Sergi Kapanadze

Founder of the multi-profile Georgian think tank GRASS (Georgia’s Reforms Associates)

Nov 29, 2021
Georgia at the Crossroads and the Kremlin Factor


In the past few years, Russia has intensified its influence operations targeting Georgia. Since the election of the Georgian Dream party in 2012, its leaders have pursued the so-called ‘balanced policy’ vis-à-vis Russia. The policy shift has resulted in the restoration of economic and trade relations between the two countries, leading to the increase in Russian tourism to Georgia, and other economic developments.

The government of Georgia has come under criticism for allowing pro-Russian security forces to operate freely in Georgia; for not countering Russia’s disinformation campaigns; and for increasing Georgia’s dependence on Russia, subsequently removing Georgia from the agenda of discussions between the Kremlin and the West.  The Kremlin has used these opportunities to enhance its propaganda and disinformation narratives targeting Georgia’s relations with the West.

The night of June 20, 2019 became a seminal point in Russo-Georgian relations when the Georgian Dream Government violently dispersed a rally against the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and Samachablo. The rally itself had been precipitated by a scandal involving Russian Duma member Sergey Gavrilov, who attempted to sit on the seat of the Parliamentary Chairman and conduct a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Orthodoxy. This affront took place against the backdrop of Russia’s aggressive propaganda against Georgia’s Western aspirations, instrumentalization of Church and minority groups and imposing on Georgia the narrative that West is immoral, and Russia is strong.

This report attempts to delineate major milestones and vectors of Russia’s malign influence campaign targeting Georgia between August-November 2021.  

3+3 and an Invitation to RSVP

After the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the agreement to start the reopening of borders and allow transit through Armenia and Azerbaijan, the idea of a new regional platform – 3+3 (Turkey, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia) has reemerged. Initially the format was proposed by Turkey and was wholeheartedly supported by Azerbaijan and Russia, whose Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov openly called on Georgia to join the platform.[1]

During the months of October and November of 2021, the Russian Foreign Minister addressed the format thrice in his public statements.

Prior to the Karabakh war of 2020, Russia had sought to deploy its peacekeepers in Azerbaijan in addition to its military bases in Armenia and throughout the occupied territories of Georgia. Once Russia stationed its troops in Karabakh, it set out to shape “new regional realities” in the region, sidelining the West completely.[2] The Kremlin has also promoted the idea that the OSCE Minsk group may be useful for humanitarian issues, not political ones.  

In October 2021, Georgia’s Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani did not outright reject the participation of Georgia in the 3+3 forum, despite the threat of South Caucasus being turned into Russia’s backyard (potentially shared with Turkey), and where the West had no oversight or influence. Zalkaliani instead has chosen a more careful approach, stating that Tbilisi finds it “very hard” to join the 3+3 platform, but that Georgia “must not lag behind the regional processes.”[3] Zalkaliani’s statement caused an outcry among Georgian experts, civil society representatives, and Georgia’s western allies, who asserted that participation of Georgia in any Russia-led formats is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the Russian propaganda promoted the narrative that they are “hearing contradictory statements from Tbilisi concerning its participation in this consultative platform,” as sounded by Maria Zakharova,
the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.[4]

During his visit to Georgia, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin remarked that Georgia cannot be cleared to join such a format, calling on Russia to first implement the August 12, 2008 ceasefire agreement and withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.[5] This remark clearly parlayed the American reluctance to see 3+3 materialize. It is logical that neither the EU, nor the U.S. want to see the region get closed off to the West, which is exactly what Russia is attempting to do.

