Monday, September 22, 2014

Russia as a threat: the Ukraine crisis and changing public opinion in Georgia

Following 2012 parliamentary elections, attitudes toward Russia in Georgia shifted. While in 2011 51% of the population considered Russia the main enemy of the country, in 2012 only 35% reported the same. Moreover, the share of Georgians who named Russia as Georgia’s main friend increased by 5%. In a post on the CRRC-Georgia blog, this change was explained by a so-called “spiral of silence”. According to this theory, a person refrains from expressing their ideas freely if they feel that their opinions are in the minority. Davit Sichinava has noted that these results can be explained by some citizens’ desire to make their opinions conform to those of the new ruling party. This post examines how attitudes have changed since 2012 toward Russia and whether events in Ukraine have had any influence on it.

The graph below shows that from November 2012 to November 2013, the share of the population that claimed Russia was a real and existing threat to Georgia peaked at 36%. In April 2014, this number reached 50%. Moreover, the amount of Georgians who believe that Russia poses no threat to Georgia at all, decreased by 10%. What could cause such a rapid change in Georgian’s opinions about Russia making them report that Russia is a real and existing threat to Georgia?

When thinking about Russian and Georgian relations after the 2012 parliamentary elections there are a number of important events to take into consideration: the initiation of Georgian-Russian dialogue in the form of the Abashidze-Karasin negotiations, the re-opening of the Russian market to Georgian products, and the so-called borderization of South Ossetia. Obviously, the opening of Russian markets and direct bilateral negotiations are not likely causes of increased negative attitudes toward Russia, while Georgians are against the borderization policy making it a potential cause of negative attitudes towards Russia. Notably, the so-called borderization policy, which started in May of 2013, marks the beginning of a shift in attitudes toward Russia.

Another important event that may be associated with changes in public opinion is the crisis in Ukraine. While the Ukraine crisis is not directly tied to Georgian-Russian relations, Tbilisi has consistently expressed its support for Ukraine and its territorial integrity. Since the crisis there has been a very apparent change in Georgians’ perceptions of Russia as a possible threat. This is further exemplified by the responses to a question on NDI’s April 2014 survey- “which country bears the most responsibility for the crisis in Crimea?” As the graph below shows, 62% of Georgians consider Russia the country which bears the most responsibility for the crisis in the Crimea. Moreover, 66% of Georgians find Crimea’s unification with Russia unacceptable. It is noteworthy that the events in Ukraine which most experts assess as a direct and open Russian aggression against Ukraine started in March of 2014, directly before the April 2014 survey.                                                                          

It is interesting that in August 2014, support for the statement that “Russia is a real and existing threat to Georgia” declined by 8% compared to April. This could mean that Russia appeared to be more threatening to Ukraine (and hence to Georgia) at the onset of the crisis, rather than now as the conflict has protracted in time.  Russia's role in fueling the crisis in Ukraine may remind Georgians of Russia’s intervention in the separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s or of the 2008 August war with Russia. In sum, it seems that the events in Ukraine aggravated the sense of a potential future threat from Russia, especially considering the similar Euro-Atlantic policy orientations of both Ukraine and Georgia.

Considering the above, it is not surprising that almost half of the population (46%) believes that the actions taken by the Government of Georgia in support of Ukraine are insufficient and additional actions are needed. Notably, 63% of the population approved of the Georgian government’s condemnation of Russia’s actions in the Crimea.

This post has looked at the impact which events in Ukraine have had on the perception of threat expected from Russia. It appears that the increased level of agreement with the statement that “Russia is a real and existing threat to Georgia” in April may be linked to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. This is supported by the fact that most Georgians believe that Russia bears responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine and that Georgians are against Crimea’s unification with Russia. How Georgian public attitude will change toward Russia and whether the crisis in Ukraine will continue to influence it remains to be seen, but readers interested in exploring the issues discussed above can delve further into Georgian perceptions of Russia here.

By Edisher Baghaturia

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