Analysis | Who is afraid of the Lugar Centre?
CRRC-Georgia investigates who is more susceptible to Russian-pushed conspiracies surrounding Georgia’s US-funded Lugar Centre.
In Georgia, a conspiracy about the US-funded Richard Lugar Centre for Public Health Research in Tbilisi has recently gained traction. As CRRC-Georgia’s USAID-funded research shows, Georgia’s far-right groups eagerly picked up on this conspiracy and blamed the centre for the seasonal flu outbreak in early 2019.
The conspiracy has also acquired influential endorsers outside Georgia. Russia’s diplomatic and military circles were quick to accuse the centre of developing biological weapons and conducting secret experiments on human subjects.
[Read more: Russia warns of ‘military measures’ over US-funded lab in Georgia]
How do Georgians perceive the conspiracy around the Lugar Centre? In a recent CRRC/NDI survey, respondents were asked whether it was true or not that the Lugar Centre contributes to the spread of epidemics. About 20% of respondents said that the proposition was true, while about 40% did not know whether the statement was true or false.
Attitudes vary across socio-demographic groups. Women are slightly more likely than men to believe that the Lugar Centre spreads epidemics in Georgia. Respondents with a higher education are less likely to believe in the conspiracy.
Ethnic Armenians in urban and rural areas are more likely to think that the statement is true. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are more likely to have no opinion than to believe that the statement is false. There is no significant difference between older and younger respondents, or among those who have different economic status.
Importantly, the way people perceive the Lugar Centre conspiracy is strongly associated with their geopolitical views. Those who believe that the Centre contributes to spreading epidemics are more likely to think that Georgia would benefit more from better relations with Russia. They are less likely to believe that Georgia would benefit more from membership in the European Union or NATO.
Georgians and Azerbaijanis who think the Lugar Centre conspiracy is true are also more likely to support abandoning Western integration projects at the expense of improving relationships with Russia.
Disbelief in the conspiracy is associated with positive feelings towards Western integration projects.
The most tempting explanation of what is described above would be accusing Russia of spreading propaganda. Considering how Russia’s state-run foreign-language media outlets weaponise conspiracy theories to manipulate foreign public opinion, this might indeed be a plausible explanation.
Although the study only establishes possible links between pro-Russian feelings and beliefs in the Russia-endorsed Lugar Centre conspiracy, further research is required to attest to whether the latter can actually change foreign policy attitudes.
What is more important is that the belief in a conspiracy or exposure to it can have negative consequences. Research shows that exposure to conspiracy theories undermines trust in institutions.
Right-wing populists often use conspiracies to propagate hatred towards minority groups. As conspiracies provide simple answers to complex questions, especially to those who are seeking one, hoaxes like the one surrounding the Lugar Centre can easily gain traction.
While beliefs in certain conspiracies can be reversed, there is no clear evidence that fact-checks and information corrections are always successful.
This matters in the Georgian context. Georgia’s far-right groups have already endorsed the Lugar conspiracy and their leaders seem to be attracted to others.
As beliefs in anti-Western conspiracies and one’s attitudes towards foreign policy show strong associations, the data might suggest that the Lugar Lab conspiracy, among others, could shift people’s attitudes.
While this requires further research, the data do suggest that communicating on the issue is important, and particularly among ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani communities, given their higher prevalence of belief in the conspiracy and uncertainty over it, respectively.
David Sichinava is the Research Director at CRRC-Georgia. The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author alone and not of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), or East-West Management Institute’s ACCESS program.
Ethnic minorities, Georgians, and foreign policy orientation
Georgian Foreign Policy: Continuity or Change?The results of the October parliamentary elections in Georgia have raised questions regarding the future trajectory of Georgian foreign policy. One of the priorities of Georgian foreign policy has been European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Will the new Georgian government initiate major changes and redirect Georgia’s foreign policy that has been supported by the National United Movement? Will Ge...
