American Patriotism or Meddling in Georgia?
A wave of anti-Russian protests have taken over Georgia’s summer, but are they are the result of foreign actors interfering in the country’s affairs?
Since autumn 2018, Georgian social networks and online-stores have been flooded with ads of T-shirts saying “20% of my country is occupied by Russia.” Players in the football clubs Torpedo Kutaisi and Locomotive Tbilisi wore them before the start of games in June this year. These T-shirts became a feature of the Tbilisi protests that have occurred throughout the summer of 2019. A wave of patriotism over anti-Russian sentiment marked the beginning of the election campaign between Georgia’s government and opposition forces.
The protests have hardly started and already the leading Georgian Dream party accused former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party of “provocations.” There have also been talks about foreign interference. Let’s look back to the recent past to find out whether such claims could be true.
Free Russia Foundation
In February 2019, U.S.-based NGO Free Russia Foundation (FRF) opened an office in Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi. The organization was founded in 2014 by Russians living abroad. The Board of Directors consists of former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Democracy, David J. Kramer, and former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, among others. Both are democrats. Interestingly, in 2015, at Committee hearings, Kelly said the phrase – Russia occupied 20% of Georgian territories – that would become a slogan of Tbilisi protests four years later.
The Free Russia Foundation in Georgia is headed by Egor Kuroptev, a Russian journalist who produces a talk-show called “Border Zone” known for its anti-Russian rhetoric. In this capacity, he regularly holds meetings and interviews with high-level Western politicians. In just the last year, Kuroptev talked to the Commander of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command, Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, Andrea Thompson, and head of NATO Liaison Office in Georgia, Rosaria Puglisi.
Kuroptev also has close ties to the United National Movement opposition party, founded by Saakashvili. The head of the Free Russia Foundation in Tbilisi is surrounded by the main opposition figures interested in a shift of power in Georgia.
In June 2019, a few days before the protests kicked off, former deputy assistant secretary of defense and now senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania Michael Carpenter arrived in Georgia. During his visit, the democrat gave an exclusive interview to Kuroptev, emphasizing that it is important for the U.S.”to help Georgia” and “point the government in the direction of the Euro Atlantic integration.”
A few days before the interview with Carpenter, Kuroptev met Ramin Bairamov, a member of the United National Movement in Kiev. Bairamov had just returned from Poland, where he visited the office of The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, partly financed by Soros’ Open Society Foundation. “Get inspired with new ideas and perspectives,” Bairamov praised the Helsinki Foundation’s activity in Georgia.
Along with Bairamov, other members of Saakashvili’s party or related persons emerged on Georgia’s political scene at that time. Saakashvili’s wife, Sandra Roelofs, is among them. She also met the head of FRF Georgia in June, before and after the recent protests.
Once the actions were coordinated, there was little left to do other than to find a trigger. It was well-known that a session for the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy was to be held in Tblisi on June 20 and that Russian delegate Gavrilov, who headed this year’s session, was to preside over a meeting in the plenary hall of Georgia’s Parliament. The orchestrators used the presence of a Russian politician as a pretext. They presented it in the right way, stirred up the crowd, pressed the government to show its weakness.
Journalists and media outlets, somehow related to Washington and Kuroptev, were fully prepared to cover the protests. Among them were two reporters, Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Nikolai Levchits. Kotrikadze, Kuroptev’s ex-wife, is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the privately-owned Russian language news channel RTVI in New York. She also was chosen to lead the Georgian state-funded, Russian-language propaganda news outlet PIK (First Caucasus news), created with Saakashvili’s consent and shut down after the parliamentary elections of 2012. In 2013, Kotrikadze received credentials at the foreign press center of the U.S. state department.
Another Free Russia Foundation activist, Nicolai Levchits, was at the forefront of the Russian opposition before moving to Georgia in 2018. His Facebook page contains a very detailed report about the Tbilisi protests as well as information on his meeting with David Kramer and Sandra Roelofs before the protests.
Amid partisan media and journalists, the actions implicated Western think tanks in Georgia had prepared the ground for anti-government sentiment.
Additionally, the International Republican Institute (IRI) which has close ties to the U.S. State Department conducted a survey of public opinion in Georgia before the protests. The findings, published in national media, indicated that Georgians were concerned about the ongoing poor state of relations with Russia. It is widely known such surveys can be a powerful tool of public opinion manipulation. The IRI research was aimed at spreading the idea of a growing Russian threat and the failed politics of Georgia’s acting government.
Evidently, the patriotic slogans of the Tbilisi protests have rather American origins than Georgian ones. The demonstrations have been also orchestrated by U.S.-based NGO Free Russia Foundation. While Georgian patriots have been exploited and manipulated at the hands of big political structures only interested in strengthening their influence and promoting their interests.
It is difficult to say what will happen next. The Tbilisi protests opened a Pandora’s box and revealed many problems, such as a lack of legal background for deterring another state from meddling in internal affairs. So far, there is no distinction between allies’ assistance and illicit attempts to influence Georgia’s political process through lobbying and imposing foreign interests. Our strategic partners, the U.S. and Europe, have already introduced legal measures to prevent meddling. Perhaps, Georgia, on its Euro-Atlantic integration path, should consider following suit.