Russia is trying to conquer Georgia once again. This time around, it is doing so in a wiser manner than it has done traditionally. Today, the Russian Federation tries to win the heart of Georgia by applying "soft power." Even though Russia as yet fails to be effective in this endeavor because of its political nature, it is clear that this attempt is serious. There is, however, the possibility that, being in a critical condition, Georgia, which has repeatedly suffered under the Russian boot, may this time around swallow the soft bait that Russia is offering. So, what does "soft power" mean? How does Russia apply it in modern Georgia? What can we do to counteract it?
The concept of soft power was developed by Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University in his famous work "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics." Power is a complex phenomenon that has various manifestations. When perceived in a simplistic way, as the ability to influence the behavior of others according to one's will, power is manifested as both hard and soft power. Hard power reflects the most traditional idea of authority that everyone is well aware of. The key resource of this form of authority is military and economic force, and through this, if one possesses the necessary instruments, such as an army, one can influence others' behavior. As the threat of applying such instruments alone is often sufficient to cause fear, the holder of this instrument consequently acquires definite power. Economic stimulus is also a form of hard power. By creating prospects for economic welfare, the provider of economic stimulus extends their influence to gain the outcome it wants.
Soft power, in contrast, is a form of authority which requires neither coercion nor the provision of economic stimulus. As Joseph Nye noted, soft power refers to the ability to achieve goals through persuasion and attraction, rather than through coercion and financial incentives. Firstly, soft power is an attractive form of power; its attractiveness is conditioned by various different factors, but primarily by the coincidence of value systems and the feeling of participating in the process of implementing these values.
According to Nye, a country's soft power rests on three resources: "its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority)." Soft power can be wielded by a broad set of mechanisms, including public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, developmental assistance, and humanitarian aid at times of natural disasters. Clearly, any of these can create and popularize a specific image of a country that makes that country attractive in the eyes of others, who get drawn towards it by their own free will.
In the current domestic political arena of Georgia, the most successful wielder of soft power is Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II who needs neither to coerce nor economically motivate his followers in order to implement his authority. The moral and religious esteem of Ilia II is fully sufficient to influence the Orthodox Christian believers. The Patriarch does not need to issue warnings of excommunication or to finance his congregation because the followers of the Georgian Orthodox Church share the Patriarch's system of values and trust the legitimacy and benevolence of the goals set by the Orthodox Church. Likewise, a radical Islamist may follow a terrorist leader not because of the desire for financial gains or because of coercion, but merely because they share the same values and hence gain happiness for merely being a participant in the process of implementing those shared values.
Via its own characteristics and values, soft power thus creates a sort of market of tastes. The wielder of such power gains influence over other countries not by coercion, but through promoting and extending its values and ideas and by inviting them to voluntarily engage in cooperation. Consequently, in contrast to hard power, soft power operates by manipulating the politics of taste rather than by issuing orders, threats or economic incentives. Soft power thus represents a sort of market of ideas too.
Every country tries to develop various forms of soft power. For example, the United States is attractive as a powerful state defending freedom and justice. The key source of America's soft power is its civil society, which despite being critical never comes under the pressure of censorship. It is noteworthy that the soft power of the US has lost its earlier popularity in Europe after the country's military activities in the Middle East.
As the Eurobarometer survey showed, after the US military operations, Europeans questioned American adherence to such values as, for example, the maintenance of world peace and the fight against global poverty. Thus, American soft power experienced a setback after the beneficiary audience determined that the values they and the US had earlier shared no longer coincided with each other to the same extent, if at all. As a result, the soft power of George W. Bush's administration weakened, but it has seen a revival under the administration of Barack Obama.
China and Russia also feel the need to expand their soft power. Both Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin have mentioned Nye's soft power concept in their public speeches. Nye correctly notes that China needs to expand its soft power to win the hearts of its neighbors, who are wary of China's increasing strength, and to weaken their coalitions; whereas Russia needs it to mitigate the decline of its authority.
For example, with the aim of expanding its soft power, China built the buildings of the Cambodian parliament and the foreign affairs ministry in Mozambique; to promote Chinese language and culture, it has established hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide; it successfully hosted the 2008 Olympic Games; and received some 70 million guests during the Shanghai world exposition in 2010. Similarly, Vladimir Putin has recently identified the expansion of soft power as one of his priorities and has spoken about "strengthening the position of the Russian language." Clearly, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics offers yet another possibility for Putin's administration to extend Russian soft power.
Soft power is a form of authority which requires neither coercion nor the provision of economic stimulus. Soft power refers to the ability to achieve goals through persuasion and attraction, rather than through coercion and financial incentives.
However, in extending their soft power, China and Russia both face essentially the same problems: their political traditions. For example, regardless of its successful conduct of the Olympics, which positively affected China's regional image, the country regularly violates human rights on a massive scale and attacks those defending human rights. Likewise, regardless of its attempts to extend its soft power, Russia still sticks to its traditional methods. Through issuing threats, starting trade wars, initiating blockades or offending the sovereignty of its neighboring nations, alongside its regular use of aggressive rhetoric – which all fit with the traditional idea of hard power – Russia undermines its attempts to expand its soft power, which operates through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion. The problem of Russia, as well as China, is the serious mismatch between the rhetoric of soft power and the political practice of using the methods of hard power. This thereby makes the Russian attempts at expanding soft power unconvincing and, at the end of the day, ineffective.