Georgia’s participation in the 3+3 regional format would send a bad message to its increasingly apprehensive Western partners. When the Abashidze-Karasin bilateral dialogue format was initiated in 2012, the West and its interests were left out of the talks entirely.[6] The 3+3 format will do just that, except now the West will be left out of discussions not just between two countries, but those related to the entire South Caucasus region. The Pro-Russian forces in Georgia (Alliance of Patriots, Primakov Georgia-Russian Public Center, Alt-Info TV and Obieqtivi TV) often advocate precisely for this approach: that the bilateral dialogue and regional formats should be prioritized over wider Western participation and international formats.[7]

In November 2021, Georgia’s FM Zalkaliani finally announced that Georgia will not take part in the 3+3 platform[8]. However, Russia’s representative Karasin once again mentioned this format during the call with his Georgia’s counterpart Zurab Abashidze the same month. While it is clearly against Georgia’s strategic interests to face the occupying power alone (or potentially with Turkey and Iran but without its Western partners), Moscow’s propaganda and its local allies’ message box is clearly the opposite.

Agreement on Cooperation with the Belarusian KGB

On August 1, 2021, an agreement of cooperation between the Georgian State Security Service (SSSG) and State Security Committee (KGB) of Belarus entered into force.[9] The deal, signed on August 2016, envisages the parties exchanging information on matters of state security, as well as cooperating on fighting the crime against the constitutional order, sovereignty, territorial integrity, transnational organized crime, terrorism, cyber terrorism, and illegal circulation of weapons.[10]

When the deal went into force in 2021, it coincided with the US and EU considerations of sanctions on the Lukashenka regime in response to the fraudulent August 2020 Presidential elections and crackdown on free media and opposition.[11] On June 21, Washington identified the Belarusian KGB  as the main culprit in undermining democracy in Belarus.[12] Meanwhile, Russia’s’ Foreign Intelligence Service Chief Sergey Naryshkin held a meeting with the Belarusian KGB, and underlined that the two agencies would “work jointly to counter the destructive activities of the West”.[13]

The treaty has been met with heavy criticism due to the ongoing crackdown on human rights activists and political opposition in Minsk, with hundreds of Belarusians seeking refuge from the Lukashenka regime in Georgia.[14] It has raised serious concerns among the Belarusian and Russian exiles about relocating to Georgia, as they fear that even in Georgia they will be under threat.[15] This fear, too, has been exploited by the Kremlin.

In August of 2021, rumors began to spread that Vladislav Pozdnyakov, a well-known provocateur and leader of the Russian extremist movement “Men’s State”, arrived in Georgia.[16] “Men’s State” organization is notorious for its ties to Russian special forces.[17] The group initiates public bullying and hate campaigns against minorities, and launch petitions demanding to imprison political activists.

During his August visit, Pozdnyakov publicly announced that his plans to launch a branch office of his organization in Georgia.[18] By the end of his visit, he posted pictures of well-known Russian exiles in Georgia, suggesting his allies to find them in Tbilisi— in a message of direct intimidation. Later, his Telegram channel, which was very popular among radical groups, was banned by Telegram. Pozdnyakov launched a new version of the channel which now has 68000 subscribers.

Representatives of Russian propaganda media outlet Ren TV visited Georgia the same month. Their goal was to hunt down Russian exiles in Georgia[19] and produce discrediting materials, painting Russian political activists in Georgia as Russia’s enemies bankrolled by the West. Representatives of the Ren TV ambushed activists near their rented apartments in Tbilisi with cameras (it is still not clear how they had found the addresses of exiles newly relocated to Georgia), visiting bars, restaurants and public places, where activists usually spend time and interact. Ren TV journalists brought lists of Russian activists exiled to Georgia to staff in restaurants, inquiring on their whereabouts and sources of funding.

This Kremlin-orchestrated campaign—including publication of the agreement between KGB of Belarus with Georgia’s State Security, provocative posts and incitement to hatred on behalf of Vladislav Pozdnyakov, activities of the Ren TV representatives —has sought to discredit Georgia and make Russian and Belarusian activists afraid of staying in the country.

Saakashvili’s Return and Arrest

The return and subsequent arrest of the third President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili before the local elections of October 2, 2021 has dominated the Russian anti-Georgian narrative in recent weeks. Saakashvili is portrayed[20]by Russian press as a warmonger, a Western stooge[21] justly imprisoned by the Georgian Government.A TV show on the Russian state channel dedicated to Saakashvili’s arrest and hunger strike prominently featured a Georgian flag on the floor of the studio with the TV anchors walking on it.[22] Main line of Russian propagandais that the return of Saakashvili’s party to power would change the balance of power in the region and weaken Russian interests.

