power”. For instance, in 2006 Fiona Hill linked Russia’s “discovery” of her soft power with an assumption that “no regional state reasonably anticipates a Russian military invasion.”Andrei P. Tsygankov of San Francisco State University later argued that the new soft-power-oriented “Russia would be less likely to rely on coercion and tough talk in defending its interests abroad.” This vision implied that Russia’s foreign policy behavior, in its immediate post-Soviet neighborhood or “near abroad” as well as elsewhere, is becoming “normal” (as “normality” is understood in the liberal West).
However, in the light of Russia’s military interventions in Georgia 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as its military involvement in Syria’s conflict since 2015, sticking to this assertion became rather difficult. On the other hand, scholars started to note that what is sometimes referred to as application of soft power mechanisms by Russia is rather contrary to what the West understands under this term, and is also openly hostile to its interests. Such activities would be better described as “propaganda”, “disinformation”, “subversion”, “active measures” or even “hybrid warfare.”Therefore, it may make sense to start by elucidating key concepts.
Hard power, soft power, sharp power
As mentioned, the concept of soft power is construed in opposition to that of hard power. According to Nye’s original definition, it is primarily about the power of attraction, wielded by ideology (or “values”) and culture, but also institutions created around such values/ideologies.One can express this distinction by saying that “hard power” is a power to coerce (or to influence somebody else’s behavior through bribes), while “soft power” is that of seduction.
Any country can have both hard and soft power. Nye mentioned that in certain periods, Soviet Union also disposed of soft power resources through attractiveness of the Communist ideology to some segments of public opinion in non-Communist countries (including in the West), as well as international web of leftist and pro-Soviet institutions. However, by the time he wrote his essay, this power had largely faded away. Conversely, American or generally western soft power over the Communist world (but not only it) eventually came to be seen genuinely irresistible. Many, if not most people living under Communism, including some part of the Communist elites, wanted their countries to be like America, or the West in general. This pushed them to dismantle their own political system and proclaim commitment to western values and way of life (whether they really became like the West as a result, is another story). It will not be too big an exaggeration to say that the western victory in the Cold War was at least in part caused by a huge advantage in soft power.
Having said that, we should remember that soft power cannot be fully separate from hard one. The soft power gap between US and Soviet Union was matched by a gap in the military, and, especially, economic power. The gap in the economic development between US (or generally the capitalist West) and Soviet Union was huge and growing.It caused the latter to lag behind in the military balance as well: there was no way for the weak Soviet economy to sustain an arms race with the much richer US any more. That might had been the core reason why Mikhail Gorbachev was able to convince Soviet power elites to get engaged in extremely risky liberalizing reforms known as Perestroika and Glasnost. But one of the reasons why almost nobody on the both sides of the Cold War divide could predict fatal consequences of this undertaking was that people underestimated the influence of the soft power. Gorbachev himself, though a Communist, appeared to be fascinated by western ways of doing things; once he made first timid steps to borrow some of them for his country, he created a momentum he could no longer control.
This allows us to say that western soft power prevalence was largely underpinned by its advantage in traditional sources of power: in effect, they worked in concert (which is not to say that western strategists had knowingly developed a policy based on such a combination – as policy the same Joseph S. Nye would have called “smart power”). However, the endgame of the Cold war was strongly influenced by the western soft power. No Cold war hawks in the West predicted the way Soviet power imploded without any visible efforts from the West: the Russian elites, not to speak of those under Russian communist domination, fell for the charms of western civilization, and voilà: there was neither Russian Empire nor Communism.
So, it was not a coincidence that the very concept of “soft power” was developed in the end of the Cold War: Ultimately, this was one of the ways to conceptualize the western victory in it. Probably, the story of the Soviet demise still remains the best illustration of this concept. It belonged to the same Zeitgeist in which Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous article, “The End of History?”If we translate the latter’s main idea into Nye’s language, it might be formulated as follows: “as concerns the soft power competition, the victory of the liberal democracy is now final.” At least, this is what most readers appeared to take away from Fukuyama’s article (later developed into a book).
In order to ascertain the meaning of this concept, it is important to note that “soft power” is something a country has, not what it does. While hard power requires purposeful efforts by state governments, soft power works best without direct government involvement, even though governments may also take deliberate steps aimed at boosting their soft power outreach. A country may sway others just by what is often called demonstration effect or diffusion, without wishing to influence somebody else’s behavior. The success of its economic model, attractiveness of its political institutions or its culture may by itself stimulate other countries, or political and societal actors within them, to try to emulate its ways and make certain steps to win its favor. This is the real point of “soft power”. For this reasons, descriptions of soft power as an instrument or tool of foreign policy should make one suspicious. To be sure a country might deliberately instrumentalizeits soft power resources; however, soft power may be truly effective without this.
