Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

UK Government Accused of Allowing Georgia’s ‘Pro-Russian’ Drift After Foreign Influence Law Passed

The Conservatives said they had no idea a UK-backed Georgian communications unit was using trolls to attack opponents and spread anti-Western disinformation. A source claims the former Foreign Secretary was informed last March

James Cleverly MP pictured in London in November 2020. Photo: Ian Davidson / Alamy
James Cleverly MP pictured in London in November 2020. Photo: Ian Davidson / Alamy

Don’t miss a story

Sign up to the Behind the Headlines newsletter (and get a free copy of Byline Times in the post)

After weeks of protests, the Georgian government on Tuesday passed its controversial Kremlin-style law on ‘foreign influence’. It rings a death knell for more than 90% of the public’s hopes for EU accession, incompatible as the measures are with the bloc’s stated criteria for membership, and promises to push the South Caucasian country back into Moscow’s orbit.

Images from a rally outside parliament showed furious demonstrators shouting, chanting and openly weeping as they were addressed by opposition politicians who’d walked out on the vote to caution the crowds against despair, calling for the public to mobilise ahead of polls in October — now set to be Georgia’s most decisive in decades. The outcome of the vote was quickly condemned by the US.

The recent level of state violence, which critics warn offers a grim foreshadowing of what may now be to come for the law’s intended targets, has prompted massive international outcry — with dozens of prominent activists, NGO workers, journalists and opposition politicians hospitalised in attacks by security forces at rallies, and by masked assailants waiting outside victims’ homes at night. 

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party greets demonstrators during a rally in support of "Russian law" in Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 29. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party greets demonstrators during a rally in support of “Russian law” in Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 29. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

The ruling Georgian Dream party has responded to widespread condemnation by labelling historic Western allies their “enemies,” representatives of a “global war party” supposedly hellbent on dragging Georgia into the conflict in Ukraine.

Five days before the bill was passed, New Lines Magazine published the results of a months-long investigation into historic support from Western partners for a Georgian government communications division that has, for years, proven instrumental to this now rapidly accelerating authoritarian slide closer to the Kremlin, which has occupied a fifth of Georgian territory since the 90s.

Georgia’s Department of Strategic Communications, or StratComs, was set up in 2015 as part of a landmark, UK-led NATO initiative designed to bolster the Black Sea country’s resilience to Russian hybrid warfare. 

Under that project, staff at the Georgian government division received training and technical assistance from alliance experts, as well as attending and even hosting conferences and analytical exchanges on disinformation and methods for countering Putinist propaganda. 

Over time, however, as the government began to embark on its present anti-Western trajectory, StratComs fell prey to carrying out exactly the kind of activity they’d been set up to defend against. 

BREAKING

Georgian Dream Pass ‘Foreign Influence’ law ‘Completing its Seizure of Power’ After Weeks of Violent Protests

For several weeks, Tbilisi has been rocked by violent crackdowns on protesters opposed to a Kremlin-style bill targeting journalists and civil society. Today it passed into law

Numerous reports by Georgian watchdogs show how the unit has long used troll accounts to launch vicious Russian-style attacks on political opponents, as well as spreading fake news and propaganda narratives about the very partners who were supporting the division.

The UK government recently said the NATO initiative was concluded in March 2024 – around two months after New Lines Magazine submitted the first in a series of FOI requests about it.

Authorities denied that staff at the UK Embassy in Tbilisi had any knowledge of the allegations against StratComs, but later said it “first became aware of reports in September 2023, by which time UK strategic communications support to the Georgian government had ended”.

That line was undercut in the recent investigation not only by the fact allegations against StratComs have been public since at least 2021 (beyond broader reports of the Georgian government being behind this kind of activity going back to 2019), but also anonymous testimony from a source with first-hand knowledge of the NATO initiative. 

‘Our Injuries Will Heal, but the Georgian Government’s Reputation Will Not’

Georgia’s accelerating authoritarian slide into Russia’s orbit has now seen its government launch a full-scale Belarusian-style crackdown on opposition voices.

