T he attitude of Russian society toward Georgia is changing: Georgia is growing in popularity whereas official Russian propaganda is losing ground. That attitudinal shift is largely due to Tbilisi’s open-door policy toward Russian citizens rather than to Georgia’s more effective information channels.
Georgia’s Russian-language TV channel Perviy Kavkazskiy (PIK) has lately emerged as an important source of information for the Russian opposition and the general population about developments in their own country. Oriented toward the North Caucasus region, PIK TV actively covers events as they unfold in the Russian capital. Reports and programs produced by PIK are broadcast in Russia via satellite and the Internet and widely discussed in Russian social networks.
PIK viewership in Russia has skyrocketed since the beginning of the year. PIK website hits from Russia increased thirty-one percent between January (263,000 hits) and April (344,000 hits) and are expected to exceed the half-million mark when the numbers are in for May. Even more Russians are watching PIK reports on YouTube. The channel’s popularity soared in March with more than 2.2-million viewers tuning in for coverage of the Russian presidential elections and immediate aftermath.
The Georgian TV channel first started attracting attention in August 2011 when PIK broadcast an interview with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The very fact that the President of Russia agreed to sit down for an interview with the TV channel of a country Medvedev himself accused of “subversive” activity against Russia served to legitimize and popularize PIK in Russia. The interview was of less interest for Georgian society as Medvedev reiterated Kremlin’s usual accusations about Tbilisi.
Russian public interest in PIK further increased in late-April when the channel started airing “The Main Theme” talk show anchored by popular Russian TV presenter Ksenya Sobchak.
“The channel has already acquired a credible reputation. Based on our experience, I can say that all the opposition leaders in Russia, many Russian politicians and Members of Parliament are well aware of PIK,” Ekaterine Kotrikadze, the head of the PIK news department, told Tabula.
According to Kotrikadze, the PIK channel is committed to impartial coverage of events, both in Georgia and Russia, thereby enabling viewers to draw their own conclusions.
“Russians show substantial interest toward Georgia. I think that is the topic that leaves no one indifferent in Russia,” Kotrikadze notes in citing the popularity of reports broadcast by Georgia’s PIK TV station and Russia’s liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station.
Speaking to Tabula, journalist Olga Allenova of the Russian daily Kommersant observes that the attitude of Russian society toward Georgia has turned around in the past few years with negative sentiments gradually evaporating. Allenova believes that tendency started when Tbilisi unilaterally abolished the visa regime for North Caucasians and later for all Russian citizens: “These are the sort of steps that stir up interest towards Georgia. The country is open – one can merely buy a ticket and arrive there. This is an ideal way to promote your country.”
Once the visa regime with the North Caucasus was abolished, throngs of inhabitants of that region started arriving in Georgia. Allenova reports that most of them were fascinated by Georgia and imparted their impressions to friends and relatives. Georgia is interesting for Russian citizens “because it is the only country in the post-Soviet space where such large-scale reforms are going on,” she says. “My interest is to show readers how people with post-Soviet mentality manage to carry out all this.”
Allenova recalls that her first article about the Georgian police reform caused a “furor” among readers – many thought it too unbelievable to be true. That mistrust dissipated, however, when other publications also reported on the same topic.
Also influencing Russian society are reports about Georgian reforms from such well-known journalists as Yulia Latynina and Matvei Ganapolsky and from former Putin economic advisor Andrei Illarionv, now senior fellow at the Cato Institute Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. Through them, the Russian society also has become far more aware than ever before of Russian aggression in August 2008.
Georgian bloggers have made their own contribution to keeping the Russian public well informed. Through his Russian-language blog cyxymu.livejournal.com, Giorgi Jakhaia comments daily about developments in Georgia and freely expresses his opinions about the Russian-Georgian conflict, the occupied regions of Georgia, and the current situation in Russia.
In August, 2009, Giorgi Jakhaia’s blog came under such a large-scale cyber-attack that livejournal and Twitter were disconnected worldwide for a certain period of time. The blogger accused Russian secret services of launching the attack.
Giorgi Jakhaia told Tabula that his blog is accessed by three to four thousand visitors every day and that seventy percent of those visitors are from Russia. Overall, the number of Russian-language Georgian bloggers ranges between three to four hundred with each of those blogs reaching several hundred users.
“I do not think that we have a big influence on the public opinion of a country with a one-hundred-forty-million population. All in all, however, Georgian bloggers still have some influence. [Russian citizens] respect our opinions and are interested in what we think about developments in Georgia,” Jakhaia says.
According to Jakhaia, Russian bloggers are mainly interested in Georgian innovations. With formal ties between the two countries severed, Jakhaia believes blogging provide an important avenue for dialogue and discussion.
Journalist Olga Allenova gives credit to those Russian bloggers who have taken advantage of visa-free entry and visited Georgia. Their posted accounts are always very popular. “One can say that bloggers today do much more to stir up interest toward Georgia than [traditional] media,” Allenova says. “Mass media has its own rules – it must cover all the sides, observe balance in reporting while bloggers share only their experiences with their readers and maintain the audience who know and trust them.”
The Russian journalist thinks one reason for the turnaround in Russian attitudes toward Georgia is the growing protest in their country: “People are already [inclined to] trust official propaganda less. Those who use the Internet have started thinking differently, including about Georgia.”
At present, some fifty-eight percent of the Russian population uses the Internet. The rest of the population has no access to alternative information about developments either inside or outside Russia. In Allenova’s view, that segment of the Russian audience which relies heavily on television, especially in the provinces of the country, still maintains a negative attitude toward Georgia. The North Caucasus is the exception in this regard; the population there no longer believes in “fairy tales” Russian propaganda spins about Georgia.
Although the intensity of blogging activity in North Caucasus as well as the number of Internet users there is relatively low by Russian standards, information about Georgia is still spreading quite fast in the region thanks to personal channels of communication.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 102, published 28 May 2012.