EU Association: Are Georgia`s Ethnic Minorities in?

On 3 August, the Georgian Ministry for European Integration released a promotional video. In it, a smiling “flight attendant” presents the guidelines. But instead of advising on safety of seatbelts, the attendant outlines the benefits and procedures of visa-free travel to the Schengen area, covering 26 European countries.

Georgia has been implementing a visa liberalisation programme with Schengen since February 2013, and signed the landmark Association Agreement with the EU a year ago. Tbilisi hopes the extra EU loyalty miles it accrues will help convince European capitals to get Georgians into an equivalent of the business lounge – allowing them to travel to Europe without visas by mid-2016. But some observers argue the government is revving up its engines a bit too early.

The government’s task of managing citizens’ expectations for European integration is daunting. Public expectations used to run high, but successive governments in Tbilisi have over-sold the prospects. The crisis-ridden EU itself is in no mood for largesse.

Scepticism about Europe’s willingness and Georgia’s ability to move closer is growing among Georgians. 31% of those surveyed in a May poll commissioned by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US-based NGO dealing with political reform, said Georgia should consider joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Analysts say much of the dramatic increase in such sentiment is due to Georgians’ disillusionment over the EU’s resolve to confront Russia effectively over Ukraine.

The government says the ad campaign communicates to the public clearly and directly. Tellingly, the campaign also airs in the languages of Georgia’s ethnic minorities – Armenian, Azeri, Russian, Abkhazian and Ossetian.

Getting Georgia’s ethnic minorities on board is critical for consolidating Georgia’s resolve to move closer to the EU. They represent a sizable chunk of Georgia`s population – half-a-million ethnic Armenians and Azeris in a population of slightly under 4 million – and have long been economically, politically and ideologically isolated from the rest. Only a third ethnic minority citizens speak Georgian, an official language, the main mode of communication in Georgia.

The same NDI survey found that as much as 53 percent of Georgia’s ethnic minority citizens receive information from foreign – chiefly Russian, but also Armenian and Azeri – news channels. The results are palpable: only 13 percent of them say Russia is a “real and existing threat” to Georgia, as opposed to 44 percent nationwide.

Following the debacle with the EU over Ukraine, Moscow pulled its “soft power” levers in Georgia. News outlets such as the Kremlin-funded Sputnik radio and internet portal, as well as “Eurasianist” “civil movements” pushing the Russian message of Europe as a pit of sin and decadence have mushroomed. The wave of propaganda disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, but also makes a considerable number of ethnic Georgians waver. Many in Georgia’s government fear that unless the EU ups the ante in offering visible, quick benefits – such as visa-free travel – Georgia’s European future will be endangered.

Information is not Russia’s only lever. By ending an embargo on Georgian agricultural produce and wines that had been in place since 2006, Moscow regained a degree of economic influence in the Georgian countryside. Moscow has also hinted at lifting the crippling visa requirements that have been in place since 2001. Such a move will have more immediate and deep effects on Georgians than gradual visa liberalisation with the EU – which is geographically further and thus more expensive to reach.

Since 2013, the Georgian government has focused on delivering better information about the EU. Still under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili the government adopted an EU Integration Information and Communication Strategy making teachers, CSOs, local authorities, the media, religious and minority communities the promoters of the EU Association Agreement’s benefits.

The ministries have special budget lines to promote the EU. A special European Integration Commission is chaired by the Prime Minister and the EU Integration Ministry to coordinate the government agencies. The Information Center on NATO and the EU churns out brochures, leaflets and video clips in minority languages and organizes hundreds of meetings with target groups a year. In July 2015 the Ministry for European Integration set up the brand new Strategic Communication Department to help the process along. But the government has yet to produce evidence that this bureaucratic frenzy actually makes a difference, especially among ethnic minorities.

Back in 2009 the Georgian government adopted the first ever policy document addressing minorities. Among other policies, the National Concept on Tolerance and Civil Integration embraced the goal of improving access to public information and the media for ethnic minorities. Changes were made to the Law on Broadcasting obligating the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GBP) to create programs in at least four languages, and to cover ethnic minority opinions widely. GBP has been producing a weekly talk-show about minorities, as well as 18-minute news programs in five minority languages for TV, radio and regional TV stations. Printed media in Armenian, Azeri and Russian languages were also financially supported by the Ministry of Culture. However, a Government-commissioned study found that “the increased quantity of news programs transmitted in ethnic minority languages, along with other positive changes in minority inclusion since 2010, failed to increase the level of public awareness of current affairs in the country.” Inconvenient airtime, unappealing content and format were among the reasons quoted by survey participants..

If GBP fails to wean ethnic minorities from the news programs offered by Armenian and Azeri TV channels, it falls well short of the sophisticated Russian broadcasters that sandwich blatant propaganda between quality entertainment shows – often the clones of Western TV projects. Georgia’s recent transfer to digital broadcasting is likely to improve the geographical coverage of GPB, removing one of the important obstacles to its accessibility. But the quality and amount of minority-language programming will remain dismal. GPB is rated well below the leading privately-owned national TV outlets such as Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV. One could argue that relying on GPB is thus not the most effective way for capturing the attention of the ethnic minorities. A case in point is a 15-second video clip on the benefits of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. It was broadcast by GPB during its minority news programs in four minority languages for two months in a row. Apparently, this effort to publicize the AA was hardly noticed by its target population.

The Georgian Dream coalition rushed to close down PIK (First Caucasian) TV station five days after winning the elections in October 2012. PIK was a brainchild of the United National Movement (UNM), positioned as a counter-propaganda vehicle against Russia, especially after the 2008 war. This sat badly with the GD coalition’s declared goal of mending ties with Moscow.

Seeing the efforts of the Baltic States and also the ongoing debate in the EU about countering Russia’s TV disinformation, Georgia, by closing PIK, may well have silenced its most innovative media product. Many, including some in government, argue that a Russian-language station talking to Georgia’s minorities and its neighbours should be re-established.

It may well require a change in tone. Speaking truthfully about the process of Georgia’s EU association, its challenges and ongoing debates, while emphasising the benefits Georgians get from it, could temper the sting of the Russian doomsday broadcasts.

Surely, the Georgian government’s meagre resources cannot match those deployed by Moscow. But in the media business, success is often linked to media’s ability to shape a credible and attractive message. By tapping into Georgia’s own ethnic minority representatives, Georgian TV can lead the way through innovative products, which might help along the thought process in the corridors of Brussels. But so far, Georgia’s efforts to promote the EU are akin to promoting the safety rafts on aircraft; most passengers don’t pay attention…


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