Russian soft power in action: South Ossetia's wandering 'border'

Commentary



This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


Russian encroachments on the Georgian border show its disorienting and demoralising soft power in action.

“Russian-Georgian relations have made some progress recently – by 1.5 kilometres,” goes the latest Georgian joke. This follows the erection of new ‘border’ markings in South Ossetia by Russia, pushing it several hundred metres deeper into Georgian territory. Now a portion of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa oil pipeline is in Russian-controlled territory and the ‘border’ has got even closer to the only motorway linking Tbilisi to Western Georgia.    

Moving the ‘border’ into Georgian-controlled territory began soon after the 2012 elections which brought the Georgian Dream coalition to power. “Improving relations with Russia” was one of the Georgian Dream’s manifesto pledges. It definitely made sense: not only ordinary Georgians, but also Georgia’s Western partners wanted more predictability and less tension in Russian-Georgian relations. Moreover, many Georgians believed that the re-opening of the Russian market would boost the economy.

So the Georgian Dream got down to business. Immediately after the elections, dozens of suspicious individuals charged with spying against Georgia were released from prison. They were released under a general amnesty along with other convicts as ‘political prisoners’. It was tacitly understood that at least some of these ‘political prisoners’ really were Russian spies, but to improve relations with Russia this was a price that the new Georgian authorities were willing to pay. In fact, shortly after the elections the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia expected the new Georgian authorities to release Russian citizens “unjustly held in prison by the Saakashvili regime.” 

The new Georgian authorities made another gesture of goodwill after the 2012 elections when Russian TV stations were allowed to resume broadcasting in Georgia. And a further gesture followed when it was decided to send a team to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. This offended quite a few Georgians, especially as the Russians had already started to move the ‘border’ into Georgian-controlled territory which meant that civilians had to abandon their homes and livelihoods. The government assured the discontented that this goodwill gesture would not go unnoticed – hinting that Moscow would repay the debt.

Russia, on the other hand, was portrayed as a fellow Orthodox nation fighting Western imperialism and protecting its Georgian younger brother

Following the re-entry of a Russian presence on Georgian TV, Georgian-language media sources emerged that portrayed the West as a safe haven for freemasons and “sexual perverts” bent on destroying Georgian values. Russia, on the other hand, was portrayed as a fellow Orthodox nation fighting Western imperialism and protecting its Georgian younger brother. “Saakashvili and his American masters” were blamed for the 2008 war and the former “political prisoners” gave interviews and even hosted talk shows. Opponents were denounced either as “supporters of the Saakashvili regime” or “proponents of same-sex marriages.” And during Sochi, Russia did reopen its market to Georgian produce and even stopped moving the ‘border’ into Georgian-controlled territory. However, as soon as the Olympic Games were over the Russians simply started again.

These two examples highlight how Russian soft power is deployed in Russia. There are two narratives at play here. One is the openly pro-Russian and anti-Western one encapsulated by the content of the new sympathetic Georgian-language media outlets. The other is more subtle, but a no less pro-Russian one. The Russians cultivate the impression that the West fears Russia. In this paradigm, Georgia must be submissive and neutral: the US is too far away and too fearful to protect Georgia if the Russians decide to attack.  

This is at the heart of the motivation for South Ossetia’s wandering ‘border’. The Russians - as if to prove this narrative of Western weakness - advance the ‘border’ into Georgian-controlled territory and neither Georgia nor the West can do anything about it. While the West can protest and “express concern” over the incursions, it is made ‘evident’ that they will not come to Georgia’s aid if Russia attacks in earnest.

Russian soft power disorients and demoralises, rather than galvanises, any opposition. As a result, Moscow does not anticipate any harsh or co-ordinated Georgian response

This also explains why the incursions began only when Georgia opened itself up to Russia after the 2012 election. When Georgia was closed off to Russian sources, such activities came at a price: triggering denunciations at anti-Russia rallies across Georgia and giving Saakashvili new arguments in his crusade against Russia.

But now, Russian soft power disorients and demoralises, rather than galvanises, any opposition. As a result, Moscow does not anticipate any harsh or co-ordinated Georgian response. Indeed, the Russian foreign ministry was surprised and furious in equal measure when a group of Georgian journalists visited the ‘border’ and uprooted the newly-erected ‘border post of South Ossetia’. Perhaps they believed that there was no-one left in Georgia to protest.

Tornike Sharashenidze is a professor and head of MA programme in International Affairs at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs (GIPA) where he lectures on the history of diplomacy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, Wider Europe, EaP

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