The official line of the Georgian government, unfortunately, coincides with that of Moscow – insinuations that Saakashvili is attempting to foment unrest, he is a criminal, started a 2008 war and needs to remain locked up in jail. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has hinted that the Georgian Dream Government will keep Saakashvili in prison and might even add some years, if he “does not behave”[23]

Reluctance of the European Union and the United States to intervene in the domestic political crisis of Georgia aids Russia’s propaganda narrative. The West has failed to mediate in the post-2020 elections political crisis, despite the high-level engagement from the European Council President Charles Michel. The document signed by Michel, Georgian Government and political opposition effectively ended the parliamentary boycott of the opposition, however failed to resolve the underlying political crisis, since the 2021 local elections were held with similar or even graver violations than October 2020 Parliamentary elections.[24]

According to the observers,  “irregularities identified by the local and international observation missions during the pre-election period and in the process of voting and vote counting on Election Day have had an unequivocally negative impact on the expression of voters’ free will and public confidence in the electoral process and election results. Given a small margin of victory in some of the municipalities, these irregularities may have affected the results.”[25] However, Russian state-owned media outlet Sputnik has declared that local elections in Georgia were held quietly and in an organized manner. [26]

Protracted standoff between Georgian Dream and the EU

Ties with the EU and NATO are the major targets of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns in Georgia. That is why it is critical to promote Georgia’s Western aspirations and widely distribute unbiased information. When the Russian propaganda machine declares that the EU failed Georgian people, that European values undermine Georgian traditions, it is crucial to strike back‚ enhancing Georgia- EU / NATO relations and highlight this cooperation in public statements.

The current political crisis in Georgia creates countless new opportunities for the Kremlin to manipulate Georgian society, which is now highly polarized and vulnerable due to domestic developments. Unfortunately, in the past few months, the Kremlin had no need to fabricate ruses on Georgia’s relations with the EU or NATO, because Georgian authorities and officials have frequently contradicted, attacked, and demonized the European Union, EU officials, and leading politicians from the EU countries. Now, the Kremlin can simply stick with disseminating the anti-Western statements made by Georgian authorities[27].

As political crises erupt, or whenever GD is criticized for not living up to the democratic standards, including the EU Association Agreement commitments, GD leaders snap back at the EU without hesitation. The repertoire of critical remarks includes such keywords as “uninformed”, “lobbyists and stooges of the opposition”, “corrupt”, or even “crazy”. On September 27, the Minister of Defence, when asked about the increasing criticism from the EU, promptly dismissed the journalist with a counter-question – “Who is the EU?”[28]. On October 20, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said “neither [MEP Anna] Fotyga nor [MEP Andrius] Kubilius, nor anyone else, represent anything for myself or our country,” commenting on multiple MEPs calls for the release of Saakashvili.[29]

In July 2021, when Georgian Dream withdrew from the Charles Michel agreement, the EU responded forcefully, by withholding 75 million euros— the second tranche of a 150 million loan designed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. This loan was linked, among other conditions, to the judicial reforms and the GD’s withdrawal from the Charles Michel agreement was a clear indication that the reforms were not planned. In August 2021, the acting head of the EU Delegation to Georgia, Julien Cramp, made it clear that Georgia will no longer receive money that “should have been used for the welfare of Georgian citizens”.[30]

This reaction from the EU was countered by the Georgian Government with an official refusal of the EU loan – music to Moscow’s ears which was immediately used by propaganda machine[31]. The justification was comical— Georgia all of a sudden decided to start reducing its foreign debt. For a country whose debts are close to 60% of the GDP (up from just over 30% in 2012), and which has recently received another loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), such an excuse was quite a stretch. EU officials caught this discrepancy quite easily. MEP Viola von Cramon tweeted – “You can’t decline what you were not eligible for” and that “EU will need to reconsider its relations with the Georgian Government”.[32]