In the literature about the role of soft power in Russia’s foreign policy, however, most authors presume that they are discussing an instrument or tool that Russian government uses in order to achieve some more or less specific goals. These tools are called “soft” only as much as they do not include direct military, political and economic pressure – that is, they cannot be qualified as applications of “hard power.” This logic makes “soft power” a residual concept: anything that does not fit into our understanding of “hard power”, is tossed into the basket of “soft power”. This may include some efforts of persuasion, but more often the authors imply, as mentioned before, propaganda, disinformation, subversion and support for anti-system forces in other countries. This does not have much in common with the original understanding of soft power.
In order to address this conceptual confusion, Chistopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment of Democracy of the US came up with a term “sharp power” in order to describe non-traditional efforts of Russia and China to increase their influence in the world.They argue that Russian and Chinese policies they put under this heading are “not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation”. Later, Joseph S. Nye himself embraced this distinction as legitimate.However, having defined sharp power as “the deceptive use of information for hostile purposes,” he preferred to categorize it as “a type of hard power”, insisting that Russian or Chinese application of “sharp power” should not disguise the fact that these countries are really rather poor when it comes to genuine soft power. He meant that their development models and ways of life are not by themselves attractive enough to seduce other societies into emulating them.
I think this terminological distinction is important and legitimate. But this should not stop us from questioning a possible tacit assumption that genuine “soft power” is a preserve of liberal societies and political systems, while autocrats can only have “sharp power”, expressed through disinformation and active measures as an addendum to the latter. Such assumption would be too simplistic, even if this is something pleasant for liberal-minded people to hear (including this author); it presumes obvious, exclusive and universally shared normative attraction of liberal values and ways of life. Unfortunately, this is not so.
As mentioned, Soviet Communism also had some soft power in the West, even though eventually the charms of western liberal societies proved stronger. This is not an exception: aggressively anti-liberal ideologies do wield soft power which cannot be explained by them using “sharp power” techniques”. To take a more recent example, Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) had a power of attraction for some westerners dissatisfied with their own societies.Nye’s assumption about paucity of China’s soft power may be overoptimistic: due to its spectacular economic success, this country has acquired an actual soft power that has convinced quite a few people in developing countries that Chinese model of development might be preferable to democratic models advocated by the West.Whether we liberals like it or not, autocratic political regimes and illiberal ideologies may have their own powers of attraction or “soft power”. So far, the global overall balance in soft power competition may still be in favor of liberal democracies; but autocratic soft power is a serious challenger to be taken seriously in this area as well.
Moreover, if we want to understand relative effectiveness of “sharp power” interventions by autocratic nations, we should not only look for crafty and devious methods used by “active measures” entrepreneurs or generous funding their government are ready to set aside for financing their activities. As experience shows us, “active measures” cannot be effective unless they are built on genuine soft power resources that autocratic regimes may have. For instance, Soviet and later Russia “active measures” could only achieve any success if they shrewdly enough took advantage of ideas that had been there in certain segments of western societies: attraction of leftist or pacifist ideas, anti-American sentiments in Europe, etc.As Lloyd and Litinova argue, while many Russian activities do fall under the rubric of “disinformation”, “manipulation”, etc., the image of a socially conservative society projected by the Russian leadership is genuinely attractive to large segments of society in many countries, including the West.Sharp and soft powers should be clearly distinguished as concepts; but the former cannot work without the latter.
Russia’s soft or sharp power?
With this general conceptual framework in mind, I will discuss Russia’s role in Georgia, and what is understood under its “soft power” here. This discussion will boil down to answering two questions: (1) whether or not Russian activities in South Caucasus that are often put under the heading of “soft power” are really better described as applications of “sharp power”; (2) even we agree that lots of Russian activities rather fall under the “sharp power” category, does Russia also have genuine soft power resources with regards to political and societal agents in Georgia – and what are they?
