Georgia elections: Furious PR battle for Western minds

By Damien McGuinness
BBC News, Tbilisi

  • Published
Georgian opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili meets foreign diplomats in his office in Tbilisi, 30 August 2012Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Bidzina Ivanishvili is seen here meeting foreign diplomats in his office in Tbilisi in August

Less than two weeks before elections in Georgia, a bitter political battle is being fought not just in the country itself, but in Western corridors of power.

The West is being bombarded by two very different stories about Georgia, with top international PR and lobby firms hired to push the message.

The war of words is costing both sides huge amounts of money - in a country with high levels of poverty.

The version pushed by the Georgian government rests on a common perception of the country: a small, plucky state, keen to shake off its Soviet past and join Nato, bullied by Russia, and invaded in 2008.

It is an easy story to follow for any American or European parliamentarian looking for a good cause.

And Georgia's charismatic US-educated President, Mikheil Saakashvili, has pushed it relentlessly. He says the upcoming parliamentary elections will be the freest and fairest ever held in the country.

But now politicians and journalists in the West are suddenly being told another story entirely: President Saakashvili is accused of being authoritarian, of crushing political dissent and of being responsible for Georgia's war with Russia.

By this account, the elections on 1 October will be rigged.

'Pushing the party'

It is a well-funded message being spread by top international lobbyists and PR firms hired by Georgia's opposition leader, the tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose $6.4bn (£3.9bn; 4.9bn-euro) fortune is worth around half of Georgia's GDP.

The govenrment denies the claims, and says it fears that such a negative portrayal of the country will undermine the credibility of Georgia's democratic reforms - jeopardising the flow of Western aid and the country's drive to join the EU and Nato.

In the US, Georgia's government hires three major firms to promote the country's image and give advice on political strategy, spending around $1.83m a year.

There are allegations the money is being used to promote the ruling party.

But this year Mr Ivanishvili has gone on his own PR drive.

It has been claimed that the opposition is currently spending around $1m a month on 18 firms and consultants across Europe and the US. Mr Ivanishvili's office said much less was being spent, but was unable to provide full details.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Mikheil Saakashvili must stand down as president at the election next year

"Ivanishvili has an army of lobbyists who essentially do black PR and spread misinformation about the elections," says Zoe Reyners, a Paris-based political consultant employed by the Georgian government.

Typically a Western parliamentarian or journalist will receive an email detailing how the government is unfairly targeting the opposition.

And information about alleged human rights abuses is spread by organisations - which at first glance appear to be impartial NGOs - such as Citizens for Democracy in Georgia, which is financed by Mr Ivanishvili.

Hollywood treatment

One recent poll, funded by Mr Ivanishvili - although that was not immediately apparent from the press release - put the opposition ahead.

That contradicted every other reputable survey so far conducted.

A slick video, with the music and American voice-over more common to a Hollywood action movie, has also been produced. It portrays Mr Ivanishvili as a saintly figure with the work ethic of Bill Gates and the moral fibre of Gandhi.

The tactics may appear blunt but the message appears to be working

  • European politicians have championed Mr Ivanishvili's cause during vigorous debates in the European Parliament, saying that the opposition is being intimidated by the authorities
  • Mr Ivanishvili is increasingly portrayed as a freedom-fighting martyr in some Western media outlets
  • Big names have been recruited to fight Mr Mr Ivanishvili's corner such as former US ambassadors and ex-CNN talk-show host Larry King

Mr Ivanishvili argues that President Saakashvili has lobbied heavily in the West for years, and he is entitled to fight back.

'No trust'

It may seem strange for Georgia to be willing to spend so much money winning over people outside the country who have no vote. But the West has taken on the role of referee in a fight which is becoming increasingly dirty.

"Georgian people don't trust the government or the election authorities," says Maia Panjikidze, spokesperson for Mr Ivanishvili's opposition coalition Georgian Dream.

"In the last 20 years there have been so many cases of stolen elections. So you need somebody from outside to judge whether the elections are okay. It's a sign of the weakness of our democracy."

As with all effective PR, there is some truth in the arguments coming from both sides.

The difficulty for Western observers is that the situation in Georgia is indeed complicated. Certainly far too complex to boil down into one easily digested press release.