Monday, May 25, 2020

Why are Georgians nostalgic about the USSR? Part 2

Georgians are equally split in their evaluations of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. While younger, more educated, and wealthier Georgians are more likely to think it was a good thing, those with negative attitudes towards democracy, and those that prefer Russia over the West have more negative feelings. Although respondents named multiple factors to explain their dissatisfaction, these categories can be broken into broader constructs such as economic disarray and the political turmoil occurring after the collapse. This post further explores factors associated with positive attitudes towards the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In the 2019 wave of the Caucasus Barometer survey respondents were asked why they thought the collapse of the Union was a good or bad thing. About four-fifths of those who believe that the dissolution was a positive thing (41%) for Georgia did so, because the country earned its independence. Fewer respondents picked options related to ethnic identity such as better opportunities for sustaining language and culture (8%) or improved chances for a flourishing national culture (6%). Yet another broader category consisted of answer options related to civil liberties such as freedom of speech (7%), human rights (7%), freedom of doing business (3%), and access to consumer goods (1%).

Looking closer at the demographic characteristics of respondents, age and socio-economic status are good predictors of endorsement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a positive thing. Those with higher educational attainment are more likely to pick categories related to the country’s independence as an explanation for why the collapse was a positive event. Relative to those in Tbilisi, rural Georgians are less likely to name categories related to civil liberties.

Importantly, attitudes towards democracy and foreign policy preferences are associated with respondents’ endorsement of collapse of the Soviet Union. Respondents who think that democracy is preferable over other political systems are about seven times more likely to pick the identity category as a reason why the collapse was a positive event, controlling for other factors. They also are more likely to name national independence and liberties than other respondents. Respondents saying that Georgia is a democracy are fifteen times more likely to select categories related to identity, twice as likely to name independence, and ten times more likely to choose liberties as an explanation for their positive assessment of the collapse.

Those with pro-western attitudes have the highest probability of assessing the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a positive event. Such respondents are seven times more likely to identify categories related to national identity as a main reason behind their endorsement, almost four times more likely to choose independence, and about twelve times more likely to name liberties than those who are not pro-western.

Positive attitudes towards the dissolution of the Soviet Union are associated with socio-economic status and age. Those with higher educational attainment, more wealth, and younger people are more likely to evaluate the collapse positively. Similar to factors associated with nostalgia, positive assessment of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is highly correlated with feelings towards democracy and Western-leaning foreign policy preferences.

These blog posts have looked at factors associated with both positive and negative attitudes towards the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The data are consistent with the “winners and losers of transition” proposition as well as the political hypotheses explaining Soviet nostalgia. Those groups who would be expected to be losers of transition, such as less educated and poorer respondents are more nostalgic while respondents with higher socioeconomic status view the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a positive thing. As the political hypothesis of explaining nostalgia goes, Georgians with skeptical views on democracy are more likely to be nostalgic and vice versa. In short, both Georgian Ostalgie and anti-nostalgia reflect the long and winding road the country took through its post-Soviet transition.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Why are Georgians Nostalgic about the USSR? Part 1

Several surveys in recent years suggest that close to half of the Georgian public considers the dissolution of the USSR a bad thing. After nearly 30 years since gaining independence, why do so many Georgians look back with nostalgia towards the Soviet Union? Reasons for Soviet nostalgia in other contexts are usually associated with how people experienced transition from state socialism to capitalism. The economic hypothesis explaining nostalgia argues that a perception of being part either “a winner” or “a loser” of the transition is associated with nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet Union. Other hypotheses introduce politics into the equation. According to this explanation, those who reject democracy on ideological grounds are more likely to be nostalgic as are those who think that democratic institutions are too feeble in delivering state services. Are these explanations true for Georgian Ostalgie? This series of blog posts explores these and other potential explanations to Soviet nostalgia.

The 2019 Caucasus Barometer survey asked respondents whether the dissolution of the USSR was a good or a bad thing, as well as the reasons why. Respondents were considered nostalgic if they reported that the dissolution was a bad thing. However, it is worth keeping in mind the exact wording of the question when reading the analysis. Overall, 42% of the public think that the dissolution of the USSR was a bad thing, and a statistically indistinguishable share (41%) report it was good, leaving about 16% who were not sure.

When it comes to why it was a bad thing, by far, the most common reason is that respondents believe that people’s economic situation has worsened. And they’re not necessarily wrong.