First of all, when most authors describe what they call Russia’s “soft power” in Georgia (as well as in many other countries), they usually have in mind some kind of a deliberate, targeted effort, a toolor instrument of the foreign policy, rather than soft power resources that are there and may influence behavior in other countries actors irrespective of intentional instrumentalization of these resources by specific political actors, typically governments.Using ‘soft power’ as a foreign policy tool is explicitly mentioned in the two last Foreign Policy Concepts of the Russian Federation approved by Russia’s President.
In this understanding, soft power is something that the government does, it is an instrument managed and applied by the government. It is in contrast with the original meaning of the concept, according to which it is the society and institutions that is the carrier of the soft power, even though governments may also take advantage of their countries’ soft power resources for political reasons.
When it comes to soft power resources in a classical sense that Joseph S. Nye and others would use, Russia has a shortage of it.Its economic development model, mainly based on the exploitation of oil and gas resources, is hardly attractive for other countries – especially those that do not have such assets (in this regard, the Chinese model has much stronger appeal). Some governments of parts of societies may find Russian autocratic model of governance a good model to follow – but there is nothing specifically Russian about it, post-Soviet autocrats can master it without necessarily learning from Putin (though they may borrow some specific repertoires). Moreover, the Armenian Velvet Revolution in March 2018 showed that friendship with Putin is hardly a guarantee for autocrats to keep power. Armenia’s second war with Azerbaijan in 2020 also showed that Russia is hardly a credible partner when it comes to security.But even if in some cases Russia can help preserving autocracies, this is not are not necessarily attractive for peoples of those countries. In all post-Soviet countries, whatever their governments’ Russia policies may be, the latter has an image of an imperial bully, and this is hardly a good foundation for a robust “soft power”. Arguably, when it comes to soft power resources, contemporary Russia even lags behind the Soviet Union that represented an alternative model of development that could be a point of reference for at least a segment of the global Left.
Whatever is called Russia’s “soft” or “sharp” power interventions, is not grounded in her own institutions or culture, is secondary to, or parasitic of, western institutions and values, and can only be understood as an extension of Russia’s general geopolitical competition with the West. This is so in two meanings. One is that Russian efforts of this kind emulate certain western policies. Secondly, and more importantly, Russian soft/sharp power interventions are mostly based on taking advantage of genuine weaknesses of the West: this is where Russian efforts of this kind gets their best chance of success.
The emulation part is quite obvious. RT TV company or Sputnik radio networks claim to be nothing but Russian analogues of BBC or Deutsche Welle, The Russkii Mir (Russian World) Foundation mirrors institutions like British Council or Goethe Institute, etc.At a minimum, this shows Russian intention to demonstrate that it does not do anything that western powers don’t. Even using the term “soft power” is an emulation: this is the way to demonstrate Russia’s “normality”. This strategy is quite successful: However we may assess ideological messages projected by these media outlets, or specific projects of Russkii Mir network, it is very difficult to object to general legitimacy of such Russian actions. Russia can credibly claim that such activities are standard for political actors in today’s multi-polar international environment: There is nothing wrong about promoting a country’s interests and values in the international market for information and ideas.
What makes Russian actions different from soft power projections of western liberal powers is their often hidden, non-transparent nature, as well as their propensity to spread deliberate lies – something called “disinformation”. This is the main reason why some authors are reluctant to talk about Russian “soft power” and prefer terms like “sharp power”, “disinformation”, “propaganda”, “active measures”, etc. I will use the term “sharp power” in this case.
As to the subject matter of such interventions, their choice is dictated more by exploiting internal problems and divisions in the target countries, than by a wish to project a positive image of Russia, its institutions and culture. It is based on this logic that in the last years, Russia tends to support conservative illiberal or populist groups (political parties or civil society organizations and movements) in different countries, including South Caucasus. In western democracies, these are obviously anti-systemic forces that, arguably, threaten very foundations of western liberal democracies.However, Putin or his strategists would argue, so do pro-western parties and NGOs that the West supports: western strategists don’t hide that they want to undermine autocratic regimes in countries like Russia and want them to be replaced by democracies. Which is hard to argue with. Even very cautious democratic reforms initiated by Gorbachev government (and stimulated, as mentioned, by western “soft power”) eventually led to the break-up of the Soviet Union; today, any success of democratic forces in Russia could also be destabilizing for the country. Why cannot Russia respond in kind? À la guerre comme à la guerre.
