Main Image Credit A satellite image of the Black Sea region. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/NASA
Having scored only limited success in their anti-Western disinformation campaign in Georgia, Russian propaganda outlets are now attempting to fuel hostile attitudes between Tbilisi and Ankara with newly invented arguments.
The so-called Second Nagorno-Karabakh War conducted between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year has given Russia a strategic opportunity to increase its presence in the South Caucasus and portray itself as the main peace and security provider in the region. Moreover, the absence of Western engagement in the conflict resolution process between Armenia and Azerbaijan has further contributed to the shaping of a Russian narrative that portrays the South Caucasus region as Moscow’s backyard.
A Major Propaganda Thrust
Russia has been continuously attempting to reverse pro-Western sentiments in Georgia by spreading anti-Western propaganda; by applying economic pressure; by using different types of espionage activities, including employing agents of influence; and by investing in domestic party politics through the cultivation of pliant, anti-Western political figures. So far, Moscow has been unable to achieve its goals. Yet one of the newer strategic directions chosen by the Kremlin is to damage Georgia’s position as a democracy and as a reliable partner in the region, with a particular focus on the strategic partnership between Ankara and Tbilisi.
Despite regional instability, economic hardships and extreme political polarisation, Tbilisi still remains the most stable Western ally in the region. Russia’s ongoing aggression against Georgia – as seen in its creeping occupation of parts of the country, which has already been merged with elements of annexation – has significantly shifted public opinion against Moscow and pushed Georgians to become more Western-oriented. With an absolute majority of the Georgian population supporting Tbilisi’s integration into the European and Euro-Atlantic space, Russia is looking for indirect ways of achieving its objectives by portraying Turkey as an aggressive regional actor and, therefore, as an obstacle to Georgia’s Atlantic integration. According to Russia’s traditional modus operandi, portraying Turkey – a NATO member state – as an ‘aggressor’ and ‘occupier of Georgian soil’ may shift attitudes towards Ankara and, eventually, towards NATO membership.
The partnership between Turkey and Georgia remains one of the closest in the region, with strong trade, economic and diplomatic ties. Georgia enjoys a free trade agreement with Turkey, and Ankara is Georgia’s largest trade partner, with an external trade turnover of $1.6 billion in 2020. Additionally, Tbilisi and Ankara share a close partnership in the energy sector, with a number of joint strategic projects, such as the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku–Tbilisi–-Erzurum gas pipeline and the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway. The strategic partnership with Turkey is vital not only for Georgia’s energy security and economic stability, but also for broader security in the Black Sea.
Turkey has openly advocated for Georgia’s integration into the European and Euro-Atlantic space, supported its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and upheld a policy of non-recognition of Georgia’s occupied regions. Thus, it is unsurprising that over the past few years, pro-Kremlin media and political actors have been particularly proactive in spreading disinformation on Turkey’s strategic objectives with regards to Georgia. But the current Russian-funded campaign also serves another purpose: that of portraying Turkey as an occupier in order to divert attention from the Kremlin’s active measures against Georgia and ongoing ‘borderisation’ process, and to create a new enemy that allegedly threatens Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The Props: A Century-Old Treaty and the Use of Sensitive Issues for Propaganda Purposes
Fake narratives usually stress Ankara’s alleged goal of seizing Georgia’s Autonomous Republic of Adjara, which borders Turkey. Pro-Kremlin actors are actively attempting to indoctrinate the Georgian population by instigating fear over the historical Treaty of Kars, which was concluded between Turkey and the Soviet republics of the South Caucasus in 1921. As part of that treaty, Turkey ceded a large part of Adjara including Batumi and Gyumri to the Soviet Union and, in return, received Kars, Artvuin and Ardhan.
This is the territorial disposition which Georgia accepted when it regained its independence. Yet a century after the Treaty of Kars and despite the fact that there is no evidence to question the status of Adjara, Russian disinformation outlets claim that Ankara plans to invade Batumi after the Treaty supposedly ‘expires’, even though the Kars Treaty does not have an expiry date. Such narratives are mainly spread by so-called ‘pro-Georgian’, radical-populist, nationalist groups, and target a nationalist segment of Georgian society.
Anti-Turkish narratives were also part of the 2020 parliamentary election campaign of the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots party. By peddling the slogan ‘Defend Adjara, defend your part of Georgia’ in its electoral campaign media clips, the party aimed at provoking hostile attitudes towards Turkey. Pre-election campaign banners also portrayed Turkey as an occupier, by marking Abkhazia, the Tskhinvali region (or so-called South Ossetia) and Adjara as occupied territories. The banners were later removed due to their violation of the Electoral Code of Georgia.
The poor performance of the Alliance of Patriots in the 2020 parliamentary elections – obtaining only 3.14% of votes – once again proved that openly pro-Russian sentiments are losing their popular appeal. Still, spreading anti-Turkish narratives could fuel ethnic and religious hostilities against a strategic partner and the only regional advocate of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The Kremlin is also increasingly opting for a more ‘home-grown’ approach by investing its resources in recruiting native Georgian Kremlin sympathisers who can build trust among fellow citizens more easily. Pro-Russian groups are manipulating the information space and using so-called ‘pro-Georgian’ and patriotic narratives in disguise, while Russia is attempting to decentralise its outreach by targeting rural areas as well.
Anti-Turkish narratives have been present during the ongoing large-scale protests against the construction of the Namakhvani hydropower plant project (HPP) on the Rioni river. The history of protests against the construction of HPPs in Georgia dates back to the Soviet years. However, this time, the legitimate concerns of the local population and pro-environment groups have been accompanied and partially overshadowed by anti-Turkish narratives due to the fact that the project is being executed by the Turkish company ENKA Renewables, which holds 90% of the project’s shares.
In most cases, such narratives are disseminated by Kremlin sympathisers aiming to divert attention from environmental concerns, divide public opinion and increase tensions. The spreading of such disinformation at a time of heightened tensions is damaging the interests of other activists, who risk seeing a diversion from their entirely separate and legitimate environmentalist agenda. But most importantly, this propaganda skirmish provides an opportunity to indulge in further self-destructive xenophobic discourse.
Fuelling anti-Turkish sentiments within Georgian society fits Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy against Georgia. By encouraging radical, nationalist rhetoric, Russia is attempting to weaken the strategic partnership between Tbilisi and Ankara; to undermine the political willingness of Turkey to support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations; and to damage Georgia’s energy security and economic potential, making it easier for the Kremlin to exercise more leverage over Tbilisi. Russian disinformation has thus become a national security threat, which needs to be countered with a whole-of-nation approach, including the public and private sectors.
Kakhaber Kemoklidze is the former Head of the Georgian Government’s Administration and former Chief of the Office of the National Security Council of Georgia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.