Russian Footprint in Georgian Elections

2018 / 12 / 25

Author: Andria Gotsiridze, Cyber Security Consultant, Founder of Cyber Security Studies & Education Center 



The protests planned in social media after the 2011 Parliamentary Elections in Russia and the Arab Spring series clearly showed the Kremlin the power of internet as an initiator of democratic processes.  In order to achieve domestic political stability, Russia strengthened its control on the field of information. Later, aiming to eradicate the information and attitudes negative to the Kremlin from the virtual space, cyber operations were conducted on the international arena as well. Informational confrontation (“Информационное Противоборство”), the main effect of which is the formation of perceptions and actions of the target audiences, is one of the ways for the Kremlin to dominate the international arena. One of the important directions of informational confrontation is attacks on the institutions and systems of foreign states, discrediting democratic forms of governance and key political figures. Starting from the 2014 cyber-attacks against Ukrainian election system, cyber operations have been used with more-or-less success against the US and French Presidential elections, as well as the German Bundestag elections.


Specifics of Election Result Manipulation by Russians

The schematics of Russia’s intervention in election processes and manipulation of their results is simple:  by using cyber espionage long before the elections, sensitive information is mined from the information systems or gathered from open sources following a specific pattern, later to be disseminated in order to discredit political figures or institutions. Parallel to this, we have the process of internet trolls and “useful idiots” using fake profiles and blogs to comment on prior-selected topics, current affairs and information, implementing the Russian narrative and forming desired public opinion.

Russian involvement in the 2016 US Presidential Elections aimed, apart from compromising a specific candidate, to discredit the democratic processes in general. Head of the German counter-intelligence, H.G. Maassen, questions the support of a specific candidate by Russia, both in the US as well as Bundestag elections of 2017. He believes that during the German elections Russia acted not in favor of any specific party but rather aiming to undermine trust towards democratic institutions and reduce the domestic political support to any new Chancellor. Head of state with a low level of trust would be an additional benefit to Russia foreign policy in both US as well as the German cases. The report compiled by US intelligence community expressed an opinion that Russia will use similar technologies to intervene in the election processes of US allies in order to boost its influence around the world.


Russian Footprints in Georgian Elections

If we take into account the level of Russia’s interest towards Georgia’s domestic political processes, the vulnerability of our networks and the level of their penetration to Russian cyber actors, it becomes clear that the Russian influence on Georgia’s Presidential election campaign is noteworthy. It is a well-known fact that the cyber actors connected to the Kremlin, including APT28, had illegal access to Georgian state, communication and business networks for a long-time, as a result of which, unbeknownst to the Georgian security services, presumably large volumes of sensitive information was ending up in the hands of Russian security services over the years. The same organization is responsible for the acts of cyber espionage against the US, France and Germany in their pre-election periods. In our elections, apart from illegally obtained compromising material, one of the initial sources of the content designed for dissemination, were the opinions and quotes on sensitive topics or processes by various candidates or their supporters, found in open sources and social media.

Given the compromising materials published by both sides, controlled dissemination of audio and video files and the optimized distribution of materials available through open sources, the pre-election campaign was held in a severely negative way. Manipulative accents were put on highly sensitive topics, certain discussions fostered by trolls, internet-bots and others and antagonistic positions were strengthened.

A situation arose when independent from the identity of the winner of Presidential Elections, the attitudes clearly beneficial for the Kremlin were formed in several directions at once, which poses threats to our state.


  • By accentuating hidden or overt connections with Russia and disseminating respective content, both of the candidates were discredited as much as possible. An attitude of being supported or directed by Russia was created towards the elected President, which practically removes necessary domestic political support towards the office. In order to strengthen this image, officials from the Parliament, as well as the Government of Russia did not shy away from supportive statements towards specific candidates. A President with a lack of necessary domestic political support will also be limited in flexibility politically as well as during the de-occupation negotiations (even with the hostile power);
  • The victory of a candidate with the image of being supported by the occupying power fosters the spread of antagonistic feelings and contributes to the formation of a maximally large protest electorate. The conduct of the campaign in this way caused the formation of the opposition (about 40-45% of the electorate) antagonistic towards the elected President (regardless of the identity). In such conditions, the majority of the President’s time in office will be spent on overcoming this antagonism, rather than concentrating on the issues important for the state;
  • Perceiving the President, who is the Commander in Chief, as a person connected to Russia, creates the feeling in the public that the governing elite of the country consists of powers loyal to the Kremlin, which, in itself, fosters the formation and strengthening of pro-Russian forces and elites.
  • The populous protest meetings held by starkly pro-Russian political forces before the second round of voting, citing national problems and supposedly aiming to consolidate the public, also fosters the growth of pro-Kremlin attitudes as well as the usurpation/discrediting of the national idea.  This might be a sort of a signal to Russia regarding the readiness of pro-Russian political forces to participate in the governance of the state in various ways. In addition, such protests further strengthened the perception of pro-Russian forces supporting a specific candidate/elected President as well as the feeling of the pro-Russian parties occupying the niche of national forces.
  • In a very damaging context to the state, the issue of the initiator of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War was brought forward, together with the supposed risk of Georgian military personnel to be prosecuted and put on trial by international courts. Later, the topic of 9th of April was spread in international media in a very insulting manner to the national feelings. The topic was massively and pointedly commented by internet trolls and “useful idiots”.  The divisive propaganda around the topic concerned authoritative groups, such as the military personnel, veterans, the church, etc.;
  • For the first time since 2012, the assessments of international observers and strategic partners of the electoral system and process featured strong criticism, both about the negative election campaign, as well as the unfair allocation of resources in favor of a specific candidate and bribing the electorate. Such assessments, especially in the case of deepening problems for the upcoming Parliamentary Elections, could be used by the adversary for explaining the prolongation of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process, diverting attention from the Russian “veto”. The same factor will remove the discomfort generated by Russia having influence on the issue of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration among the democratic community, from the countries skeptical towards Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Such developments will foster the spread of the perception about political and economic instability, which is one of the main goals of informational confrontation.

Hence, unlike the US Presidential Elections, where apart from discrediting the democratic process and the election system, Russia was clearly acting with the aim of compromising one of the candidates, the Russian involvement in Georgian Presidential Elections concentrated on the maximum discrediting of both candidates, in order to undermine domestic political support for the elected President.

Important propaganda resources were spent to ensure that in the case of the victory of any of the candidates, the elected President would have the image of having been supported by Russia, which, on the one hand, would help form a large group of antagonistic electorate and, on the other, foster the formation of the pro-Russian elite.

Apart from the aforementioned, the propaganda branch of a severely negative campaign was directed towards dividing the society itself, especially along the lines of sensitive national topics. The Presidential Election campaign featured a focus on the role of openly pro-Russian political elites and the supposed consolidation of the population under the national idea supported by them.

Such trends are noteworthy as the changes of perceptions in Kremlin’s favor and a very dangerous process of the formation of pro-Russian elites, could, in the case of the creation of a critical mass of such groups, be a pre-requisite or a fostering factor to a conventional attack.

Related posts

© 2024 Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies. All Rights Reserved.