Russian policies in the South Caucasus are informed by the same logic. Western influence in this region is inimical to Russia for at least two reasons. First, there is a consideration of status: Russia considers this region as is natural “backyard” or a privileged zone of influence; therefore, any western efforts to support genuine independence of these countries means squeezing Russia out of its God-given backyard.In particular, in Georgia’s case, this independence was expressed in its wish to join NATO and EU or – if that’s impossible – to stay as close to them; in Armenia’s case before 2013, by its plan to sign an Association Agreement with the EU; in Azerbaijan’s case, in its insistence on developing transport routes that would allow this country to export its hydrocarbon resources bypassing Russia. Russia tried to fight these developments with mixed success: It failed when it came to the transportation of Azerbaijani oil and gas (primarily because of strong American support to the project of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in the 1990s, and later also European support for gas transportation) projects like TANAP),succeeded in pressuring Armenia into giving up the project of EU association and joining the Eurasian Union instead,and had a mixed result in Georgia, where the country itself continues to insist on NATO membership (though, after the 2012 government change it does this with less energy and conviction), members of the alliance itself, afraid of the Russian reaction, are rather lukewarm in supporting this);as a result of second Nagorny Karabakh war, she succeeded in imposing Pax Russica fully excluding any role of the West in the conflict resolution.
On the Russian side, this was done through the application of traditional hard power mechanisms, including invasion in Georgia in 2008. However, there were no comparable efforts on behalf of the western actors, including the US, EU, or specific member-states of the EU. While there were political and economic benefits for dealing with western actors, the attraction of the western model of development and way of life was a very important factor as well. The history of competition for influence in the South Caucasus in the last decades has been rather asymmetrical: arguably, western influence depended more (to be sure, not exclusively) on its soft, while Russia’s – on her hard power.
Between the West and Russia: The Nature of Georgia’s Choice
Georgian political thinking since independence has been revolving around the assumption that the country’s fate depends on a choice between becoming part of the western or Russian spheres of influence; the preference for the former option that expresses itself in effort to established close partnership with NATO and the EU, to be culminated in an eventual membership, has been the backbone of its foreign policy vision.
During the last twenty years or so, Georgia’s relations with both organizations have become much closer: on the 2008 Bucharest summit, Georgia received a general, though vague promise of future NATO membership, and in 2016 its Association Agreement with the EU came into force. However, the overall dynamics of the relationship is unmistakable: it is Georgia that insists on ever closer ties culminating in membership, while NATO and EU are looking for excuses to keep this country at arms’ length. When western political leaders tried to persuade Georgians to do something differently in their international politics (at least, until 2012), it was primarily about a need to balance their pro-western fervor with greater efforts to normalize relations with Russia. The Georgian drive to join the West can hardly be explained by pure Realpolitik considerations (those that rest on hard power calculations); arguably, Georgia’s pro-western policies may have caused tensions with Russia and resulting security challenges; had Georgian thinking be more based on the logic of Realpolitik, the policy of “bandwagoning” to Russia might had been a more natural strategy. A normative perception that Georgia should be part of the West, developed by the Georgian elites and shared by majority of the public, may be better at explaining Georgia’s strategic choices.Using another language, one can say that Georgia’s pro-western policies is largely caused by the attractiveness of the western model of development – something that may be described by the West’s soft power. To be sure, we should keep in mind that that this soft power is backed up by military, economic and political prowess – though the West, whether represented by the US and the EU, did not openly and consistently deploy much of it in the South Caucasus.
Hence, Georgia is a curious case where the predominantly soft power of the West tends to be winning against Russia predominantly hard power pressure. Interestingly, though, one of the results of the 2008 war was that Russia appeared to have run out of hard power resources. It has already recognized independence of two separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and put them under effective political and military control. This created a veneer of finality to the status of these regions: they are already taken by Russia, the latter is not going to give it up. With regards to these particular territories, there is nothing more to lose, save for possible international recognition of these entities as independent states: more than a decade after the war, the issue of recognition did not progress. During the Mikheil Saakashvili presidency, Georgia achieved effective energy independence from Russia: therefore, cutting gas supplies is no longer a threat.Increase of the number of Russian tourists to Georgia appeared to give Putin some leverage: he hoped that after air-flights ban, Georgian tourist industry would be devastated. This did not materialize: Georgian economy suffered some losses, but nothing too serious; until the COVID-19 pandemics, the number of Russian tourists declined but many still came through other routes.The increase of export of Georgia’s wine and agricultural produce to Russia since 2012 made Georgia vulnerable to potential Russian punishing sanctions in this area (a tool Russia had used before under claiming that Georgian goods did not satisfy its sanitary conditions), but previous sanctions against Georgian wines and mineral water showed that while it may be used as a deterrence, this is not really a killer option either.
