The Georgian conflict: was Tbilisi an exception?


„It would be a mistake for anyone to think that Tbilisi was an exception / Totalitarian states have never been burdened with reason,“ sang the punk band JMKE in 1989, when the Soviet army killed 21 demonstrators in front of the current Georgian parliament building.

Regrettably, last month Georgia was again in the news due to protests and the ensuing Russian attacks on Georgia’s reputation and economy. An overview of the chronology of the crisis can be found in the Postimees article, Propastop seeks answers to questions that try to understand what happened from the point of view of propaganda and information warfare.

Who is to blame?

There is a narrative in the media that Georgia has caused the troubles itself – the inability to secure the security of the Russian ambassadors attending the Tbilisi Orthodox Parliamentary Assembly, the inability to contain opposition parties and protestors but also because of the general aggressive Russophobia.

However, it is the Kremlin that has decided to escalate Georgia’s domestic events in foreign policy; it has banned reciprocal flights, warned its citizens about traveling to this country and threatened to ban imports of Georgian wines. All of the media under Kremlin control accused Georgia of Russophobia, blaming the nation intensely as being at fault for all the events. Consequently, Russia has been at the centre of all realistic steps taken against Georgia.

When placing the question „Who started it?“ at the forefront, it can be considered one of the scenarios of an information conflict that gives the attacking party the freedom to take action. Russia used this when it blamed Georgia for starting the conflict in the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Similar narratives were used prior to the East Ukrainian war and the occupation of Crimea.

Has Russia provoked the conflict?

The events that triggered the conflict in the Georgian Parliament do not seem to have been initiated by the Kremlin. However, Russia’s power elite have made all preparations, should the opportunity arise to take actions on their own part. The speed and certainty of the sanctions against the Georgian economy that were implemented and the active media attack testify to the fact that the plans were not improvised but had been waiting for a while to be put into action. The start of the crisis allowed for the plans to be initiated.

Russia has been accused of provocations by Georgian President Salome Zurabišvili and as well as the leader of the governmental party, Georgian dream and essentially the unofficial leader of the entire country, billionaire Bidzina Ivanišvili. However, it is not clear on what basis these allegations are based.

How can we help Georgia?

The conflict that has arisen has already affected Georgia severely. The impact of the Russian sanctions has caused a 1.5% loss in gross domestic product. Georgia had been working diligently for many years to boost their credibility in the eyes of NATO and EU allies. Unfortunately, this has all fallen significantly, because what happened in Tbilisi did not show the government nor the opposition in a good light.

To support Georgia, it is worthwhile visiting the country as a tourist, there are direct flights now available from Tallinn to Batumi. In contrast, for example drinking Borjom water might not be the best way to help Georgia. This healthy mineral water from the Bakuriani Mountains is sold to Estonia by the Alfa Group, one of Russia’s biggest companies, which according Wikipedia is owned by one of the richest people in Russia and the entire world, Mihhail Fridman.

Is a similar attack possible against Estonia?
As a point of interest, the Kremlin could easily find an excuse to initiate a similar media attack. They could use a topic related to history or news on fascism, why not for example the Lihula monument. The news in the media of our Eastern neighbour has widely reported that the monument is to be once again displayed.  Other propaganda narratives could also be used: harassment of „compatriots“, restrictions of human rights of Russians or just abstract accusations of Russophobia.

Steps against Estonian tourism could also be possible, although visitor groups from Russia are not as large as in Georgia. The biggest possible damage would be a blow to Estonia’s reputation. If we had to reject accusations and start explaining facts to the West and our allies, it would certainly harm Estonia’s image.

By the way, the Russian media has already tried to connect Estonia with the confrontation in Georgia. In our eastern neighbours media it was alleged that Estonian ambassadors who had participated in the Orthodox Interparliamentary Assembly were attacked in Tbilisi. The news was deliberately vaguely worded in the Kremlin press. The Russian-speaking version of Postimees talked about the event, that there had been misunderstandings, but that they had been solved amicably.

Picture 1: Protesters in front of the Georgian Parliament, June 2019. Photo: George Melashvili, Wikipedia, CC.

Picture 2: Screenshot of the article cited in the story.