In recent weeks, large demonstrations in Tbilisi, Georgia and Chisinau, Moldova have sparked fears of unrest in both independent countries. In any case, Russian influence played a key role in the events. However, the image of the respective protest movements presented by the Kremlin-controlled media to their home audience was only marginally connected to the actual events on the ground.
“They presented Georgia as some sort of unfolding Western terrorist attack, while the image in Moldova was one of Russian speakers trying to peacefully resist after being repressed by their pro-European government,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, an analyst at the Russian information space at the Institute for War Research (ISW). news week.
However, detailed reports conducted in both Tbilisi and Chisinau show that the Russian television version of each story was inaccurate. In the Georgian capital, grassroots masses protested against a truly unpopular bill. By contrast, protesters in the Moldovan capital consisted largely of provincial pensioners busted in and paid for their services by the opposition Shor party, which holds just six seats in the country’s 101-seat legislature.
“What they presented was as close as possible to the opposite of what actually happened on the ground,” Stepanenko said. “The protests in Georgia were essentially completely peaceful, but Russian TV compared them to January 6.”
Georgian civil society is taking to the streets
From March 6 to 8 in the Republic of Georgia, civil society groups took to the streets in front of the national parliament building to voice their opposition to a proposed law on “foreign agents” backed by the country’s pro-Russian ruling party Georgian Dream. The draft law in question was modeled on Russian legislation, which Moscow has used in recent years to interfere in the work of pro-democracy NGOs and shut down independent media.
However, as a form of political camouflage, the pro-Russian coalition government in Georgia also introduced a separate bill modeled on America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law that requires only disclosure by lobbyists and media organizations that receive funding from foreign sources potential conflicts of interest. The grassroots protest movement that gathered in the square in front of Parliament was there not because of the “American” bill, but because of the “Russian” version.
While the law was still under discussion, officials in Brussels warned that adopting the “Russian” variant could significantly hinder Georgia’s path to eventual European Union (EU) membership. Given that opinion polls show that around 80% of Georgians support their country’s eventual EU accession, it should come as no surprise that tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets of the capital with Georgian and EU flags.
On March 9, amid mounting public pressure, both “foreign agent” bills were withdrawn.
Moldova’s Russia-allied opposition buses in paid protesters
In Moldova, where pro-European President Maia Sandu was elected in 2020 with 58% of the popular vote, the situation could not have been more different. In fact, in the past few weeks, tens of thousands of citizens have regularly taken to the streets in the capital Chisinau to chant “Down with Maia Sandu” and “Down with the dictatorship”. However, their presence there is less self-initiated than a well-funded, foreign-funded opposition movement that organizes fines and compensation for participants from the country’s provinces.
The protests themselves are being led by the Shor party, which won 5.74% of the vote in the July 2021 general election. The party’s namesake, Ilan Shor, an MP, currently resides in Israel. In October 2022, Shor was placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list, which states that he “was previously arrested on money laundering and embezzlement charges in connection with the theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014″ and that in 2021 he ” Individuals have collaborated with Russians to form a political alliance to control Moldova’s parliament.”
Despite warnings from Western officials and from President Sandu herself that Russian agents are trying to destabilize Moldova, internal security officials appear to be keeping the situation under control. In recent weeks, groups of “soccer fans” from Serbia, “boxers” from Montenegro and returning “tourists” from Turkey have been denied entry to Moldova on suspicion of being Russian agents sent to cover upcoming clashes provoke protest demonstrations.
A representative of one of the Shor-affiliated parties, which regularly takes part in the protests, was contacted on Sunday ahead of the latest protest march in Moldova news week to say that “we had some information that Sandu is organizing some aggression and provocations with secret services.” In that afternoon’s march, however, after the protesters reached the phalanx of police who blocked their progress along the capital’s main thoroughfare, nothing more serious happened than shouts and chants.
The Russian version of events
The coverage of the respective movements on Russian television was almost unrealistic. Several minutes of footage showing Russian tanks deployed around the ruins of Marinka is followed by a lengthy report in which Ukrainian soldiers are routinely labeled “nationalists” and “radicals” and asserts that Russia’s attacks on critical civilian infrastructure In reprisals for the “terrorist attacks of the Kiev regime,” the weekly news summary on Sunday evening on Russia’s First Channel ran back-to-back reports on protest movements in Georgia and Moldova.
Covering Georgia, the Russian news channel misrepresented the motivation behind the protests, characterizing them as a reaction to the FARA-style “American” law rather than the “foreign agents” law modeled after Russian legislation.
“Georgia tried to introduce a law similar to America’s, which caused dissatisfaction with the US State Department,” claimed moderator Vitaly Yeliseyev. “From then on they even started talking about possible sanctions against Tbilisi. Then why not against themselves?”
The following segment contained comparisons between January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC and in Tbilisi last week. “These scenes call for an analogy,” intoned a voiceover as Georgian protesters charged into the line of riot police who were about to tear gas fire at them.
“Here’s a mob in a nameless town,” the voiceover continued as the segment cut to remarkably still footage from around the US Capitol on Jan. 6. “Does this look like a ‘democracy demonstration’? No. In the United States this was termed ‘domestic terrorism’ and the participants were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. But in Georgia it is called ‘an inalienable human right’ for people to storm Parliament.”
In contrast to the events surrounding the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, protesters in Georgia made no serious attempt to actually enter the state building for the past week.
In contrast, the protests in Chisinau, Moldova were presented as part of a peaceful grass-roots movement. And this despite the fact that most of the participants were flown in from the provinces by the Shor party, whose leader is on the US sanctions list. Russian television also failed to mention widespread reports that participants in such protests are often paid 400 Moldovan lei (US$21.50) for their services.
“Today several thousand people marched through the center of Chisinau,” said the Channel One host as footage of peaceful pensioners banging pots and chanting slogans flashed across the screen.
“Sometime along the way, the protesters, who were carrying anti-war slogans, were picked up by special police forces,” the TV host continued. “After a few short clashes, about 50 people were arrested.”
According to ISW analyst Stepananko, Russian domestic television’s focus on external events — rather than the military situation at the front lines, the rising cost of living in Russia, or videotaped pleas from soldiers asking for better equipment and proper training — serves a clear purpose purpose purpose.