Propaganda war: Russia- 0, Georgia-1

Boris Dolgin
14 August 2008

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Russia’s propaganda has been clumsy, while Georgia’s has been effective. But both kinds pose serious problems. Anyone who remembers the conflicts of the 1990s will not be surprised by reports of heads being cut off and corpses burned. But the story about black mercenaries looks far-fetched. It is more than likely that there were indeed intelligence agents operating on both sides and isolated saboteurs. Each case needs to be looked into. Experience tells us that when sensational announcements about catching spies are made, some of those caught turn out not to be spies at all. News reports of tens of thousands of saboteurs sent by Georgia to Russia and mythical bullets are all outright fantasy.

Why mythical? Did no one supply weapons to Georgia, train its troops, hold joint exercises and back it in making international initiatives to join NATO for example? Did no one transport Georgia’s contingent from Iraq back to a country at war? This all took place, and quite openly too. But no one encouraged the use of force.

The USA and the European Union did keep sending signals to Georgia that provoked them to rhetoric. But the use of force is unacceptable. The recent Georgian-U.S. exercises were not a rehearsal of a military operation in Georgia. There was an exercise involving military operations in mountainous terrain. But Russian forces also carried out just such exercises, just before the conflict began.

The USA asked Georgia to take part in the operations in Iraq and it had no option but to respond to Georgia’s request to airlift its troops back. To do otherwise would not have been in keeping with the alliance between them. And it is precisely an alliance that the USA has been building with the Georgian leadership.

Even friends show bias..

The editor of our partner project, OpenDemocracy Russia, Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, a great friend of Russia, who has spent a lot of time here since the late 1980s, sent a report from Georgia, an interview with Mikhail Saakashivili. He was there on a journalistic assignment when hostilities broke out. His report is indicative of how people beyond Russia, in this case someone sympathetic, see the situation. One section of the report relates directly to the issue of Georgia ‘having the protection of world imperialism’. Saakashvili spends most of the interview explaining that Georgia has chosen the West and NATO. This is an “experiment the USA should be glad to support”, he says: it is so important that Georgia does not follow the same road as Russia.

During the Cold War, developing countries made their own decisions about which development road to follow. Some declared that they were building socialism, others said they were fighting communism. The choices were a sort of badge of identification, which told you who was giving them aid, or from whom they hoped to receive it. You did not need to adopt the Soviet model in order to receive help from the Soviet Union. It was enough to take regular oaths of friendship, support Soviet initiatives and perhaps now and then show the odd bit of ‘socialist spirit’,by confiscating assets from the ‘imperialists and their lackeys’, for instance.

I have no doubts that a large part of the Georgian leadership is sincere in its belief that the Western road is the best choice for Georgia, that a market economy is better than a planned economy and that it is better to fight corruption, or at least bring it under control.

Georgia has been fighting corruption, though, apart from the decision to abolish the traffic police, the campaign has been mostly directed against specific corrupt individuals rather than against corruption as a whole. To this day, different groups among the Georgian elite continue to throw accusations of corruption at one another.

Scotching Georgian fantasies

Georgia has enjoyed some economic successes, too. But the idea that Georgia is building a society based on freedom and the rule of law is fantasy. You have only to look at the Imedi TV company, or the ways the opposition is suppressed (a much milder form of suppression than that practised in Moscow), or even at the typically post-Soviet-style elections. No less problematic are the current measures to block out Russian media, problems faced by Russian and Armenian citizens. There is a lot you could say about these things, but certainly not that Saakashvili has achieved his modestly proclaimed ‘model democracy’.

This war will not be seen more objectively around the world unless the situation in Georgia itself is better understood. For a start, it is important to realise that Georgians have not been in love with their young president, Saakashvili, ever since he took power following the ‘rose revolution’ in November 2003.

People were tired of Eduard Shevardnadze. The fact that Russia dispatched [then Foreign Minister] Igor Ivanov to Georgia to act as a mediator between the authorities and the revolutionaries was no chance decision. It was a sign that Russia had given its blessing to the change of regime. The ‘Rose Revolution’ was no particular cause for concern. The indications were clear: the Russian authorities were interested in working with their new counterparts in Georgia and hoped to establish better relations with them than they had with the old regime. Russia helped Tbilisi settle the problem of Ajaria. Later, after relations had already worsened, they also agreed to withdraw Russian troops from the Vaziani and Akhalkalaki military bases. What is more, they kept this promise.

The problems only really began in the summer of 2004, after Georgia tried to a force through a solution to the South Ossetia problem. That was when it became a ‘frozen conflict’. At that stage worries about ‘colour revolutions’ applied only to events in Ukraine. It was only in hindsight that they were extended to Georgia too.

Zygmunt is also wrong in another of his assertions in that report: ‘For the Russians he is a scary figure’, he declares. ‘A cunning eastern despot whose main purpose is to humiliate and to outsmart them’. Saakashvili was never feared by the Russians, although he sometimes cut a comical figure, yes. His views also made contact with him extremely problematic figure.

Of course, Dmitry Rogozin’s statements about the Georgian president being someone you cannot shake hands with these days look absurd. Even those who move in the same circles as him find it hard to shake Rogozin’s hand these days. It becomes a serious problem, of course, if you’re not prepared to deal with a president in office. Medvedev andSarkozy found a way round this: Georgia and South Ossetia signed the agreement. But the prospect of always having to resort to mediators for any talks will just further muddy the waters.

