The Liberal Academy Tbilisi: Fighting the Influence of Misinformation in Georgia
Russian influence in Georgia has manifested itself in a variety of ways that have had damaging and destabilizing effects on the Georgian government. Lasha Tugushi, the director of the Liberal Academy of Tbilisi, considers the threat to be a full-on assault on Georgia’s self-governance and cultural autonomy.
“The Russians are working overtime,” says Tugushi. “They are using different levers like the Russian language, cultural symbols, money, and targeting the rural population to push their messages.”
In January 2015, The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation (BST) supported the Liberal Academy Tbilisi with a grant aimed at supporting public discussions and debates on complex threats coming from Russia, to evaluate and measure existing risks, and to support the formulation of an unified vision and policies for Georgian-Russian relations.
The Liberal Academy Tbilisi is a Georgian non-governmental organization that supports pro-democratic values, peace-building, and Euro-Atlantic projects aimed at promoting security and democracy.
In January 2016, the Liberal Academy released a comprehensive policy document, “Threats of Russia’s Hard and Soft Power in Georgia.” The report provides a detailed analysis of Russia’s influence through various hard and soft power methods on economic relations between Georgia and Russia, it’s influence over the media, civil society, and various political organizations, and military influence in contested areas and areas of conflict between the two nations.
Threats from Russia constitute one of the more pressing foreign policy challenges to Georgian politicians and policymakers. These officials often lack clear, concise, and accurate information about the ways that the Russian government has been able to assert its influence in Georgia.
Over the duration of the project, the Liberal Academy gathered information from experts, politicians, members of civil society, and the business community through a series of field surveys, focus group meetings, and interviews that resulted in several policy documents and briefs. The work conducted by the Liberal Academy was meant to help fill the information gap for public officials by offering well-researched information on the nature of the threats coming from Russia.
“Georgia has been repeatedly attacked by Russia for having chosen the integration within the European and Euro-Atlantic structures,” says a BST representative. “Thorough analysis of Russian influence and an adequate development of policies to respond and repel these pressures is crucial in helping Georgia stay on its Euro-Atlantic track and represent a stabilizing pole in the region.”
The purpose of the research conducted by the Liberal Academy is to better understand the different political, social, and economic levers that Moscow uses to further its goal of directing the autonomous political processes in Georgia. Moscow hopes to destabilize the Georgian government by sowing anti-European and anti-Western sentiment among the public. According to recent polls released in a Georgian newspaper, the results of Russian misinformation, while forceful and widespread, have not been successful in convincing the majority of Georgians to stray from a pro-European path with roughly 90% of respondents viewing EU integration as a good thing for the future of Georgia.
While pro-EU sentiment is strong among the Georgian public, Tugushi remains sceptical of sources that view Russian influence in the country as slowing down or waning. It is easy for Russia to exert its influence over the country when the majority of news and entertainment comes from Russia. Messages, both hidden and overt, in the mainstream media and popular culture work to reinforce social links between the two countries. In this context, pro-Western sentiment has become “anti-Eastern European” and pro-European ideals are portrayed as a betrayal of land and culture.
“They try to impose ideas about how Russia is better than the West,” says Tugushi. “They use traditional values to sway Georgians. They spend money on education programs. All of this is a kind of soft power.”
The use of both hard and soft power has produced a complex web of interconnected processes that constitute the “Russian threat.” Given the comprehensive nature of the threat, the Liberal Academy’s report clearly highlights the importance and necessity of international support to help roll back the worst of these influences.
In particular, Tugushi advocates for a deeper understanding in the complexity of the Russian threat and for a more holistic and sustained government approach in policymaking.
“In Europe and in other countries, we [are] only talking about propaganda which is only media and things related to media. Our project makes the conversation broader. We talk about the comprehensive methods they use and recommend steps for moving forward.”