The House of Friendship is located on Griboedov Street in Batumi, on the first floor of a four-story building. At the end of a three-meter corridor, you see the flags of nine countries wall mounted on the wall — including the Russian flag.
“There are nine diasporas in this building and each one has a room. The House of Friendship was established with the help of Batumi City Hall, which takes care of building expenses and utilities.
“Each organization works on their own programs and carry out their own national events. The events are sponsored by Batumi City Hall and the Interests section of the Russian Federation in Georgia,” said Archil Gogitidze, founder of the Adjarian Society of Russian Compatriots, an organization whose goals are to strengthen friendship between Russia and Georgia and support the Russian diaspora.
There is one room for the Russian diaspora. A Russian Federation flag is on the door and inside is a coat of arms and two huge maps of the Federation. Also on the walls are photos of events such as New Year celebrations and Maslenitsa, the week-long celebration held before Lent.
Also sharing the room are the Association of Georgian-Russian Relations in Adjara and the Association of Russian-language Intellectuals (Rassveti). Both organizations work to strengthen friendship between Russia and Georgia and spread Russian language and culture.
“We are doing everything together, step-by-step,” says Aleksandra Anisimova, founder of the Association of Georgian-Russian Relations in Adjara.
All three organizations operating in this one room are part of a larger network that unites 21 non-governmental organizations across the country and is called the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots in Georgia.
Council activities of the Council are supported by Russian government programs and funds, and organized by the Russian Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy. Georgia officially broke diplomatic relations with Russia on September 2, 2008, one month after the war. The Swiss Embassy office began operations in March 2009.
Member organizations have announced a 2019 action plan. The chairman of the Russian Interests Section, Evgeniy Kovinov, attended a planning meeting and told the Council members that Russian president Vladimir Putin has designated 2019 as the “Year of Theater” and that ” lots of memorable and important events are ahead.”
The council is headed by Nikolai Sventitski, who has also led the Griboyedov Theater based in Tbilisi since 2016. He is also president of the Russian Club, one of the most active organizations in the council.
The Griboyedov Theater closely cooperates with the board member organizations, inviting them to New Year’s performances or other premieres.
A performance of the play “Shineli” was held February 15 at Griboyedov Theater. According to director Nikolai Sventicki, the production was staged St. Petersburg in April at the international theater festival “Wstrechi v Russia”.
Other topics discussed at the planning meeting included:
- Holding a youth forum in Tbilisi in the summer, with the aim of establishing friendships and cultural contacts;
- Choosing young people for the “Russia Study” program which provides study in Russian universities free of charge;
- The special May 9 plans. Konishev said the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War will be celebrated in 2020, and that 2019 was a “general rehearsal” for this grand event. “Veterans who are alive will get an extra 100 dollars of assistance. I have their ID and pension numbers here and the Interest Section will put money directly in their account,” said Gogitidze.
Who manages “Russian-Georgian friendship”?
There is a department at the Russian Foreign Ministry called the World Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots. It operates in 93 countries, including Georgia. In fact, there are 95 flags in their list, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Russian Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy handles activities between the
Russian Foreign Ministry and the Coordinating Council.
Davit Dzidzishvili, an information wars researcher, believes the Russian Interests Section promotes the activities of various harmful organizations and public groups.
“Despite multiple complaints, the Section also continues to carry out the activities of (visa) corruption in many cases. Unfortunately, the activities of this Section are not studied well,” he said.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, since 2017 the Section is headed by Evgeni Ivanovich Konishev. He has been a diplomat since 1992.
In 2016, he was given the rank of second class diplomat for special missions. Before arriving in Georgia, he was General Consul for the Russian Federation in Gyumri, Armenia. Besides Konishev, there are 10 more Russian diplomats in the Section.
With financial support from the Section, members of the Coordination Council regularly celebrate Russian holidays, hold special celebration days for Russian writers and poets, invite local government officials to events, and send young people to various cultural, language and literature programs in Russia.
Most members of the Coordinating Council work in Tbilisi or Batumi. Nine are registered in Tbilisi and three in Batumi.
Dzidzishvili thinks that Kakheti and Adjara region are the most interesting targets for Russian propaganda. He says that by funding such organizations and foundations, Russia tries to spread ideas that the socio-economic development of Georgia depends on Russia.
“In fact, some of the population in these two regions really depends on Russian money (through tourism), and these people are good targets for these organizations.
“Adjara is especially susceptible Russian to propaganda because there are many anti-Turkish attitudes that are well used by propagandists. This is especially noticeable in summer when the number of Russian tourists is quite high,” Dzidzishvili says.
Coordinating council members are also active in other regions.
Dzidzishvili says the Coordinating Council is a managerial circle trying to achieve a common goal by coordinated actions.
“Events organized by various organizations within the Council are part of the so-called Russian major strategy, in which new Georgian-Russian positive sentiments are created, where Russia is no longer the enemy of Georgia,” Dzidzishvili says.
He points to an Informational Security Doctrine created by the Russian government, which describes the role of such organizations: to neutralize misinformation about Russia’s foreign policy.
But theater director Sventitski believes his work is good for Georgia.
“I do not want to be in politics,” he said. “I’m a 62-year-old man. I have done this for Georgia. I can enter the Parliament, but do not want to. I work in the theater and do what I can. What more can I do?
“I’m fifth column (traitor)? Who said that? I am not part of some soft force, I am a Georgian citizen and a Tbilisi citizen.”
Dzidzishvili thinks the best formula to fight Russian propaganda is effective communication and then action.
“It is necessary to create a single strategic plan,” he said. “We should properly study the attitude of the population towards Russia. We don’t know what the result will be if we ask, for example, the population of Adjara whether they prefer to have visa-free travel with Russia and sell mandarins in Russia, or prefer to benefit from the free trade agreement with the EU.”
According to a 2018 Georgia State Security Service report:
“In 2018, countries interested in strengthening influence in Georgia have been actively using the “hybrid war” methods to achieve their goals. Activities carried out by Special Services of foreign countries aimed at confrontation between different ethnic and religious groups living in Georgia; stimulating anti-Western attitudes in the population; trying to destroy Georgia’s relationship with regional and strategic partner countries; to ruin Georgia’s image as a democratic and stable country; gain economic influence; promotion of permanent internal political tensions; introduction of uncertainty and nihilism in society.”
But the State Security Service does not name anybody who fights the hybrid war with Georgia. Can you guess who it is?