This has led to yet another confrontation with the EU. The Prime Minister made it clear that he couldn’t care less about the criticism. “MEPs are not my bosses” – snapped Garibashvili when asked.[33] Who the real boss is, though, is quite clear. To quote former US Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer Mr. Ivanishvili, “no longer an elected official, no longer a party official… seems to be pulling all the strings behind the scene.”[34]

Such confrontations with the West fit neatly into Moscow’s narrative that the West is imposing itself on Russia and its neighbours and that such encroachment and intervention into the domestic affairs needs to be countered. As Putin says, Russia, far from pursuing a militaristic policy, has been the victim of a Western scheme to contain and hobble the country. “They attack Russia here and there without any reason,” Mr. Putin said. He cited Rudyard Kipling’s novel “Jungle Book” with a comparison of the United States to Shere Khan, a villainous tiger, nipping at Russia. [35]

The Church Files

The State Security Service of Georgia found itself in another trouble in September, manifesting an outrageous level of Russian infiltration into Georgian society. It turned out that the SSSG has been eavesdropping on representatives of the government and the opposition, clergy, members of the diplomatic corps, and even ordinary people of interest.

Over 25 gigabytes of files and 3000 pages of chat log leaked on September 12 revealed that the special “3rd unit” within the State Security Service, focused on the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and listened to everyone connected, related to, dealing with, or of interest to the Church. Agents recorded priests, bishops, archbishops, theologians, businessmen, journalists, NGO representatives, political leaders and then reported their findings to their boss in the chat (probably WhatsApp, or Signal).

Most of the leaked records are related to the clergy and the patriarchate. Records mainly include the details of personal lives of the clergy. Most importantly, the Church files have revealed that Russian connections to the GOC are pervasive. The files include a list of 15 clerics, among them high-ranking GOC members,[36] who have either close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) or connections to Russian businessmen and Russian intelligence services. Church files also show that Patriarch’s locum tenens Shio Mujiri maintain ties with Moscow, even though the head of the public relations unit of the GOC has denied it.[37]

The files included report that many GOC clerics believed that the Patriarch Ilia II appointed Metropolitan Shio Mujiri as Locum Tenens in violation of the canonical law, as a result of the pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and lobbying from his friend Levan Vasadze, a founder of the xenophobic and pro-Russian political party Eri, who is linked with Moscow and one of the main ideologists of Kremlin Alexander Dugin.[38]

Church files have also revealed that Shio Mujiri back in 2019 fired an altar boy because of the criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Facebook.[39]

This leak shows that the State Security Service has been listening to the foreign diplomats as well. Intelligence briefs contain summaries of the discussions between the embassy staff members and the ambassadors, including EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell and Israeli Ambassador Ran Gidor.

Double Standards for Russian Visitors

Public attacks and attempts to intimidate Russian and Belarusian exiles in Georgia have taken place in recent months. In the aftermath of uprising repressions in Russia and Belarus, the Kremlin initiated a new strategy to discredit Georgia as a country where Kremlin’s and Lukashenka’s critics may find safety and security. Moscow doesn’t like the fact that so many opposition representatives are based in a country bordering Russia and that is why it sends journalists and provocateurs to prepare discrediting materials or initiate bullying campaigns against exiles.

Within this context, hostile actions by the Georgian side toward Russian and Ukrainian activists and journalists are especially troublesome.

The same month when representatives of the Russian REN TV channel and Men’s State organization visited Georgia, one of the leaders of Navalny’s movement Lyubov Sobol was turned away at the border by the Georgian side. On October 29, Lyubov Sobol posted on Twitter: “I was denied entry to Georgia. Without explaining the reason. I can only guess that they did not want to spoil relations with Putin.”[40] Sobol tried to enter Georgia by land from Armenia to then fly to another country. As she noted there was no reason to be banned from the border crossing. Sobol never visited occupied Abkhazia before and had never taken any action against Georgia that prompted the Georgian government to make such a decision.