Therefore, the center of gravity in Russian-Georgian relations has moved to the sphere of non-coercive mechanisms. Russia’s major strategic weakness in Georgia primarily consists of the pro-western orientation of its society. To put it otherwise, Georgia is the case where Russia’s deficit in soft power is most obvious. Therefore, Russia’s efforts are targeted at trying to change this reality by trying to influence the Georgian society. The method is application of its “sharp power,” even though it is presented as a “normal” activity that can be described in terms of “soft power.”It is logical that such applications escalated after 2008, but especially after 2012, when the Georgian Dream government chose a policies of greater toleration, if not indirect encouragement, of tacitly or openly anti-western groups in Georgia.
Quite a few authors have tried to analyze such activities of Russia in Georgia, mostly though not exclusively under the heading of soft power,usually have in mind support for Georgian political parties, media and civil society organizations that are usually branded as nativist or far-right, as well as activities of some Russian organizations like Sputnik radio or Primakov Russian-Georgian Public Center established by Gorchakov Foundation, close to Russian state agency Russki Mir.The allegedly pro-Russian groups in Georgia relatively rarely present themselves as friends of Russia: provided that Russia occupies twenty percent of the Georgian territory and is seen as a source of existential threat in Georgia, this strategy would not be too promising. Instead, the main focus of these organizations is on discredit the image of the West in Georgia. This includes presenting the West as the force hostile to Georgian traditional values and morality (especially through advocating for promiscuity and gay rights), presenting the United States and EU as essentially imperialist powers who want to dominate Georgia but, at the same time, do not have a will to provide genuine support for its security. Portraying Turkey and Islamic world in general as a grave threat for Georgia is another important direction of these activities. When it came to Georgian organizations, in many cases a direct link to Russia is not easy to prove, though there is obvious coincidence of messages between those of Russian propaganda and those spread by these Georgian organizations.
What are genuine sources of Russia’s soft power in Georgia?
As everywhere in the world, there exist people critical of liberal ideology and the dominant role of western civilization, or specifically the United States, on the global level. It would be wrong to see the “Russian hand” behind any activities of people who spread this kind of views. On the other hand, there is credible research on Russian support to groups espousing nativist anti-liberal and anti-western agendas in different countries of the world.It would be difficult to consider Georgia an exception in this regard. As mentioned before, “sharp power” is a better denominator for such measures exploited by Russia as it is focused not on projecting positive image of Russian institutions and culture, but on undermining the influence and image of the West, the force that current Russian leadership considers its main adversary.
However, in Georgia as elsewhere, such interventions would have hardly any chances of even limited success had Russia no genuine resources of soft power, had there been no real local ground on which it’s Russian “active measures” could work.
Russia’ soft power resources with regards to different parts of the world are also different: such resources that work in one country or a region, may not do so somewhere else. Respectively, strategies of Russian sharp power efforts may also differ. However, there are some general features. Apparently, in large parts of the world, Russia’s “charm” appears to be about standing up to the global hegemon, such as United States, or, alternately, global cosmopolitan liberal elites. Russia has not exclusive rights in this area, but is has become one of the leading actors on the global market for anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism. Russia presents herself as a champion of national sovereignty, international legitimacy, and the world of traditional cultures, threatened by western military, economic and moral domination.However, in Georgia, and in its immediate neighborhood in general, it is more difficult to employ this message box, as it is better known for doing exactly the opposite: acting as a revisionist power supporting separatist forces and dismembering existing states. Therefore, in Georgia it needs a somewhat different toolbox. There is an overlap of Russia’s image it tries to present in the West and in Georgia, but there are also important other resources that Georgia has here. What are they? In the remaining part of this paper, I will briefly outline main areas where Russia has genuine soft power resources.
Economic attraction. Russia is hardly an attractive model for economic development in general or for Georgia in particular. However, Russia is still much richer country than Georgia: According to 2019 World Bank data, it had almost 2.5 times higher GDP per capita, or 1.8 higher GDP per capita by purchasing power parity.In practice, this expresses itself in the attractiveness of the Russian labor market for the Georgian citizens. Remittances from abroad constitute important part of Georgia’s trade balance, and an important source of livelihood for many Georgian families. However, the share of remittances from Russia tend to decline over time, while the share of EU and other countries increasing. While in 2014, Russia was a source of almost half of all remittances that Georgia received,by January 2021 it went down to 15.4 percent, with Italy rather than Russia becoming number one source of remittances for Georgia.This shows that while higher level of economic development continues to be an important soft power resource, it is gradually losing out to the West on this account.
