Monday, February 08, 2016

Playing on traditions: Has Russia’s propaganda worked?

Has Russian influence in Georgia increased in recent years? While the political elite and civil society leaders argue a lot about this issue, in an August 2015 survey, CRRC and NDI asked people what they think. Findings presented in a recent blog post show that a significant share of Georgians (44%) perceives Russian influence as having increased since 2012. This number is all the more alarming considering that only 17% think that the EU’s influence has increased during the same period. Paradoxically, all this is happening against the backdrop of Georgia’s declared EU aspirations and a number of important EU-related foreign policy achievements. This blog post explores how recent efforts of Russian propaganda may have contributed to a decline in support for EU membership.

European Initiative – Liberal Academy Tbilisi (EI - LAT) recently conducted research on Russian soft power and hard power policy in Georgia and published a policy brief highlighting specific mechanisms used by Russia to increase its influence in Georgia. The research findings suggest that there is evidence of increased Russian influence on Georgia, and the brief describes some of its mechanisms. According to the document: 

"Political myths are one of Russia[n] propaganda[‘s] most important tools in Georgia. Russian propaganda is often built on emotional messages to create and strengthen negative stereotypes of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, discrediting the western political or cultural space and supporting homophobic and xenophobic opinions among the public. By cultivating these myths, Russia [presents] itself as Georgia’s only ally with a common identity, [religious] faith, history and culture. Simultaneously, it portrays the West as a threat to all the above-mentioned values."

While this statement is based on qualitative research findings, it finds support in CRRC’s public opinion survey data. In 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 CRRC conducted four waves of The Knowledge of and Attitudes towards the European Union in Georgia (EU survey) survey, funded by the Europe Foundation (formerly the Eurasia Partnership Foundation). These surveys’ findings show that, overall, the Georgian population’s reported support for Georgia’s EU membership has decreased between 2013 and 2015.

The EU survey data shows that Georgians increasingly perceive the EU as a threat to Georgian traditions. These traditions are extremely important for the people in Georgia who believe that preserving traditions is more important for a good citizen than being critical towards government or working as a volunteer. Thus, the above discussed mechanism of cultivating anti-Western myths may be very efficient in altering Georgia’s pro-Western course.

In fact, according to the EU survey data, the fear that the EU will harm Georgian culture and traditions has increased in Georgian society over the past seven years, especially after 2013. The 12% increase in the share of those who fully agree with the statement, “The EU threatens Georgian traditions,” over two years is a significant change and indicates the existence of a mechanism amplifying this fear.

The same attitude is demonstrated in the answers to another question asked on the same survey. About a third of Georgians believe there will be less respect for Georgian traditions if the country becomes an EU member. Notably, the share of those who think that respect for Georgian traditions will decrease significantly has doubled since 2013. 

The increasing fear that Georgia’s membership in the EU could threaten the country’s traditions can be considered another indicator or outcome of Russian propaganda discussed in detail by EI – LAT. Although this blog post does not prove that there is a direct causal relationship between Russia’s propaganda and changes in public attitudes towards the EU, the CRRC/EF data clearly show three trends that are, most probably, interrelated: 

1. Traditions are very important for Georgians; 
2. The EU is increasingly perceived as a threat to Georgian traditions; 
3. Although still at a high level, direct support for EU membership has declined. 

Based on both CRRC/EF and EI-LAT findings regarding Russia’s propaganda, we can assume that Russia’s propaganda was not only well informed and well planned, but also successful to a certain extent: the fear that the EU will harm Georgian traditions appears to have contributed to a decrease in the number of supporters of Georgia’s EU membership. This result is likely facilitated by the public not being well-informed about the EU, specifically – its commitment to preserve national traditions and supporting cultural heritage. 

The findings presented in this blog post shows that empirical research can be used not only for planning a successful propaganda campaign (by getting information on the most sensitive and important aspects of a given society), but also for detecting propaganda mechanisms and, potentially, taking counter measures.

Further research is essential and should focus on exploring the nature of the fear of “losing” traditions, as well as what people mean by Georgian traditions, as suggested by the Europe Foundation in a recent report. The findings also suggest that an awareness raising campaign on what EU membership actually implies is crucial for combating anti-Western propaganda.

If you would like to explore  Georgians’ attitudes towards the EU more, the data used for this post is available on CRRC’s online data analysis platform. As always, we welcome further analysis and your comments on our Facebook or in the comments section below.

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