Pro-Kremlin Narratives Challenge NATO Sec General’s Georgia Visit

Pro-Kremlin actors disseminate anti-NATO propaganda amid NATO Secretary General’s visit to Georgia

(Source:@EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab)

Kremlin media and pro-Russian actors recently attacked NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Georgia with a series of anti-NATO narratives. They seized on Stoltenberg’s assurances that Georgia will become a member of NATO and that Russia cannot veto Georgia’s sovereign choice to join the Alliance.

The messages were in line with previous narratives intended to discredit NATO, instill fear of escalation of the Russian-Georgian conflict among Georgians, and undermine Georgia’s NATO integration process. Stoltenberg visited Georgia on March 25, 2019, to meet with Georgian officials and to observe joint NATO-Georgia military exercises.

The Political Context

NATO membership has been the top priority of Tbilisi’s foreign policy establishment for over two decades. Georgia’s partnership with NATO began in the early 1990s and deepened after the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” a peaceful series of protests that ushered in regime change and the dawn of the pro-Western era in Georgia. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO allies affirmed that Georgia would become a member of the Alliance at some point in the future. Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia and occupied two regions it still holds to this day, thereby cementing the “frozen conflict” and lessening the likelihood of the country’s accession to NATO.

Georgia is currently the largest non-NATO contributor to NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan. The country also contributes to the NATO Response Force. The latest polls from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) show that support for NATO membership is increasing among the Georgian public. In 2018, 78 percent of the public supported Georgia’s membership in NATO, which is the highest approval rating since 2013.

Russian politicians, including President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly stated that Moscow regards NATO’s expansion into Georgia with “extreme disapproval.” Last year, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Georgia’s entry to NATO could trigger a “horrible” new conflict between the two countries. These narratives have been echoed by the Kremlin media and pro-Russian actors in Georgia.

Anti-NATO Narratives

Sputnik began renewed coverage of Georgia-NATO relations in early March 2019, in advance of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tbilisi on March 25.

Sputnik-Georgia, which operates as an online platform in the Georgian language, has a modest audience and limited engagement. According to the 2017 Kremlin Influence Index, a tool created by a group of think tanks from Eastern and Central Europe to measure Russia’s influence in foreign countries’ information environments, Sputnik is a source of narratives for the local pro-Russian media and also serves as a source for other local outlets inadvertently spread interpretations of events in line with Kremlin propaganda.

One anti-NATO narrative claimed that Georgia’s NATO membership would lead to the loss of Georgian territories and further conflict with Russia.

Sputnik articles warning of an increased risk of military conflict with Russia and negative consequences if Georgia joins NATO. (Source: Sputnik/archive)

Another narrative asserted that the Alliance is providing a false promise of membership to Tbilisi. In this version, Georgia’s NATO integration process ground to a halt in 2008, when Russia asserted its position by waging war against Georgia.

Sputnik article, citing an opposition politician, stating Georgia’s NATO membership was put to rest after the August 2008 war with Russia. Suggesting otherwise, it suggested, was tantamount to lying to Georgian citizens. (Source: Sputnik/archive)
Sputnik stating “as usual,” the NATO Secretary General did not name an exact date by which Georgia would join the Alliance. (Source: Sputnik/archive)

A third narrative put forth by the pro-Kremlin media claims that NATO is preparing for war with Russia. One article (below), quoting an “expert” insinuated that NATO officers were training to fight an armed conflict in the Caucasus: “Estonian and Latvian military officers are trained in skiing skills in Georgia. Why do they need mountain training if they are not planning to fight in the mountainous regions of the Caucasus?”

Sputnik quoting an “expert” that NATO officers are training to fight an armed conflict in the Caucasus. (Source:Sputnik/archive)

The commentators interviewed by Sputnik are openly pro-Russian Georgian politicians and individuals, including Nino Burjanadze, the Georgian opposition politician who has expressed her admiration for the Russian president and met with Russian political leadership after the 2008 Russian Georgian War, and Arno Khidirbegishvili, Editor-in-Chief of the pro-Russian Georgian news agency Saqinform.