While superior economic attractiveness of western countries as compared to Russia, as well as aging of the generation that is more familiar with Russian language and culture is an overall reason for this trend, policies of the Russian government has contributed to the acceleration of this decline. Even though, since 2012, Russian citizens don’t need visas to travel to Georgia, Russia has introduced visa regime for the Georgian citizens in 2000 and has been keeping it in place. In the meantime, since March 2017, Georgian citizens enjoy visa-free regime with the Schengen zone countries of the EU;moreover, they have also have limited but increasing opportunities for legal labor migration to the EU countries.The reason why the Russian government insists on keeping the visa regime in place is that it wants it to use this as a bargaining point for inducing Georgia to restore diplomatic relations that Georgia severed in 2008 in protest of the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.Such restoration, if it came, would be interpreted as a tacit recognition of “new realities” created after this recognition.This is an obvious case of the Russian traditional hard-power-based pressure undermining possible effect of its real soft power resources.
The pull factor of the stronger Russian economy appears to be stronger with minorities. It (together with a push factors of the Georgian nationalism and political instability in the 1990s) has reduced the Russian minority from 341 thousand people of 6.32 percent of the population in 1989to 26.5 thousand or 0.7 percent in 2014.This means that effectively, Russian minority ceased to be a consequential political or societal factor in Georgia. The two largest minorities are Azeris (6.3 percent of the whole population) and Armenians (4.7 percent). Of these, labor migration to Russia is especially important to the Armenian minority residing in a mountainous Samtskhe-Javakheti region: for them, seasonal labor migration is an important part of economic survival strategy. Many of them have Russian or Armenian passports (in addition to Georgian ones, or without having a Georgian passports), largely in order to circumvent Russian visa requirements. This (apart from other factors) make them a strong constituency in favor of prioritizing normalization of relations with Russia over closer integration with the West.
Russian Language and Culture. Many Georgians, especially those of the older generation, master Russian language and feel closer to the Russian culture than to the western ones. This may be a resource of higher goodwill towards Russia; moreover, it may also make Georgians more receptive to messages spread by the Russian media.
Here too, the overall trend is towards gradual weakening of the spread of the knowledge of Russian language and culture. In the educational system, it is English that has become a mandatory second language, with Russian relegated to the status of third and optional language (competing with German, French, etc.). Russian in no longer seen as a language of career advancement, and young ambitious Georgians looks for chances of getting education in Europe and United States rather than in Russia.
Despite this, Russian is still more wide-spread in Georgia than English: according to 2019 research, three times more people mastered Russian than English (61 percent reported some level of proficiency in Russian, and 22 percent – in English).Growing tourism from Russia and other post-Soviet countries has increased demand for Russian-speakers in the hospitality and generally in the service sector; that strengthened a perception that it is still useful to speak Russian. Therefore, the factor of Russian language and culture is still there and it is not going to fade away altogether. However, apart from gradually changing balance of language proficiency in favor of English, there is also an issue of social status: knowledge of English is increasingly a marker of belonging to the elite, especially in the generation socialized in 2000s and later. Notably, in the just quoted research, 77 percent of those polled supported English being a mandatory language in schools against 13 percent that gave preference to Russian. English-speakers in Georgia may still be fewer than Russian-speakers, but they are more influential. Due to generational reasons, this trend is bound to increase.
One of the results of this trend is that while the Russian-language media has some influence in Georgia, it is rather limited. In its propaganda and disinformation efforts targeting Georgian population, Russia does not rely on the Russian-language sources much. There have never been a ban on Russian TV channels, though in practice, after 2008 war the major Russian channels broadcasting political news were removed from Cable TV packages, with entertainment channels being kept. Since 2014, these informal restrictions were somewhat loosenedand viewership of Russian TV channels increased again.However, there is no evidence that Russian-broadcasted views has particularly high impact on the Georgian audiences.
The research on anti-western far-right media that is often presumed to be supported by Russia, or at least spreads messages that are very close to those of Russian propaganda, shows that “the Russian media (such as Sputnik, RT, NTV, Russia 1 etc.) do not actually play a significant role in the system of disseminating Kremlin narratives among citizens. They are a source of narratives for the local pro-Russian media, in particular fringe media; they can also be referred by local mainstream and local media.When spreading its narratives, Russian propagandists mostly rely on the local Georgian-language media that is openly anti-western and anti-liberal but believed to be at least tacitly pro-Russian because its content is often borrowed from the Russian sources.