Georgia had a particularly difficult economic transition during independence. Overall purchasing power is much higher today than before the transition, however, it only recovered to pre-transition levels in 2006 according to World Bank data.

At the same time, average purchasing power hides the high levels of economic inequality in Georgia. Inequality increased from an estimated GINI of 0.313 in 1988 to 41.3 in 1998. In 2018, it stood at 37.9 according to the World Bank data. Concomitantly social services were cut.

This likely explains why a majority of respondents that are nostalgic report that the economic situation has worsened to explain why they think the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. The fact that some respondents directly cite a lower number of workplaces as a reason for believing that the dissolution was a negative thing, attests to this. The second most common reason is related to the conflicts that followed independence and the lost territories.

What sets nostalgic Georgians apart? A logistic regression model looking at attitudes towards democracy, Russia, political party preferences, and a number of demographic measures suggests a number of characteristics. Age is an important predictor, with older people being considerably more nostalgic.

Education also appears important, as individuals with more education are less likely to be nostalgic. Wealth has a less clear role, appearing only slightly relevant for overall attitudes, and more relevant when we look at those citing economic reasons for their attitude. This suggests that those who regret the dissolution of the USSR are those who suffered the most during the transition. This also suggests that as the economy improves and newer generations come of age, nostalgia towards the USSR may decline.

While age, education, and wealth are relevant, they are not the only factors. Attitudes towards democracy and towards Georgia’s orientation to Russia also seem to separate nostalgics from non-nostalgics. Those who believe that Georgia should forego NATO and EU membership in favor of closer ties to Russia as well as those who think that Georgia is not a democracy and that democracy is not necessarily the best form of government, are more likely to also believe that the dissolution of the USSR was a negative thing.

Similar patterns emerge when disaggregating the reasons for nostalgia, with wealth being more relevant for those who mentioned the worse economy as a reason for nostalgia. Interestingly, feeling close to a particular political party does not seem to be relevant for these attitudes, once other factors are held constant. One exception is when looking at identity-related responses for the attitudes. Respondents who feel close to pro-western opposition parties are less likely to believe that the dissolution of the USSR was a bad thing because ties with other nationalities became less common, travel to other former Soviet Republics became harder, or for people judging each other because of their identity. Ethnic minorities in Georgia are more likely to report these reasons than ethnic Georgians.

Nostalgia towards the USSR seems to be primarily related to an individual’s experience of the transition, and their current attitudes towards democracy and Russia. This connection might suggest that skepticism towards democracy and the West is related to individuals’ experiences of the transition. However, more direct analysis of attitudes towards democracy is needed to test this idea.
The next blog post looks at the characteristics of Georgians who view the dissolution of the USSR positively.

Note: The above analysis is based on a set of logistic regression analyses. Respondents were considered nostalgic if they believe that the dissolution of the USSR was a bad thing. Besides this, additional analyses grouped together the reasons respondents gave for their first answer to the question “Has dissolution of the Soviet Union been a good or a bad thing for Georgia?” The economic group consisted of respondents reporting worsening economic situation and a declining number of workplaces as a reason. The conflict group consisted of respondents reporting the war with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian civil war, and lost territories as reasons. The inequality group consisted of respondents who reported the privatization of social services, and the increasing gap in wealth between rich and poor as reasons. The identity group consisted of respondents who reported severed ties with friends and relatives, increases being judged due to identity, and more difficult travel to other former Soviet republics as reasons.

The independent variables are a positive attitude towards democracy, the belief that Georgia is a democracy, support for foregoing EU and NATO membership in favor of closer ties to Russia, distance of the respondent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ethnicity, party support, age, sex, type of settlement (capital, other urban, rural), employment status, wealth, and education. The data used in the blog is available here. Replication code of the above data analysis is available here.

Monday, May 11, 2020

AI and Russian propaganda: it’s not what it looks like

[Note: This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks Annual Review. It was written by David Sichinava and Dustin Gilbreath. David Sichinava is the Research Director of CRRC Georgia. Dustin Gilbreath is the Deputy Research Director of CRRC Georgia and the Communications Manager at Transparify. The views presented in this article do not reflect the views of East West Management Institute, USAID, or any related entity.]

