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‘Small’ Georgia Takes on ‘Big’ Russia with New Media

This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.

Georgia, located to the south of Russia, is your typical small state: it has a tiny population, a developing economy, and territorial disputes with its largest neighbor Russia. In August 2008 when, Russia briefly invaded the tiny country, no one was particularly surprised that Georgia was unable to counter this show of force.

A small state by definition cannot project sufficient military or economic power to meet a security threat. Since such “hard power” options are unavailable to them, small states are often left with “soft power” as an only means of influencing their adversaries. Soft power, comes in many flavors, not the least of which are public diplomacy and propaganda, traditionally costly endeavors. Fortunately for Georgia, soft power is easier to exercise in this global communication age.

For a politically hostile state (it wants to join NATO and has long opposed Russia's entry into the WTO), Georgia enjoys surpringly good standing among the Russian public. This is partly because of Russia's historical relationship with the country, and Russian affinity for Georgian food and wine. Another reason, however, is Georgian use of online communities to project soft power.

Image uploaded by Flicker user Summersso CC BY-ND 2.0

Image uploaded by Flicker user Summersso CC BY-ND 2.0

Even though most Georgians blog in Georgian, there is a sizable contingent of Russian speaking Georgians on Russia's most popular blogging platform LiveJournal (LJ) (a list of 200 such bloggers can be found here [ru]. If ever there is a poster boy of these bloggers, it's cyxymu [ru].) This Abkhazian blogger leaves an average of forty comments per day, which makes him a familiar “face” to followers of the RuNet (Russia's Internet).

cyxymu often engages Russian bloggers in polemics about Russo-Georgian relations. For example, he extensively covered the 2008 conflict, and has apparently made it onto someone's radar as a result. In 2009 his Twitter and blog suffered a DDoS attack,  in a similar vein to what Russian opposition members have recently faced.

Coincidentally, one member of the Russian opposition currently lives and blogs in Georgia, Oleg Panfilov [ru] (olegpanfilov2). His original blog was hacked by the notorious hacker Hell, he now writes seven posts a day, in which he either castigates the Kremlin, or extols the virtues of its Georgian counterpart.

In general, these and other bloggers give Russians an idea of everyday life in Georgia, often with pictures [ru]. Although some of them can be critical of the Saakashvilli government, they often give glowing reviews of the reforms it has initiated. Georgian bloggers are aware of their Russian readers, in fact, as described in a June 14th Tbilisi roundtable [ru], many of them write in Russian precisely to attract this audience.

Meanwhile, the Georgian government takes a different approach. Recently, top rated Russian photo-blogger Rustem Adagamov was invited to visit Georgia by the Ministry of the Economy. The several posts he wrote after his return are a mixture of travel writing and great advertisement copy for the revamped Georgian Justice Department and police force [ru].

Adagamov is just the latest in a steady stream of Russian bloggers invited to Georgia by various government agencies. The apparently corruption-free Georgian police is a particularly popular subject. Last year, another photo-blogger, zyalt, made a very similar post, [ru] which was collated from the posts of previous writers [ru], attracting accusations of blogging-for-hire.

Although the Georgian government seems to be following a conscious strategy of co-opting the Russian public through smart use of new media, it's unclear if it will soon see results. After all, public diplomacy works best under a functioning democracy.

ISN logoThis post and its translations to Spanish, Arabic and French were commissioned by the International Security Network (ISN) as part of a partnership to seek out citizen voices on international relations and security issues worldwide. This post was first published on the ISN blog, see similar stories here.

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