Coverage Intensity Between Russian and Georgian News Outlets

Using the online analytics tool Sysomos, the DFRLab scanned for mentions of the combined words “NATO” and “Georgia” among news outlet reporting in both Russian and Georgian between March 1 and March 28, 2019. Sysomos registered 1,051 mentions of the words “NATO” and “Georgia” in Russian across all news outlets. Daily mentions of the words “NATO” and “Georgia” fluctuated throughout most of March, reaching a peak on March 25, 2019 — the day Jens Stoltenberg visited Georgia.

Mentions of “NATO” and “Georgia” in Russian [“НАТО” and “Грузия”] from March 1‑28, 2019. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Sysomos registered 120 mentions of the combined words “NATO” and “Georgia” in Georgian across all platforms. Daily mentions of the two words were close to zero before peaking on March 25, 2019.

Mentions of “NATO” and “Georgia” in the Georgian language [“ნატო” and “საქართველო”] from March 1‑28, 2019. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Of those mentions flagged by Sysomos as originating outside of Georgia, 62.2 percent could be traced to Russia.

Geographical distributions of mentions of the words “NATO” and “Georgia” during the one-month period. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Interestingly, Russian outlets covered NATO and Georgia much more intensively than Georgian outlets during March 2019, demonstrating a high interest in the topic.

Georgian Facebook Pages Post Anti-NATO Content

In line with Sputnik’s messaging, several Georgian Facebook pages with up to 30,000 followers each posted anti-NATO videos and photos during Stoltenberg’s visit.

On March 25, 2019, iNews • აინიუსი, a page with 37,426 followers that identifies itself as a Georgian online media outlet, shared a video regarding the 20th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia with the hashtag #NATOKILLING. The video shows protesters in Belgrade with anti-NATO banners, including one with the NATO flag crossed out in red, a “Crimea is Russia” banner, and a “Stop NATO fascism” poster.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2301932223353198

Over a third of the pages sharing it belong to Facebook accounts affiliated with the iNews page: iNews Politics, iNews regions, and iNews news. These pages’ shares all have close to zero engagements.

Georgian online media outlet iNews and its affiliated Facebook pages shared anti-NATO video during Stoltenberg’s visit to Georgia. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Facebook)

The protests in Belgrade were also covered in a post by openly pro-Kremlin Georgian online newspaper Geworld, which has 22,434 followers. Post engagement was low, with only 10 reactions and eight shares.

Pro-Kremlin Georgian Facebook page Geworld covered anti-NATO protests in Belgrade after Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Georgia. (Source:geworld.ge/archive)

Another openly pro-Kremlin Georgian Facebook account, PoliticanoGeorgia, has more than 22,000 followers and identifies itself as an anti-capitalist and Eurosceptic political portal. The page shared a photograph of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, quoting him as saying, “The only factor preventing Georgia from NATO membership is [Russian] occupied territories.” The DFRLab could not verify the quote as Rasmussen’s, as it was devoid of context. The picture’s caption, however, claimed that when other individuals make similar statements, they are accused of being part of Russian propaganda and that Rasmussen, however, manages to avoid such criticism. The photo garnered 40 reactions, 23 comments, and 10 shares.

Pro-Kremlin Georgian Facebook page PoliticanoGeorgia with the unverified quote from Rasmussen. (Source: PoliticanoGeorgia/archive)

Conclusion

In the days surrounding NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s March 2019 visit to Georgia, pro-Kremlin actors in the country aggressively spread anti-NATO narratives online. These narratives first appeared three weeks before Stoltenberg’s arrival, suggesting that early messaging was employed in an effort to lay the groundwork for further messaging during and after Stoltenberg’s visit. The DFRLab observed a peak in anti-NATO content in Georgia on March 25, the day of Stoltenberg’s arrival.

The anti-NATO narratives aimed to depress public support for Tbilisi’s embrace of Western institutions and values, thereby undermining the process of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

In parallel with Sputnik’s anti-NATO narratives, several Georgian Facebook pages shared anti-NATO posts during Stoltenberg’s visit. The impact of these posts, however, was limited, as audience engagement with the posts was low.


Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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