The insider said that “of course [the UK] knew there was abuse of resources going on,” adding that officials were therefore fully aware “they weren’t using taxpayer’s money wisely”.

Byline Times can now exclusively reveal that James Cleverly, in his former capacity as UK Foreign Secretary, was personally informed of the situation at a meeting with NGO representatives during a diplomatic trip to Tbilisi in March 2023. 

Ahead of that visit, the Foreign Office had teased a significant increase in assistance to Georgia as part of efforts to “boost regional resilience against Russian malign influence,” though the Foreign Office has since declined to confirm whether that support was granted. 

A source with knowledge of Cleverly’s subsequent meeting with NGOs says the former Foreign Secretary was directly told about allegations against the NATO-supported Georgian StratComs division. Cleverly is understood to have seemed “remorseful,” with one of his aides using the word “ashamed”.

Neither Cleverly nor the Foreign Office responded to requests for comment from Byline Times. The revelations contradict the Foreign Office’s narrative of first becoming aware of the scandal last September, not only raising the question of why it wasn’t until 12 months later the NATO-backed project was brought to a close, but also throwing into sharp relief the UK Embassy’s decision in January 2024 to hire a former member of the Georgian government’s StratComs division to its own team. 

How the Georgian ‘Foreign Agents Bill’ May Cost it Everything its People Have Ever Dreamed Of – And Benefit No One But Russia

Georgian Dream’s ‘Russian-style’ law has prompted strong statements of concern from the UK, US and EU with critics saying it is an attempt to muzzle the media and NGOs – it may also end Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU

Though Georgian Dream had initially shown signs of willingness to negotiate with Western partners on the provisions of their law on ‘foreign influence’, any chances of window-dressing the measures were abruptly shut down when pro-European President Salome Zurabishvili issued a wholesale veto of the bill earlier this month. 

Critics have compared the bill’s provisions, which effectively ban NGOs and independent media from operating in the country if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad, to methods used by the Putin regime to crush dissent since the war in Ukraine.

Experts have said the unrest in Tbilisi caused by the bill bears little semblance to events preceding Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan revolution – as suggested by some outside observers – and that chances remain low of discontent galvanising into a more substantive popular challenge to the Georgian regime in the near future. 

Given the bill has since passed and is now set to enter force in two months’ time, many Georgians are therefore vesting their hopes in the recently-announced Georgian Charter — a roadmap for cooperation ahead of the polls agreed by the country’s pro-Western but otherwise historically divided political opposition, itself the product of months-long talks held in secret between those groups. 

ENJOYING THIS ARTICLE? HELP US TO PRODUCE MORE

Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and help to support fearless, independent journalism that breaks stories, shapes the agenda and holds power to account.

We’re not funded by a billionaire oligarch or an offshore hedge-fund. We rely on our readers to fund our journalism. If you like what we do, please subscribe.

At the time of writing, the UK government has still not released figures on the exact amount of taxpayer money spent on the NATO-led initiative, which ran for almost a decade, despite repeated requests submitted via FOI and other channels since January as part of the investigation published by New Lines Magazine last Friday. Similar appeals to US and EU authorities remain ongoing.

The State Department has already announced travel restrictions for Georgian Dream MPs and their families, with financial sanctions and a suspension to government aid expected in the coming weeks. The European Commission has similarly said “all options remain on the table” regarding a forthcoming response to the law’s passing.

These partners have thereby signalled a newfound willingness to assume a harsher stance against Georgian Dream who, more than 30 years after Georgia last broke free of Moscow’s rule, now appear hellbent on steering an autocratic course back to Russia’s sphere of influence against the will of their overwhelmingly pro-European electorate.

But the StratComs scandal raises stark questions about why clear and repeated warnings of that trajectory were for years ignored by the UK government and other historic Western allies, and at what cost their assistance to the Georgian government’s communications unit continued to freely flow.


Written by

This article was filed under
,