In the think tank world, talk about artificial intelligence (AI) is common. Using it is less common. One of the underlying causes of this may be a perceived lack of familiarity with the methods. However, AI methods – including machine learning – are probably more familiar to many thinktankers than they realise. The Russian Propaganda Barometer project, recently conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Georgia, demonstrates the potential of these tools in think tanks for policy insight – particularly relating to discourse analysis, and developing targeting strategies.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are more familiar than thinktankers think
To say that artificial intelligence in general, and machine learning algorithms specifically, is a dramatically changing industry would be an understatement. From optimising electricity usage in factories to deciding which advertisement to show you online, algorithms are in use all around us. In fact, algorithms have been shaping the world around us for decades.

The think tank and social science worlds are no exceptions to this. Indeed, most policy researchers will be familiar with, if not users of, algorithms like regression. Notably, this is a common tool in the machine learning world as well social science research.

Hopefully, knowing that regression is part of the machine learning toolbox will make it clear that machine learning is less foreign than many thinktankers may think.

While regression is one method in the machine learning toolbox, there are others. Although these methods are not new, this larger toolbox has only become commonly used in recent years as big data sets have become more available.

For many products and problems, machine learning solutions might be improvements on existing think tank practices. This is particularly true when it comes to developing a targeting strategy for programming, monitoring, or anything that focuses on understanding discourses.

The Russian Propaganda Barometer Project
CRRC Georgia implemented the Russian Propaganda Barometer project, funded by USAID through the East West Management Institute in 2018-2019. The project aimed to understand and monitor sources of Russian propaganda in Georgia, and to identify who was more or less likely to be vulnerable to the propaganda.

To monitor Russian propaganda, CRRC took all of the posts from public Facebook pages of potential sources of Russian propaganda (around 50,000 in total) in the Georgian language as identified by two other organizations working on the issue in addition to several pages missing from their lists. These posts were then analysed using natural language processing tools such as sentiment analysis. Network analysis was also conducted to understand the interlinkages between different sources.

One of the key insights from the project is that most of the sources of propaganda identified were in fact from far right organisations. While some of these are likely tied to Russia, an analysis of how they talked about the West and Russia suggests that most actually have more negative attitudes towards Russia than the West.

The analysis also called attention to the sharp rise in interest in the far right in Georgia. The number of interactions with far-right pages had increased by roughly 800% since 2015. While overall increasing internet use in the country likely contributed to this, it seems unlikely to be the only cause of the rise.

The results were presented in this dashboard, as well as a more traditional report. It enables users to see what the far right is talking about on a daily basis, and networks between different groups, among other metrics.

The project also aimed to inform a targeting strategy on countering anti-Western propaganda. To do so, we merged data from approximately 30 waves of CRRC and National Democratic Institute surveys that asked about a variety of preferences. From there, a ‘k-nearest neighbours’ algorithm was used to identify which groups had uncertain or inchoate foreign policy preferences. This algorithm basically identifies how similar people are based on whatever variables are included in the algorithm. Based on similarity, a prediction is then made about whatever outcome is of interest. This led to an algorithm that provided accurate predictions about two thirds of the time as to whether someone would be more or less likely to be influenced by Russian propaganda. Further research showed that the algorithm was stable in predicting whether someone was at risk of being influenced, using data that did not exist at the time of the algorithm’s creation.

The data analysis, while cutting edge in many respects, is not beyond the means of many quantitative researchers. Neither of us have MAs or PhDs in statistics: David is a geographer and Dustin is a political scientist.

While the Russian Propaganda Barometer addressed the research goals, we’d like to highlight that AI is no panacea. For the project’s success, we combined traditional think tank analysis of the situation in Georgia with AI to generate new insights.

The Russian Propaganda Barometer project is just one type of application of machine learning to policy research. There is good reason to believe more and more policy researchers will use these methods given their ubiquity in the modern world, together with the increasing availability of the large datasets needed to study these issues.  We hope that the Russian Propaganda Barometer project can serve as food for thought for others in service of this goal.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Perceptions of the Prosecutor’s Office

On January 19, 2020, Studio monitor and Radio Liberty released an investigative journalism film called “The Winner’s Justice.” It focused on accusations that prosecutors had not investigated the seizure of a luxury watch shop, the Albatros, from businessman David Begiashvili in 2011.