By contrast, the leading Georgian Dream MP and Head of the ruling party Irakli Kobakhidze reacted to Journalist Vladimir Pozner’s entrance into Georgia in an extremely friendly manner. He lectured opposition politicians and activists on Georgian tradition of hospitality to both friend and foe, even citing a Georgian classic poet.[41] A high-profile English-speaking veteran face of the Soviet and then Russian governments – Vladimir Pozner, director of Russian propagandistic news agency TASS – Sergei Mikhailov, David Davidovich – a key partner of Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Kusnerovich – a close friend of Dmitry Medvedev were all freely allowed to enter the country early in 2021. To remind, in 2019 Russian communist MP Sergey Gavrilov also freely entered the Georgian territory and instigated famous events of June 20.

In addition, in August 2021, InformNapalm, a popular volunteer platform countering the Russian hybrid war in Ukraine reported that one of the members of the Kremlin supported mercenary group – Wagner Corporation was conducting business in Georgia under a fake name. GRU-linked (Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation) Kirill Krivko has been revealed to be previously involved in running businesses in Georgia and Kazakhstan under a fake name.[42] State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) denied the report, however agreed that Krivko did in fact cross the border of Georgia in 2019.[43]

The case of Anaklia Port

When analyzing Russia’s influence in Georgia for the last few months, it becomes apparent that certain decisions made by the Georgian Government often suit Russia’s interests in the region. Take the deep sea port of Anaklia, a project that was tanked by the Georgian Dream Government almost two years ago. It now turned out that Bidzina Ivanishvili put his personal business interests ahead of the country’s strategic interest to have a deep sea port on the Black Sea imminently. On October 4, 2021 the Pandora Papers revealed the hidden interests of Ivanishvili[44], in sinking the Anaklia deep sea project. Ivanishvili apparently owns shares in the company that through the subsidiaries manages Poti Free Industrial Zone (FIZ) – a direct competitor to the Anaklia deep sea project.[45]

Anaklia deep sea port project was torpedoed by the Georgian Government almost two years ago.[46] In 2020 GD Government discontinued the contract with the Anaklia Development Consortium (ADC), led by the TBC Holding founders – Georgian businessmen Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, who are now in the opposition Lelo for Georgia party. ADC also attracted major investors – Conti Group, SSA Marine, Van Oord, Wondernet Express LLP, TBC Holding, the Asia Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Reasons for “killing” the port remained obscure, ranging from the fear to anger Russia, who has its own deep sea port ambitions on Black Sea, to Ivanishvili’s unwillingness to empower already rich and powerful Khazaradze and Japaridze, and the alleged business interests of Ivanishvili in the competitor Poti port. Now the latter is all but confirmed. The agreement on the construction of Anaklia Port was signed by the Government of Georgia with the ADC, which won the international tender in 2016. The Anaklia Deepwater Port project was widely believed to be of great importance for the long-term security and economic interests of Georgia and to the detriment of Russia’s commercial and strategic interests in the Black Sea region. The port project was to acquire a strategic geographical function for Georgia on the East-West trade map, potentially rerouting trade that is taking place, or could have gone through Russia. Commercially, even the most pessimistic calculations predicted[47] that by 2025 the Anaklia port could handle cargo with a capacity of 600,000 TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit) and receive 10,000 container vessels. These types of vessels currently cannot enter Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti and if Anaklia materialized would have been the largest vessels to pass through the Bosporus Strait.

On February 14, 2019 the Economist wrote that the Anaklia port was a bridge connecting Georgia with Europe and an attractive strategic object for Europe, which could have facilitated Georgia’s accession to the European Union and NATO. Additional flavor was given to the Anaklia deep sea port because of its proximity to the Russian occupied Abkhazia region. Georgia’s new Black Sea port would have created an alternative corridor for Europe to the east-west land trade currently taking place through Russia. Anaklia port was supposed to be a third major infrastructure project in Georgia after the East-west motorcade (currently still under construction) and Baku-Akhalkalaki-Karsi railway (currently very much behind the schedule, but almost finalized).

