Georgia beats the anti-Western drum

Georgian Dream consistently portrays itself as a champion of peace and contrasts it with the opposition, media, NGOs and Western allies, which it portrays as warmongers.

Whether it is about the unsuccessful impeachment of Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, the refusal to impose sanctions against Russia, or the European Union (EU)’s demands for necessary reforms for EU candidate status, the core message is always the same: the party secures it Peace while the West advocates war with Russia.

A striking example of this approach came after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, when government propagandists said Georgians were lucky not to witness the horrors of dead children and street explosions, underscoring the party’s claim that others would lead Georgia into war.

When Western states imposed sanctions on Russia, the ruling party justified its non-alignment with the threat of Russian aggression. In response to EU calls for reforms necessary for candidate status, the party claimed the bloc was pushing Georgia to open a second front against Moscow.

Even as the US sanctioned Georgian judges for corruption, the party insisted that the US goal was to draw Georgia into conflict with Russia.

In September, Georgia’s State Security Service opened an investigation into a suspected coup, alleging that USAID funded revolutionary training in a hotel conference room. Such investigations have been repeatedly used as pre-election stunts, as FactCheck Georgia has shown. No arrests were made, but the allegations were used for propaganda purposes.

Ultra-right groups affiliated with the party have also recently launched the Anti-Maidan movement (a reference to Ukraine’s anti-Russian uprising in 2014), pledging to resist those who engage in anti-government street protests.

This author’s October 5 article on the importance of making future EU terms of accession discussions more explicit and stringent (e.g. in relation to an independent judiciary and independent media) was used by government propagandists to claim that the entire Georgian civil society against the EU is candidate status. Propaganda channels devoted dozens of posts, articles, statements and television programs to this absurd claim, thereby blaming themselves for the expected failure to gain candidate status again.

Ironically, Georgia could still gain EU candidate status this year, even though only three of the bloc’s 12 priorities were assessed as fulfilled. The overwhelming majority of the Georgian population (over 80%) supports EU membership and this is well known to European leaders.

To Georgia’s European friends, it does not seem politically feasible to leave Georgia two steps behind Ukraine and Moldova on the path to EU membership, and many civil society organizations are joining in, out of a patriotic desire, to help Georgia move towards the EU towards this goal to move forward.

This synergy between Georgians’ European identity, the ruling party’s geopolitical blackmail, the EU’s strategic thinking and the Europatriotism of Georgian civil society organizations could still give Georgia EU candidate status.

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The sophistication of Georgian Dream’s propaganda efforts was highlighted in a recent report by online news service Publika, which focused on how party leaders tailor their messages to different audiences.

Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili strikes a more conciliatory tone toward US and EU leaders, but often praises party founder and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili; Party leader Irakli Kobakhidze often takes an aggressive stance against the West and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze often emphasizes the importance of peace.

The party repeatedly accuses the opposition and civil society of dragging Georgia into war and undermining the country’s European integration efforts. This claim obscures the disengagement from the European-minded Georgians and the failure to implement the reforms demanded by the EU.

The party’s propaganda is amplified by the television and social media channels Imedi TV, Rustavi 2 and PosTV, as well as thousands of fake news websites and trolls used by the party and its television channels to promote the positive image of Georgian represent dream. Since 2019, Meta (Facebook) has removed hundreds of pages associated with the Georgian government for their “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

A central focus of the propaganda is portraying all NGOs as “wealthy” and foreign spies, a ploy straight out of the Russian playbook. Former US Ambassador Kelly Degnan has often been portrayed as a puppet master organizing opposition parties and NGOs against the government.

Attacks on civil society organizations peaked in March 2023, when Georgian Dream attempted to pass a law on so-called foreign agents, which critics compared to the repressive Russian model. The party eventually backed down amid a public backlash and street protests, but remained undeterred by its attacks on NGOs. Party leaders said the goal of portraying Georgian civil society as a breeding ground for foreign spies had been achieved.

Liberalism has become a pejorative term under the rule of Georgian Dream, who consistently takes a hardline stance on LGBT+ rights, labeling this as “gay propaganda”. The party’s expulsion from the Party of European Socialists for adopting anti-liberal policies was explained by propagandists as retaliation for defending conservative family values ​​from liberal encroachments.

As the 2024 parliamentary elections approach, the West, including the new US ambassador to Georgia and EU leaders, should be concerned about the dramatic rise in disinformation and anti-Western propaganda.

While Georgian Dream may use such tactics to improve its electoral prospects, it undermines the resilience and cohesion of society through polarizing rhetoric and smear campaigns. Anti-Western propaganda also undermines Georgia’s European ambitions and creates fertile ground for Russian manipulation.

The polarization and demonization of civil society and the free media are seen as crucial to the ruling party maintaining power in the elections, which will be fully proportional. Without it, it would be a daunting challenge to achieve around 40-45% of the vote, which is essential to maintaining one-party rule.

If Georgian Dream, with its rampant anti-Western rhetoric, manages to win the 2024 election, it will mark an unprecedented change in Georgia’s political landscape, as the country will for the first time have a government elected on an anti-Western platform.

Such an outcome would jeopardize not only the interests of the Georgian people, but also the strategic interests of the US and the EU.

Dr. Sergi Kapanadze is the founder of a Georgia-based think tank – GRASS. He is a former deputy foreign minister, deputy speaker of parliament and professor of international relations at Ilia State and Caucasus Universities.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering important foreign policy issues in Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe’s edge

CEPA’s online journal covers important foreign policy issues in Europe and North America.

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