Here again, ethnic minorities are a different story. Most Georgian Armenians and Azerbaijanis do not master Georgian language, and many of them are still used to Russian as the lingua franca. This increases the sphere of use of the Russian language: When the Georgian state and civil society representatives make efforts to convey their messages to the minorities, they often have to do so through the medium of the Russian language. The state sponsors Russian-language programming (as well as that in Armenian and Azerbaijani languages) on Public TV. This people mostly depend on the Armenian and Azerbaijani, but also Russian-language media for their news and information; this naturally makes them more receptive to political narratives promoted by the Russian government through media outlets under its control or influence, and this impact is hardly balanced by that of the Georgian media. This may be correlated with the fact that as compared to the overall population, ethnic minorities in Georgia care less for the policies of European and Euro-Atlantic integration and are more supportive of Russia-friendly policies.
Shared Religion. Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) is the dominant religious organization in Georgia and it is usually considered an actor with the highest level of moral authority in the country. It head, Patriarch Ilia II may be considered the most revered person in the country. GOC is also widely seen as Russia’s most important soft power resource in Georgia or, more directly, as a “tool for Russian influence”.
The Church is not openly pro-Russian. The Patriarch and the Holy Synod have expressed support for state policies of European and Euro-Atlantic integration,and routinely refer to the Russian occupation of the Georgian territories as a major problem. This allows to explain an apparent paradox what while GOC if often considered a tool of Russian influence in Georgia, in all polls high levels of trust towards the Church is combined with a strong support for EU and NATO integration.
On the other hand, some (though not too many) high-level clergymen have expressed openly pro-Russian views. Much more of them are routinely involved in criticism of the West, however. The GOP lends its moral authority to the image of the West as the force spreading immorality and undermining traditional Georgian (and Orthodox) values. Apart from the clergy voicing these views, many of nativist anti-liberal groups are formally or informally linked to the Church.
Such attitudes towards the West are fully concordant with narratives of the Russian Church and Russian state propaganda. While the West is portrayed morally decadent, alien and uncaring for Georgia, Russia is considered a culturally close. Shared religion is considered the most important expression of this cultural kinship.
GOP also sides with Russia in issues of “Church geopolitics”, or a conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. While, unlike the Catholic Church, the world of eastern Orthodoxy does not have a global centralized organization and constitutes a family of autocephalous (autonomous) Churches, the Patriarch of Constantinople is traditionally recognized as primus inter pares with regards to other heads of autocephalous Orthodox churches. On the other hand, the ROC, by far the largest in the Orthodox world, and a supporter of Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions, challenges Constantinople for effective primacy.
This rivalry has most prominently expressed itself in two issues. First, ROC boycotted the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, the first such gathering since 787, and did not consider its decisions binding for itself. GOC was one of the other three churches that refused to attend.Even greater controversy was related to the 2018 decision of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, something that made ROC furious. In response, it broke communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.GOC did not go as far as severing ties with Constantinople, but neither did it recognize autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church.
What explains anti-western and openly or tacitly pro-Russian attitudes of the Church hierarchy? Historical rivalry between Eastern and Western versions of Christianity is an important but insufficient factor: it cannot explain why the GOC sides with the Russian Church in its dispute with Constantinople. Soviet-time experiences may explain that better: for obvious reasons, the Georgian clergy, especially the older generation which also dominates the GOC hierarchy, has stronger links with the Russian Church through educational and personal ties. Such links are weaker in case of younger clergy – and pro-Russian sympathies are somewhat less persistent in this generation.
The Figure of Stalin
Personality of Joseph Stalin is an important, if largely underestimated, link between Russia and Georgia. He is a cult figure for important segments of both societies. In both cases, his cult status is related not to the Communist ideology, but to nationalism, albeit these are very different kinds of nationalism. In neither country is this a nationalism in a classical Gellnerian sense of the word, that is, the ideology of nation-state. In Russia, Stalin symbolizes imperial aggrandizement: it was under Stalin that Russia reached the peak of its international power, gaining effective control of half of Europe and, for several decades, constituting one of the two poles on which the whole system of international relations was based for several decades. For Georgia, Stalin personifies the potency of Georgian ethnicity: He was, beyond any comparison, the greatest Georgian in history, if “greatness” is defined by the scope of power and global influence. He was the only Georgian who became, in Hegelian terms, the world-historical individual; probably there will never be another one. Hence, Stalin is not only a great Georgian and a great Russian at the same time, but also the greatest hero for (some) Georgians and (some) Russians. If this cult status is considered valid, this is an important link between the two countries.
