There is fertile ground for the rise of pro-Russian groups in our country today - Ucha Nanuashvili
Their activities were more fragmented in previous years, but today the situation has changed, - Ucha Nanuashvili says about the activities of far-radical groups in Georgia. The former Public Defender is now the Head of the Democracy Research Institute. The organization has been monitoring the activities of 15 far-right groups on social networks, as well as their pro-Russian online articles, since last spring. "Batumelebi" interviewed Ucha Nanuashvili about what has changed in the work of these groups.
- Mr. Ucha, what has changed since Facebook blocked hundreds of fake accounts? Some of these pages had been working on Russian propaganda.
There are many far-right groups in Georgia. In previous years, their activities were more fragmented, but today, the situation has changed - they are more organized and openly show their strength. They openly threaten groups that are unacceptable to them. These far-radical groups are not homogeneous today, they do not share a common goal, but we often see similar articles, posts and contents.
We can distinguish two directions: the first includes open pro-Russian groups, which openly express the above. For example, the March, National Unity… They are stronger and have many supporters. They have access to traditional media and use all the tools. The number of such groups has increased. They represent the "soft force" of Russia in Georgia. The second category includes smaller groups, which officially rule out any connection with Russia and are characterized by anti-Russian rhetoric, but they actually repeat the content of the Russian far-right forces.
It is unfortunate that the existence and strengthening of such groups is encouraged in Georgia. It is easy to see even with the naked eye that the government uses these groups to intimidate liberal groups or groups that have different opinions, in order to demonize them.
- How can it be proved that the government uses or encourages these groups?
For example, the persons, who had been making violent calls during the events around the Basiani night club or Tbilisi Pride, have not been actually punished. Only light fines were used against them, whereas we saw that some cases included signs of a crime, e.g. the investigation against Levan Vasadze, although he was questioned only three days after making such a call... The law enforcement agencies are much more active towards other groups, namely civil movements. Dozens of people were fined GEL 2,000-3,000 during the protests organized by the Shame movement and even administrative detention was used. All this proves that the authorities do not treat equally far-radical groups and civil groups when dealing with similar or almost similar offences.
The government is stricter towards civil movements. They used only light sanctions against the far-radical groups, when they assaulted certain individuals. The same happened during the protests near the Amirani Cinema... These people are behind those Facebook accounts and they can be seen at the protests as well.
- What has changed in the messages of these far-radical groups?
It is already clear that supporters are being recruited [mobilized]. We conducted in-depth interviews with active members of these groups to find out what made them more active…It can be said that the activities of these specific groups are not futile. They say that they use social media to spread their views. It is unfortunate that these groups are using the gaps that we have in our legislation relating to radical groups, radicalization. Unfortunately, there is fertile ground today for the rise of similar groups. All this is promoted by the government's tolerant policy.
- According to your observation, how do they use social networks, do they act separately or jointly?
As of today, the most influential group, which organizes protest rallies as well, has conflict with small groups. They have a communication problem and there is some controversy between them. Earlier these groups had one goal, but today they are no longer homogeneous. There are some groups that, for example, spread nationalist ideas, and there is a group supporting Zviad Gamsakhurdia… Different groups are active at different times. It also depends on the events. For example, the topic of homophobia is active in May [May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia]. Xenophobia, hatred of other nations, or messages against the West are activated during specific events. Misogyny is also characteristic of these groups and becomes evident when feminist movements get active.
- How do these groups spread Russian propaganda?
These groups deny any ties with Russia. The leaders also denied the above in their interviews, although their discussion is virtually identical to that of Russian far-right groups. These groups often talk about anti-American sentiments, skepticism about Euro-Atlantic integration, xenophobic and homophobic attitudes, which is part of Russian propaganda... The Lugar laboratory is still the target of Russian propaganda in Georgia.
- Who are the main respondents and targets of these online publications?
The main targets are the LGBTQ community, liberal-minded people, ethnic and religious minorities, and foreigners. It can be said that there are various reasons for the emergence of these attitudes in the society and they use it well. These reasons are: low level of media literacy, poverty, social problems and understanding of secularism.
- What can you say about the finances of these groups?
There are specific restrictions in legislation that make it impossible to study the finances in this direction, unless there is a will for the above. We want to go deeper into this issue. As part of this monitoring, we monitored the work of online media and found that these groups were interconnected. As I’ve mentioned, they often post identical materials … it is difficult to speak directly and openly about how they are funded. The fact is that these groups have recently become particularly active and they can work without any restrictions. When the violent calls of these leaders are not responded, or are responded too late, it raises suspicions about their ties with the Georgian government or Russia.
- According to your observation, what is the impact of these groups? For example, how the rating of pro-Russian political forces may increase by such activities in Georgia?
These groups are becoming more and more active day by day, which helps them enter the political space as well. It can be said that their influence is growing and it can be seen every day… It is not enough that Facebook blocked certain accounts and this is obvious. It is necessary to use other methods, including the introduction of legislative regulations. Extremism and radicalism are banned in many countries. Georgia does not have an effective policy against Russian propaganda.
- The State says that contrary to Russian propaganda, it is trying to disseminate correct information and that the strategic communications committee is also working. What do you think the government should do?
There is no specific action plan or strategy in this direction. There must be specific people in every state agency and there must be coordination between them. There is no such a coordination today. The authorities say the state strategy against terrorism was developed and adopted a year ago, but radicalization is another, different threat, which is not responded by the government at all, or is responded late.