Many recent events in Tbilisi and across the country, including demonstrations against the construction of hydroelectric power plants, strikes and boycotting of poor labor conditions in the mining towns of Chiatura, protests over the dramatic rise in product and medicine prices, and last week’s rioting against Tbilisi Pride events, amplify the ever-increasing tension between the ruling party, Georgian Dream, and its constituents. This mounting political crisis weakens the government’s ability to effectively communicate with its population and electorate, a majority of whom voted in their favor for a third consecutive term during last year’s parliamentary elections.
At the Wales summit in 2014, Georgia was granted the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP), which covered 13 different initiatives. By agreeing to these measures, it took on the commitment to develop those areas in hopes of moving closer to becoming a member of the Euro-Atlantic family. Many see the SNGP as more substantive than a Membership Action Plan (MAP), even if it may lack the latter’s symbolism, as the SNGP package entails capacity building of not only the defense and security sectors, but also in strategic communication (stratcom), which is a key aspect of NATO-Georgia partnership.
Strategic communications ought to be considered an intrinsic asset for state institutions. Under the SNGP rubric, the Georgian government created the Panel of Interagency Coordination so that the benefits stratcom could bring would be delivered not only in the defense and security sectors, but also in the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Environmental Protection and Agriculture, and other government agencies. This strategic tool, which provides new ways of speaking with the population and transcribing reforms in a plain and simple language, was something the government should have employed earlier.
The SNGP was renewed in December 2020. If we look at the political landscape in the country at this moment, however, it is hard to say whether the state—or any of the government agencies— has made use of strategic communications as a tool to actually talk with people. This is evident in the number and scale of existing problems in almost every direction of the country, including the poor handling and management of the pandemic (and minimal public awareness-raising efforts about the benefits of vaccinations) after a promising early start; the complete lack of communication around the potential economic advantages hydroelectric power stations could bring to the economy; the biased process surrounding constitutional and judicial reform,; and the like, etc. Although there are too many problems to enumerate in this piece alone, the picture is clear: the people of Georgia are not satisfied with their everyday lives, nor with the general situation in their country. Quite a substantial number of Georgian families are trying to immigrate to Europe or overseas to find jobs and settle down.
I remember people laughing at how Saakashvili used to talk with the general public. And yes, it is true—his government spared no effort or money to invest specifically in public relations. Saakashvili himself had his own speechwriters and PR managers. He focused a lot on public diplomacy, including communication with ethnic and other minority groups in the country. Was his commitment to maintaining open and regular dialogues with the public a contributing factor to his successes? It most likely was, as strategic communications is nothing more than winning over a person’s mind and heart to achieve one’s strategic goals, even if those goals are not necessarily benefitial for that specific individual. It is a tool that, if deftly used, can transform a very complicated political, economic, or social project into a simple, digestible story. In short, it is a form of storytelling through strategic translation and transcription. And Georgian Dream, unfortunately, appears to be a poor storyteller.
Thus, NATO membership, even with Georgia’s extensive integration opportunities (including SNGP deliverables and other tools), still seems far in the distance. If the government is not going to speak directly to its people in a simple, direct, and honest way, the soft power agents of the Kremlin will always be there to replace that gap in communication. They might even use it to strengthen themselves and form a political party, like ultra right wing businessman Levan Vasadze did a couple of weeks ago, seeking to Georgia's extreme right consolidation.
Consistency is what we lack. Will we—I mean all of Georgian society, as the government is just our own reflection— ever be consistent, on any level?
Mariam Takaishvili is a 2020-2021 Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN) fellow and a strategic communications specialist. She is currently the head of the communications and protocol service at the Georgian Ministry of Defense’s DELTA State Military Scientific Center, and previously worked on communications and policy issues at the Georgian Center for Disease Control and Public Health, and on the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package at the Georgian Defense Ministry. EDSN is an international research fellowship project of the Center of Social Sciences, Tbilisi, and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.