As Russia and Iran threaten to implode, Georgia finds itself in the crosshairs

Natalia Antelava

 

I haven’t been able to peel my eyes off Iran this week, where women continue to show mindblowing courage in the face of police brutality. Dozens have been killed. But with nationwide internet blackouts and bans, people can no longer access their social media accounts and information coming out of Iran is sparse.

One curious tidbit that caught my attention was this IranWire story. Apparently, Revolutionary Guard commanders have moved their families to a “safe place” in Tehran and have been promised safe passage to Georgia “if nationwide protests intensify,” or “if the government is overthrown.” 

Georgia does have relatively friendly relations with Tehran, but my sources say that there are for now no plans to shelter the families of the Revolutionary Guard. 

The country is already overwhelmed trying to deal with a massive influx of Russian men seeking to escape Putin’s draft. So long is the queue at the border, that these men are waiting over 24 hours to get into Georgia.

Already, the backlash is significant. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, occupying nearly 20 percent of the country’s territory, one of the excuses that Moscow used was that it was “protecting Russians citizens.” Now there are a lot more Russians in Georgia for Putin to protect. “It’s time to Russify the country. More than 10% of [the] Georgian population is already Russian,” tweeted Fyodor Grudin, a member of the local assembly in Saint Petersburg, as he encouraged Russia to “repeat the 2008 [invasion].”

The fact that many of the new arrivals have not exactly been opposed to the war, even as they now seek to escape it, adds to the tensions. Writing on Telegram, one man trying to cross the border, complained that Georgian guards didn’t let him in because they spotted a “Z,” the symbol of Putin’s war, on his car. “We need to denazify these Georgians,” he posted. 

Georgia’s current government  has been widely criticized for being too soft on Russia in the past, but officials have now begun stopping Russian men from entering the country. And Russian authorities have set up a pop-up military HQ at the border and are issuing would-be draft dodgers notices on the border itself.

Anxious and resentful, many Georgians are drawing comparisons between the Russian men and the Iranian women. “Look at the Iranian women, their regime is just as brutal, but they are not running,” a friend messaged from Tbilisi where every cafe, every restaurant, he said, was packed with Russians. 

Both Russia and Iran have occupied tiny Georgia in the past. Today, once again, the country finds itself in the geopolitical crosshairs, as its neighbors threaten to implode. 

IN OTHER NEWS

Putin’s “partial mobilization” drive is a spectacular propaganda failure. More than a quarter of a million Russians have fled the country since he ordered Russian reserve troops to join the war effort, effectively sending tens of thousands of undertrained, underequipped men to near certain death on the front lines. Across Russia, fires have erupted in dozens of local military headquarters – arson is suspected. Protests are small but it’s significant that people are coming out on streets across Russia to register their anger, with tensions especially apparent in far-flung provinces like Buryatia and Dagestan where people have good reason to believe they are being disproportionately affected and targeted by mobilization and conscription.  Patriarch Kirill, an influential leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, announced that all those who die fighting in Ukraine will be absolved of their sins. But this promise of an unblemished record in the afterlife, didn’t seem to bring much solace to this recruit on his way to Kherson. “We have had no preparation, no training,” he says in this video, his voice trembling. 

She is Russia’s Tucker Carlson and the biggest cheerleader for Putin’s war in Ukraine. But something was off about Margarita Simonyan’s busy social media feeds this week. Russia’s propaganda queen, who heads the country’s international RT (formerly Russia Today) network, switched tack from threatening the West with nuclear war to campaigning against military draft violations. Simonyan has been diligently tweeting about individual cases of men being sent to war despite chronic illnesses, or against draft rules.  She is keeping a public record of draft violations and is demanding that Russian authorities take action and stop rules being broken and ignored. RT has conducted various social justice campaigns in the past, so do not interpret this as a change of heart from either Simonyan or the network about the war in Ukraine. But it is a sure sign of how discomfited even supporters of the war are by the utter chaos since his order. 

Kazakhstan, traditionally a close ally of Russia, is proving to be annoyingly independent-minded. This week, the Kazakh government declared that it wouldn’t recognize the results of the referendums that Russia is conducting in “liberated” regions of Ukraine. This follows last week’s decision to detain Russian trucks to enforce EU sanctions and to suspend the use of Russia’s card payment system, “Mir.” And “Beeline,” Kazakhstan’s cable TV and Internet provider, is now notifying its customers that it will be suspending the broadcasting of a number of Russian govt-controlled channels  starting from October 5, though they mostly appear to be entertainment channels rather than those broadcasting news propaganda. 

Vladimir Putin may be losing friends in his backyard, but it looks like he has found new ones in South Africa. Members of South Africa’s ANC Youth League monitored Russia’s sham referendums this week, in which people have been directed to the voting booth by the barrel of an automatic rifle. The presence of these international observers from South Africa, though, lends the referendums their much needed veneer of legitimacy. “Eighty percent of people in South Africa support the desire of the people of Donbas, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be united with Russia,” one South African monitor told the Russian state news agency Tass. “We believe that in the struggle for freedom it is impossible to stand aside, it is necessary to really fight,” said another, calling the referendum a project of “historic proportions.” 

Covering sham events with a straight face has long posed a dilemma for mainstream Western outlets. The transparently fake plebiscites in occupied Ukraine are an example.  “Votes counted in first referendum in Donetsk,” read a poker-faced Associated Press headline. “Over 96% said to favor joining Russia in first vote results from occupied Ukraine regions,” reported Reuters. The actual stories contained more context, of course, including the fact that many people were forced to vote at gunpoint. But it’s the headlines that flash across screens, tickers, and on social media that are scanned by us all that create first impressions and lend a kind of legitimacy and seriousness to what is an exercise in Russian state propaganda, critics argue. As Oleksandra Matveiichuk, head of the Ukraine-based Center for Civil Liberties, points out: “Fake referendums are not legal procedure, but informational special operation.” And hamstrung by convention, Western news outlets sometimes find themselves playing the role of Putin’s patsies.  

WHAT WE’RE READING

While I have been pretty obsessed with the situation in Russia and Ukraine (and now Iran), here are a few other stories our team recommends: 

  • Giorgia Meloni is the first female Prime Minister of Italy and the first far-right leader of a Western democracy in the postwar era. Here’s a great op-ed by Roberto Saviano, author of “Gomorrah,” in which he warns that “where Italy goes, the rest of Europe will follow.”  
  • This story explains why faith in Hong Kong’s press freedom has reached a record low, with 97% of the city’s journalists saying that the city’s reporting environment has gotten much worse.
  • This new study debunks pernicious myths that immigrants in South Africa are to blame for the country’s socio-economic problems.
  • This big report from Meta that outlines how the company took down what was the first targeted Chinese campaign to interfere in U.S. politics (spoiler: the effort was limited.) 

Frankie Vetch, Rebekah Robinson, Ivan Makridin and Katia Patin contributed to this edition

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.