For Russia this is particularly disadvantageous because its soft power is already very weak. When speaking about the Russia-Georgia conflict, Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov was quite correct in his assumption that Russia has no other option but to apply hard power, including military power, not only because it lives in a dangerous world, but also because it has limited soft power – i.e. low social, cultural, political and economic attractiveness. However, when it concerns Georgia, Russia has one additional instrument at its disposal; an instrument that is bolstered by an ailment of our citizens – homophobia. Through this, Russia nourishes the idea that the West is perverted whereas Russia is morally pure.
Geopolitical rivalry necessarily also implies a rivalry of ideas and ideologies. Consequently, to counteract Western liberal ideas – i.e. of a free and fair state – Russia fans conservative sentiments. Another very important thing here is that Russian soft power is itself in confusion; it is still seeking its identity. Russian soft power takes its characteristics from the history of both the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. The Russian idea of soft power is thus struggling between conservative and progressive sentiments. This struggle is also manifested in the Russian application of soft power, which offers a repetition of past practices – as seen in the incitement of modern anti-Western nationalism in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, which was a well-tested Soviet method in the Cold War.
Homophobic sentiments in modern Georgia enhance Russia's soft power. Well-targeted pro-Russian and anti-Western rhetoric is in full swing in Georgia today. This uses homophobia as a key, if not the key, sentiment. The campaign is conducted according to the following formula. First, preposterous links are established between homosexuality, on the one hand, and immorality, perversion and pedophilia, on the other. Of course, in reality homosexuality has about as much in common with pedophilia (or other such criminal perversions) as heterosexuality does with the likes of gerontophilia. Second, the same formula makes it necessary to associate homosexuality and perversion with the West – which is as absurd as associating the West with the likes of zoophilia or necrophilia. In reality, homosexuality is a global phenomenon that historically was actually more associated with the cultural practice of Eastern rather than Western civilizations; and pedophilia is, of course, a severely punishable crime in the West.
Third, when people are sufficiently scared, they are instantly offered, as a counterbalance to the immoral West, the hand of their historical brethren and friend so brimming with morality, Christian belief and love – Russia. The same Russia that, in reality, is distinguished for its centuries-old desire for Georgia's disintegration and destruction; which revels in humiliating and dismembering small neighboring nations; where journalists are killed on an annual basis and human rights are constantly violated under a defective form of democracy. Russia is also a country where, as in any other, homosexuals exist (but where they are treated like criminal pedophiles); and is a country that has never been distinguished for either its sexual conservatism or for being an exceptionally moral nation.
This rhetoric is mainly heard from the Georgian Orthodox Church as well as from the so-called Georgian intelligentsia. The rhetoric of a large segment of the Orthodox clergy is an especially interesting phenomenon and deserves to be discussed in a separate article. It can, however, be noted here that such rhetoric is not a novelty. In its attempts to subjugate Georgia, Russia has historically used the influence the Orthodox Church has on people, doing so quite successfully. Historically, like now, the issue of so-called "co-religionism" was exploited by both Russia and the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Joseph Nye notes that in the modern information age, political success depends on whose story wins at the end of the day. Therefore, the victory of politics, in general, and of soft power, in particular, directly depends on the receiving audience. Although soft power is a product of government politics, its success or failure is beyond the control of governments. The success of soft power is, at the end of the day, conditional on the vigilance of the target audience, the accuracy of its reasoning and on taste – i.e. the system of its values.
The weakness of Georgia lies precisely here. First, owing to the inefficiency of the Georgian media, Georgian society largely lacks high quality and accurate information. Second, Georgian society has a number of intellectual "erogenous zones;" touching any of these irritates its central nervous system, stirring up emotions, pseudo-patriotic passions, and a desire to defend "traditions" and "the nation" – of which, in reality, society may have only a very general idea. That's why those absurd myths spread about the West rapidly find a strong foothold in popular perception, serving not the national interest, but the interests of Russian soft power.
Anti-Western nationalism as constructed by Russia might have worked successfully in the countries of the third world, but the colonizers of those countries were Westerners, whilst the colonizer of Georgia was Russia itself. The danger Georgia faces from Russia is, in reality, tangible and essential, whilst the threat the West poses to Georgia, according to the absurd Russian formula, is only virtual and hypothetical.
oreover, the sweet, though historically wrong and absolutely shameful rhetoric about the "brotherhood" between Georgia and Russia, as applied by the Kremlin and the Georgian Patriarchate, is in stark contrast with historical facts that point towards totally the opposite. Therefore, the likelihood that the rhetoric about "brotherhood" and partnership will increase the attractiveness of Russia for modern Georgia, more than it has already, is slim.
Regardless of these factors and the limits of Russian soft power, Russia still will try to intensify its soft power in the future and to exploit the ailments of Georgian citizens for its expansion. Among these ailments, the most conspicuous is homophobia. This not only disintegrates the fabric of Georgian politics, but also creates an image of the West as being a morally corrupt and perverted space.
Clearly, Georgia's top priorities must be to maintain peace and dialogue as well as to develop an alternative form of Georgian soft power in the region. Despite the fact that, given our cultural and political resources, the latter can only take a token form. However, to counteract the pro-Russian rhetoric that serves to expand Russian soft power, the vigilance of civil society and the rejection of homophobic rhetoric must be primary interests of Georgian society. And finally, in parallel with peaceful dialogue, it is important to bear in mind that behind the soft Russian rhetoric there is ugly Russian domestic politics and a quite real anti-Georgian threat.