There is no point in hoping that Saakashvili will step down of his own accord. Whenever his popularity or power have been under threat he has always chosen to escalate the situation. Nor should we hold out any hope that his own people will topple him once the war is over. We can see from the past that he has always been able to turn escalation from outside to his advantage. He is a genuinely charismatic figure and a talented demagogue.

The lies of politicans

People are asking how one can have any dealings with Saakashvili. It’s a good question.

He has lied too often of late. He lied when he declared that he would not use force, while at the same time refusing to sign written commitments. He lied when he said that he was provoked into the attack: both sides had been shooting at each other, and that had already been going on for some time. The decision to attack and the choice of time, means and targets were entirely his. He lied when he said that he was ending military operations - the operations continued. He lied when he said that Russia destroyed the lovely town of Tskhinvali. He lied when he said that Russian troops were advancing on Tbilisi with the aim of occupying Georgia and overthrowing his regime. Against this backdrop of lies it was easy for him to declare that the fact that Russia did not try to take Tbilisi was a victory.

But Saakashvili is not the first politician who is in the habit of lying. You can always tell if a politician is lying: watch his lips closely. Once they start moving, lies will follow.

Aside from the lies there are also accusations of humanitarian crimes. But these remain unproven as yet. It is not entirely clear in what way Saakashvili is any worse than say the Sudanese president. Many countries want to see him brought to justice in the courts, while others (including Russia), say that this would only get in the way of a settlement. In the case of Sudan evidence of genocide really has been documented.


Written commitments backed up by guarantees from influential third parties could properly limit any attempts by Saakashvili to resort to outright deception. In this respect, the fact that changes had to be made to the document agreed on with Sarkozy in Moscow is worrying. Will Russia accept the amended version? International discussion on the future status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was excluded from the document. The problem here was hardly new. Talks on their future status already featured in the third stage of a peace plan for Abkhazia put forward by the German foreign minister.

This is not the only thing that raises concerns about the future:

  • Will Georgians be able to return to their villages in South Ossetia? How will they feel there without the presence of Georgian peacekeepers?
  • What format will the peacekeeping operation in South Ossetia take? Will Georgia’s exclusion fundamentally change it?
  • What impact will Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS, following the required 12-month official notice period, have on a potential resolution of the Abkhazia problem? If Georgia does not actually go through with its threat to withdraw from the CIS, then what form will contact between the Russian president and Saakashvili take at CIS summits?
  • Is Russia willing to have peacekeepers from other countries taking part in the peacekeeping mission?
Lessons in how to communicate

I wrote about how the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could lead to a worsening in relations with the West. Now we see that this is indeed the case. Although relations with some countries are better than with others, overall there is a noticeable cooling. I have also written about the fact that this cooling in relations could weaken liberal tendencies in Russian domestic politics.

The main reason we have not succeeded so far in explaining Russia’s interpretation of events is not because our propaganda machine is bad. It is because of the way we have chosen, almost by inertia, to shut down communication over recent years. We talk only to ourselves. We try to convince the world that we have hit on some formula for sovereign development road, though no one quite knows what this consists of. We present this as if it is just something that the rest of the world is just going to have to accept. And it turns out that the world does not know what we’re talking about.

If you really want to be understood, it involves looking for a common language and not doing ones’ best to isolate oneself as much as possible. Our attempts at picking out the odd word from this language are bound to look clumsy, as these words hardly feature at all in the language we use for domestic consumption.

Saakashvili speaks a very understandable language and appeals to common values and through them to common interests. He speaks the language of belonging and not of confrontation. This does not mean that understanding his words will give a clear understanding of the real situation. We’re not talking about real understanding, here, but the illusion of understanding.

We, on the other hand, have attempted to take the ideology out of politics and move from values to interests. This has resulted in our language, and consequently our thoughts and intents, being perceived as much more selfish.

The art of creating crocodiles

All of this easily reinforces the idea that Saakashvili’s mission is to deal with Russian threats to Georgia’s very survival. Georgia’s survival does not depend on any Russian threats. Russian challenges could have an impact on certain aspects of Georgia’s existence, but not on the survival of the state. Having Russia on its doorstep is far from being Georgia’s only problem. If Georgia were anywhere else in the world it would soon find new enemies, some easier to fight, some harder. The problem is not whether Saakashvili is a leader who knows how to deal with hungry crocodiles, to use the comparison made by a Georgian government minister, referring to Russia. It is whether he is ready to create such crocodiles in the aim of mobilising external and internal support.

The common culture that Russia and Georgia once shared produced one particularly famous crocodile called Crocodile Gena. Gena worked as a crocodile at the zoo, played the accordion and would get a bit annoyed when Old Lady Shapoklyak would play mean little tricks on him and his weaker friend, Cheburashka.

Life is rather different from Eduard Uspensky’s tales, of course. Each of the post-Soviet countries plays all these roles – that of Crocodile Gena, ever clumsy Cheburashka, and Old Lady Shapoklyak, whose tricks more often end up turning against herself. Each of these countries travels in its own wagon along roads in some ways similar and in some ways different. It would be good if, whether joined together or apart, these wagons did not collide.

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