The greatest flattery is imitation. But what happens when it is a case of one state adopting the subversive actions of another? Giorgi Jgharkava looks at the recent tactics employed by the Georgian government in the face of democratic protests and asks, is there a pattern of Russian style intimidation going on?
Putin’s Russia differs from other similar regimes with its distinguished ability to adapt. The adaptation skill enables the regime to address new challenges with new countering strategies. This does not only help the regime to survive but in certain cases even strengthens it with new narratives and identity.
One of the illustrative examples of Putin’s remarkable ability to redefine the essence of his regime occurred in 2012. Before the presidential elections 2012, Vladimer Putin officially made it clear that he was going to run again for the position. The decision was somewhat predictable but nevertheless, it sparked massive protests. Firstly, the regime caressed the protesters with Putin even promising to hold a dialogue. However, the demonstrations were quickly met with counter-protests. At first glance, it seemed that Putin was using an old strategy, dividing the society and then playing the role of mediator. However, it served a different purpose. The counter-protests eventually helped Putin to demonize and discriminate the anti-system protesters with the narrative which is still widely used in Russia.
A different kind of riot
According to the narrative, every protest against the ruling power aspires to destroy the order in Russia. It is depraved and orchestrated by foreign powers and with it, Putin managed in 2012 to shift the attention from the essence of the demonstrations towards the forms of the protests. One of the obvious attempts for this occurred after Russian female Punk band, Pussy Riot’s performance, when Putin accused the act of trying “to threaten moral foundations of Russia”. The goal of the narrative was not necessarily to deny the flaws of the current regime, but to demonstrate that even if the regime was unjust on the other hand its counterweight were immoral groups, supported by foreign powers.
One could witness the pursuit of the same tactics in Georgia recently. The first such instance took place after several nightclubs were raided in Tbilisi with the suspicion of drug-dealing. The raids caused the massive protests, commonly known as the Rave revolution, in front of the Georgian parliament. The demonstrators were criticising the reluctance of the ruling party to change its drug policy but again, the counter-protests emerged, led by the so-called nationalists who were claiming that they were enraged by the clothing fashion of the demonstrators. In certain cases the counter-protesters pointed to the sexual orientation of a number of participants in the protest. The narrative was based on Russian model: people protesting in front of the parliament were immoral, hence their demands could not be legitimate. What is more, the subsequent development resembled the Russian version of handling their protests back in 2012. The police line which was put between the countering protestations helped the government to play a role of mediator between the two groups and portrayed the event as a confrontation among the differing interest-groups.
Another instance of the development of demoralizing narratives against the protesters could be witnessed after the “Gavrilov Night” in Tbilisi. The protests were held once again in front of the parliament after the member of the Russian Duma took a seat of the Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia during the ceremony of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. The demonstrators gathered en-masse in the centre of Tbilisi, protesting this fact and the government’s policy towards Russia. The demonstrations were brutally raided in the aftermath with the plots which were developed against the protesters in the following days trying to legitimize the raids by affiliating the demonstrators with the opposition who were mainly former ruling party, and accusing them for the attempt of revolt.
The idea of the plan was that the demonstrators would lead the country to chaos and the enforcement agencies simply tried to preserve the order along with legitimizing the use of violence against the protests by portraying the ruling power as the guarantor of stability which is another Russian meta-narrative that is propagated by the Kremlin aiming at emphasizing the significance of “preserving the stability”. The Kremlin usually tries to play the card of the disorder in which Russia found itself in the 90’s after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the motive, every massive protest is a threat to Russian order. Therefore, the current regime is the only actor which can preserve the order. This type of narrative de-legitimises every protest in the eyes of the populace and enables the government to use every possible means to crush the demonstration. What is more, afterwards the “Gavrilov Night” protest series was met with the anti-gay counter protest too. During one of the major rallies regarding the issue certain opposing groups held the positions of the protestants and accused them of having ties with LGBT community.
Lastly, for Putin, the unit of measurement of politics is the territory. Political territory can be everything, public space, public discourses, media, state borders, “near abroad” and etc. For the Kremlin, the power is measured into the extent to which those territories are filled with Russia. This is how its “near abroad” is getting filled with Russia, literally. This is how Russia filled the media space with state speak. This is how online space was filled with state employed trolls. The same tendencies can be easily traced in Georgian politics. While accusations of state employing the trolls in order to spread the party propaganda is a well-known issue, the media space is washing ashore the critical voices too. The recent examples include two major media outlets Rustavi 2 and TV Pirveli. In the case of Rustavi 2, the leading journalists were fired while the rest of the newsroom left the company. With regards to TV Pirveli, the father of the owner of the television was indicted for money laundering.
Undermining the protests with demoralising discourses and filling the public spaces with the government narratives is a Russian style of doing politics. Putin’s Russia employs these methods for the sake of preserving the authoritarian oligarchical regime and the Georgian political agenda should not be set with the same goals.