In an official statement[48], effectively ending the Anaklia saga, the Georgian government cited the failure of the Anaklia Development Consortium (ADC) to fulfil its contractual obligations as a reason for terminating the contract, though in public messaging the Government often spoke of the inability of ADC to raise investments and about the importance of Poti port, which, of course, discouraged foreign investors. Mamuka Khazaradze, a co-founder of ADC publicly slammed Ivanishvili and the Government, remembering their encounter, during which Ivanishvili clearly referred to the Russian interests in not allowing the port to materialize.

[1] Russia offers 3+3 format Caucasus platform. Daily Sabah

[2] Steve Gutterman. The end of something is the south Caucasus. RFERL

[3] FM Zalkaliani talks 3+3 format.  

[4] Tbilisi’s contradictory statements on 3+3 format.

[5] Georgia – US sign new defence agreement.

[6] Abashidze, Karasin talk bilateral trade.

[7] Lavrov’s Georgian advocates against Kelly Degnan. Mythdetector

[8] Georgia will not take part in the platform. Echo Kavkaza

[9] Georgia’s deal with Belarus KGB.

[10] Chief of Belarus Security Agency visits Tbilisi.

[11] Steven Erlanger. Belarus faces expanded sanctions. NY Times

[12] Belarus Designations. U.S. Department of the treasury

[13] Georgia’s Deal with Belarus KGB. 

[14] Georgia-Belarus security cooperation. OC Media

[15] Anastasia Mgaloblishvili. Fears over Georgia-Belarus agreement.
Institute War and Peace Reporting

[16] Leader of the Russian radical movement in Georgia.

[17] Men’s State calls to mark TV Rain as a foreign agent. Znak
Men’s state leader says he is behind the arrest of Russian blogger

[18] Leader of the Men’s State plans to found an office in Georgia

[19] Kremlin’s propaganda in Tbilisi. Main TV Channel

[20] Saakashvili wants to organize a coup. Russian newspaper
Saakashvili orchestrates revolution from the prison. Independent newspaper

[21] Saakashvilis arrival to Georgia was initiated by the U.S.

[22] Saakashvili received communion. Russia 24 TV channel

[23] “Behave, or face additional charges”.

[24] Local elections in Georgia. OSCE

[25] Georgian NGO’s Joint Statement. ISFED 

[26] “Free and well-organized” – international observers evaluate elections. Sputnik 

[27] Leader of the Ruling party of Georgia accused international community for supporting Saakashvili. Vzglyad.

[28] This election is not related to snap elections. IPN 

[29] MEP Fotyga “Criminal force lobbyist.

[30] Remarks by EU Charge d’Affaires. Delegation of the EU to Georgia 

[31] Why Georgia declined pittance of the EU? EaDaily

[32] Viola Von Cramon. EU’s 150 million assistance to Georgia. Twitter 

[33] EU Parliament Member – not my boss. 

[34] 2021 elections in Georgia. Margaret Thatcher Centre 

[35] Andrew Kramer. Putin warns of a Russian red line. NY Times. 

[36] Khatia Gogoberidze. Leaked files.

[37] Andria Dzhagmaidze. Two-three examples does not mean broad connections with Russia. IMEDI

[38] Alleged security files.

[39] Mujiri and Chuadze demand a person to be fired for anti-Putin FB post

[40] Sobol. “I was banned from entering Georgia”. Twitter

[41] Kobakhidze. “National Movement says hospitality is for friends, not for enemies”. Facebook

[42] Igor Guskov. UCAS informed Georgia and Kazakhstan on a Russian war criminal. Informnapalm

[43] State Security: Wagner soldier visited Georgia in 2019. Radio Liberty

[44] Pandora papers: Ivanishvili’s secret stakes.

[45] Poti Free Industrial Zone. Free Trade Zone

[46] Was the Anaklia port project torpedoed in the name of a free zone in Poti? Ports Europe

[47] Zurab Maisashvili. Major reason of the Anaklia port failure. Factcheck–the-reason-why-the-anaklia-port-failed-was-a-low-quality-investor-which-did-not-fulfil-its-obligations?

[48] The contract with Anaklia Development Consortium is annulled. Ministry of regional development of Georgia