On March 4-23, 2020, CRRC-Georgia conducted a phone survey to find out attitudes towards the prosecutor’s office and whether people watched the film. The survey specifically focused on:

  • How much people trust or distrust the Prosecutors Office of Georgia;
  • How often people think prosecutors abuse power and make deals with judges or government;
  • To what extent the restoration of justice investigations were accomplished. 
Only 2% of the adult Georgian-speaking population of Georgia reported watching the film. The majority of those who viewed the film could not recall where they watched it. The rest of the respondents watched it either on Facebook or Radio Liberty’s website and found the film convincing or partially convincing.

Public opinion on the Prosecutor’s Office in Georgia tends towards trust. About half the public (57%) reported trusting the Prosecutor’s Office (19% fully trust and 38% trust more than distrust), 26% not trusting it, and 17% reported ‘don’t know’. This is an increase in trust compared with 2018 and 2019. However, it is similar to results from 2018.

Note: the question was recoded from 4-point scale into a 2-point scale. The answer options “Fully trust” and “Rather trust than distrust” were recoded as “Trust”; the answer options “Fully distrust” and “Rather distrust that trust” were recoded as “Distrust”.

The public is divided in how objectively the Prosecutor’s Office investigates and prosecutes cases about confiscating property. Slightly more than a quarter of people (28%) say that the Prosecutor’s Office objectively deals with cases about confiscating property. A similar share (26%) reports that cases are not investigated and prosecuted objectively. The plurality (43%) report ‘don’t know’ to the question.

Respondents were asked if prosecutors abused power frequently, rarely, or never. A plurality (36%) reported that abuse of power was rare, 20% said it was frequent, and 13% reported it never happened in Georgia. The rest of the respondents (31%) replied ‘don’t know’ to the question.

The same scale was used to ask how often prosecutors make deals with government. The plurality (39%) reported ‘don’t know’ to the question. Among the remainder of the public, 29% reported that prosecutors making deals with government representatives was rare, 20% said that it was frequent, and 12% reported that it never took place in Georgia.

The questions about abuse of power and deals with judges were also asked in a November, 2018 survey. The results about abuse of power have changed slightly between waves of the survey, with a decline in the share of people responding that prosecutors’ abuse of power is frequent and a decline in the share of people responding that it happens rarely. The share of people who reported that it never takes place in Georgia has slightly increased. More people also became uncertain.

As for deals with judges for favorable decisions, the results have not changed substantively between the waves, with a slight decline in the share of people who reported that prosecutors making deals with the government to have decisions favorable for them is happening frequently and a slight increase in the share of people responding don’t know.

The survey also asked people how free or unfree large businesses are from political influence. According to the data, 42% reported that businesses are free form political influence, 33% said that they are not free from influence, and a quarter of the population 25% reported ‘don’t know’.
The survey asked respondents about the “restoration of justice” that the Georgian Dream government initiated after coming to power in 2012. Officially, the process, among other objectives, was meant to return confiscated property. A plurality of respondents (36%) said that the restoration of justice was not accomplished. About a quarter (27%) reported that it was accomplished and 36% answered ‘don’t know’.

Overall, the public is relatively split or undecided in terms of attitudes towards the Prosecutor’s Office. Even though more than half of the population trusts the Prosecutor’s Office, more than a quarter think that they un-objectively investigate and prosecute cases about confiscated property and the plurality have no idea how objectively or un-objectively the Prosecutor’s Office investigates and prosecutes cases. Approximately one third of the population reports that they don’t know how often prosecutors abuse power, make deals with judges, or make deals with government to have decisions favorable for them. Almost half think it happens either frequently or rarely, and around one in eight think it never happens.

Note: The survey is part of the Promoting Prosecutorial Independence through Monitoring and Engagement (PrIME) project implemented by the Institute for Development of freedom of Information (IDFI) in partnership with CRRC-Georgia and Studio Monitor with the financial support of the European Union (EU).  The contents of this blogpost are the sole responsibility of CRRC-Georgia and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union, IDFI, and Studio Monitor.

The analysis above is based on the full sample and represents the Georgian-speaking adult population of Georgia, regardless of whether they watched the film or not. The phone survey was conducted on March 4-23 2020. It included 755 completed interviews. Its results are representative of the adult Georgian-speaking population of the country. The theoretical margin of error of the survey is 3.6% for estimates near 50%, 3.1% for estimates near 75% and 25%, and 2.1% for estimates near 10% and 90%.  Results discussed in this blog are based on all completed interviews.  The data are weighted to reflect the demographics of the population.