However, arguably, this figure is also a deeply controversial if seen in the light of the national projects of both countries. For a champion of Russian imperial grandeur the greatness of Stalin is indisputable: good imperialists should not, and usually are not concerned about ethnic origins of their heroes. To be sure, he cannot be acceptable for liberal-minded westernizing Russians, but this is another story. From the Georgian perspective, however, acceptance of Stalin’s greatness is more problematic. For a Georgian nationalist in an above mentioned Gellnerian sense, that is a champion of the Georgian nation-state, Stalin is a traitor and a villain, not a hero. In 1921, he led Russian-Bolshevik conquest of his own country.
Stalin can only be a national hero if Georgia accepts its status of a political satellite within a Russian universe, but maintaining and guarding its ethnic and cultural authenticity. This may explain the fact that the peak of Stalin veneration coincided with Soviet times: it was in Soviet Georgia where Stalin became a popular hero of Georgian nationalism; one can even define a date when this happened: after spontaneous and bloodily suppressed March 1956 demonstrations against anti-Stalin revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev on the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist party.After this, the semi-suppressed cult of Stalin became a marker of ethnic Georgian nationalism: Georgians identified with one of their own, who put Russia under his thumb and whom “ungrateful Russians” deposed from his pedestal because they could not accept owing their greatness to a Georgian genius.
However, when “real”, that is political Georgian nationalism was allowed to express itself in the period of Gorbachev liberalization, it started to push aside the surrogate variety of nationalism that expressed itself in the Stalin cult. It is still there, but as a marginal phenomenon, a variety of folk nationalism shed by the elite-driven project of Georgian political nationalism, mostly being associated with the less educated and older people. However, it may still be exploited as a Russian soft power resource, as it combines historical linkage to Russia with the Georgian ethnic pride. In Russia, on the other hand, the post-Soviet period was marked by the revival of reverence for Stalin as a truly national figure.
Paradoxically, this ambivalence in attitudes towards the figure of Stalin is also reflected in conflicting assessments of Stalin by different representatives of the Church.Some of them, including Patriarch Ilia II, openly praised him, as a true Georgian patriot, a fighter with pernicious western influence, and even a religious believer who restored the Orthodox Church after repressions of 1920s and 1930s.Such reverence for the leader of regime notable for its violent persecution of the Church is hardly comprehensible if viewed from religious point of view. However, if we recognize the Church as a carrier of the ethnic Georgian nationalism rooted in the Soviet past, such attitudes towards Stalin become less surprising.
Discontent with social transformations, rejection of liberalism, and Post-Soviet Nostalgia.
Cultural factors such as language and religion may be important enablers of Russian soft power influence, but they are not very important, and there are signs of them being on the decline. Probably, it is the common Soviet past that is the crucial factor. It may work in both positive and negative ways. One can consider the Soviet past as the “dark age” the legacy of which should be purged and overcome: this is the stance of pro-western liberal and nationalist elites. Or, one could feel nostalgia for it as a time of stability, predictability, and social guarantees. If the first attitude is dominant, today’s Russia can hardly have much of soft power in Georgia; if, on the other, people miss good old days, or – in case of younger generation – believe that the Soviet past was preferable to Georgian tumultuous history since independence, than today’s Russia may be a genuine point of attraction, because for Georgia, Soviet past is also a Russian past, and because glorifying the Soviet past, and trying to make Russia great again with the Soviet-time grandeur being a true beacon, is a centerpiece of Putin’s ideology.
The Georgian public is truly ambivalent on this point. On the one hand, there is a stable and strong support for the idea of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, that may be interpreted as a recognition that western model of development is the only valid one for Georgia. On the other hand, Soviet nostalgia also exists. According to a July 2019 poll, 49 percent of those polled considered dissolution of the USSR a good thing for Georgia, and 41 percent – a bad thing. These numbers were fairly stable in 2017-19.Not everybody of the latter 41 percent would be attracted to Putin’s Russia; but it is natural to presume that it is among this segment of the population that Russian propaganda has greater chances to succeed.
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