Georgian activists take part in a protest rally in Georgia, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 07 August 2018. EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

Though the US presidential election of 2016 may be the most infamous of Russia’s attempts to interfere in democratic processes abroad, it certainly was not the first. For years, the Russian government has honed its tactics in domestic elections, then targeted Eastern Partnership countries, and ultimately, scaled up these influence operations to shake the West’s faith in democracy. Unfortunately, I speak from first-hand experience: In the Kremlin’s war for influence, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Georgia as his proving ground.

Like any tyrant, Putin perceives democratic countries – especially those along Russia’s border – as threats to his regime. Since the Rose Revolution of 2003 ushered in my pro-Western, reformist government, the Kremlin has displayed escalating aggression in its attempts to bring my country back from the brink of freedom. Moscow has orchestrated cyber-attacks, funded fringe political movements, and even launched a conventional invasion in 2008. Over 20% of Georgian territory is occupied to this day, in violation of ceasefire agreements and international law, and Russian armed forces continue the illegal construction of fences along whatever they deem to be the “border” on any given day.   

Beyond conventional warfare, Putin’s regime has also targeted Georgia with relentless streams of propaganda to establish an exclusive sphere of influence over the region. Entities connected to the Russian government finance conferences, media outlets, and NGOs, united by a mission to discredit liberal values and erode democratic institutions.

Nevertheless, Georgia remained a rare success story in a challenging region.

…Until, one day, it wasn’t.

Reasonable people may disagree on the exact timeline of Georgia’s democratic backsliding. Did it start on November 28, 2018, when – according to Chatham House – a fraud-riddled presidential election “damaged” my country’s hard-won “democratic credentials?”  Or was it a few weeks earlier when the Transparency International Secretariat expressed its alarm over “state capture” in Georgia? 

Some would argue that the real turning point was May 31, 2018, when a suspect in the murders of two teenagers dodged justice thanks to a relative in the prosecutor’s office, triggering mass street protests and the resignation of the Prime Minister. 

But in hindsight, many would admit that democracy died much earlier: October 1, 2012, when Moscow’s investment in Georgia began to pay dividends. On that day, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition won the parliamentary elections – thanks in no small part to Kremlin-backed information operations aimed at misleading the Georgian public. Ivanishvili, whose climb to the peaks of wealth is only dimly understood, earned his fortune in Russia as the largest individual shareholder of state energy giant Gazprom. He has a known net worth today of $4.6 billion – equivalent to nearly a third of Georgia’s GDP.  Perhaps most alarming, he holds no official position, so he is completely unaccountable to the Georgian people.

Under Ivanishvili’s informal rule, Georgia’s once-promising democracy has come to resemble the patronage system in Putin’s Russia. Therefore, it is not surprising that Georgia’s westward trajectory has faltered since Ivanishvili rose to power. In February 2018, the US Director of National Intelligence issued the agency’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, which highlighted the oligarch’s propensity for stifling political opposition, consolidating power, and – in the face of an existential threat from Russia – weakening Georgia from within. High-level corruption, burgeoning crime, economic stagnation, and a politicised court system contribute to widespread popular discontent. 

Despite this grim reality, Ivanishvili and his ruling party insist that Georgian democracy has never been stronger. In doing so, they erode the public’s faith in democracy and replace it with cynicism. Among the disillusioned, Russian soft power flourishes. 

Over the past six years, Ivanishvili has effectively done Putin’s job for him: Georgia has come to resemble a microcosm of Russia. Consider, for example, the recent presidential election. Throughout the campaign, the pro-Western opposition fell victim to distinctly Russian-style election-meddling tactics. Hackers targeted campaign-linked social media accounts, including my own, while Facebook bots boosted the ruling party candidate. Russian-style “troll factories,” like the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency charged with meddling in U.S. elections, wielded disinformation to mislead – and often terrorise – voters. 

In parallel, Georgian Dream officials launched a concerted effort to impose uniform discourse on the public square. Independent media, as in Russia, was a prime target. When the director of Georgia’s most popular TV channel criticised the ruling party’s presidential candidate, Georgian Dream Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze called him a “failed, inept fascist.” When reputable civil society leaders spoke out in defence of press freedom, Kobakhidze smeared them as “accomplices of fascism.”   

Then, as in Putin’s Russia, the ruling party attempted to control the public through fear. Throughout the campaign, Ivanishvili and his allies referred to the opposition as a “criminal, dirty force” rather than a legitimate political movement.  With this inflammatory rhetoric, the authorities not only demonised opposition politicians like me – but also, and perhaps more dangerous, they cast the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who vote against the ruling party as enemies of the state.

Following the opposition’s strong performance in the first round of the election, Georgian Dream officials began threatening “civil war” in the event of our coalition’s victory. Such ominous statements track with the Kremlin’s narrative, which holds that Georgians are incapable of self-government — and moreover, that unrest in Georgia requires Russian intervention for “peace-keeping.”

Finally, Ivanishvili and the ruling party applied distinctly Putinist electoral techniques to reshape Georgia’s political landscape in the image of Russia’s. Just as “dead souls” turn out in droves to vote for Putin’s United Russia party, Georgian Dream used the IDs of deceased people – and falsified voter rolls – to push its candidate to a Pyrrhic victory.  And like Russia, Georgia has become home to a host of “pocket opposition” parties. Directly or indirectly supported by the authorities, these political forces play scripted roles in a satirical performance of democracy. One of them, the overtly pro-Kremlin fringe party Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, rushed to host rallies against my coalition – in effect, boosting Ivanishvili’s candidate – the week before the runoff. Though it may seem absurd for a self-proclaimed “opposition party” to stage protests in favor of the government, it’s just another day in Putin’s Georgia.

In 2012, Georgia’s international partners praised me for presiding over my country’s first peaceful transition of power, following a free and fair election. But refusing to step down, or clinging to power through force and fraud, never crossed my mind. I had championed democracy throughout my two terms as president, and I was determined to leave my country’s highest office upholding the same values that had guided me there.

Nevertheless, I understood on that day what the world has now realized six years later – that authoritarian forces can destroy democracy by weaponising the very institutions that comprise it. Though Georgia is an especially soft target, we have seen that the West is not immune. Today, as rising tides of populism and authoritarianism threaten to drown internationalism, it is only by amplifying engagement with democratic forces (and holding accountable undemocratic ones) in the Eastern Partnership that the rest of Europe can avoid Georgia’s fate. Likewise, strengthening NATO’s capabilities and commitments to collective defense – and welcoming NATO-aspirant countries who share the values of the alliance – is crucial to protecting liberal norms and values from Putin’s ambitions. 

Those who wish to uphold liberal values worldwide ought to take Georgia as a cautionary tale: Putin does not need to invade another country when he can control it from within.

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Mikheil Saakashvili is the former president of Georgia (2004-2013) and former governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Region (2015-2016).