Georgia—AbkhaziaThe Olympics in Sochi, Russia, took place about 30 kilometers from Russia’s border with the separatist region of Abkhazia in Georgia. As a security precaution, the Russian government has temporarily moved its border 11 kilometers into Abkhazia to create a “security zone,” at which travelers entering will have to show identification before proceeding to the actual border with Russia.
Russia, Georgians, and the State
Before and After the Elections: Shifting Public Opinion in Georgia
Knowledge of Russian in Azerbaijan
Russia as a threat: the Ukraine crisis and changing public opinion in Georgia
Changing issue salience in Georgia after 2008
Do Armenians Still View Integration with the EU as Part of a Positive-Sum Game?On September 3rd 2013 Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan surprised many observers, including some in his own government, when he announced that Armenia would sign an agreement with Russia to join the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) and spurn a long-negotiated Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. The move has been dubbed a “U-Turn” as well as a “sudden shift in policy,” although it was predated by landmark Armenian-Russian agreements in 1997 and 2006.
Georgia in a turbulent world: 2014 in review
What We Know About Volunteering in Georgia[This post originally appeared in investor.ge]
By Nino Zubashvili
Georgia and Russia: Can positive relations between the populations overcome the political turmoil?
Does Refusal to Recognize Elections in Abkhazia Reduce Prospects for Resolution?
Can a Cut NATO Supply Route Through Russia Benefit Georgia and Azerbaijan?
Who is Russia's Enemy? | Pew Research Center Data
Post-Soviet States’ Democratic Decline: Results from Freedom House Report
Is the Caucasus in Europe or Asia? | Tim Straight at TEDxYerevan
Caucasus Data | Language: Russian versus English?
Russian-Georgian Relations | Alex Rondeli on July 29
Georgia Post-Conflict Phone Survey | may be a first glance?
What do Russians think about the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? -- Data Snapshot
Russian Public Opinion | Levada Update
The August Conflict | Economic Impact on Georgia?
Iakobashvili on the Current State of the Conflict
Gabala Radar Station -- local health awareness
The Open Budget Index | Georgia, Azerbaijan and the WorldThe Open Budget Index, a project of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, released the first-ever independent and non-governmental Budget Transparency Ratings in October 2006. The index endeavors to provide the practical information needed to analyze the transparency and accessibility of a government’s budgetary processes—and thus better equip citizens and legislators in lobbying for governmental accountability and targeted, effective policymaking.
As many Georgians think the West spreads propaganda as RussiaOn 13 February, the United States released its Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. In it, the significance of Russian influence operations in Georgia were highlighted. Just eight days earlier, on 5 February, a coalition of Georgia’s leading non-governmental organisations made an official offer to support the Government of Georgia, the EU, and NATO in their efforts to counter anti-Western propaganda.
People in Georgia approve of doing business with Russians, despite interstate hostilityIn the 2017 wave of CRRC’s Caucasus Barometer survey, 40% of the population of Georgia named Russia as the main enemy of the country. Turkey and the United States garnered the second highest share of responses with 3% each. Yet, no particular animosity towards ethnic Russians is observed in answers to a question about people’s (dis)approval of individuals of their ethnicity doing business with Russians. This blog post examines how answers differ by people’s opinions about whether or not Russia is the main enemy of Georgia.
Which groups name Russia as Georgia’s main enemy?In 2017, 40% of the population of Georgia named Russia as the main enemy of Georgia. Yet the opinion that Russia is the main enemy of the country is not equally present in different demographic groups. This blog post uses data from CRRC’s 2017 Caucasus Barometer survey to gain a better understanding of the characteristics of those who report Russia is the country’s main enemy.
Disinformation in the Georgian media: Different assessments for different media sourcesIn Georgia, supporters of the government and opposition often express contrasting opinions about the independence and reliability of specific news outlets. Based on the CRRC/NDI December, 2017 survey findings, this blog post looks at whether people think or not that the Georgian media spreads disinformation, which groups tend to think so, and how this opinion differs by type of media. “Disinformation” was defined in the questionnaire as “false information which is spread deliberately with the purpose to mislead and deceive people,” and the questions about it were asked separately about TV stations, online media, and print media.
The EU, USA or Russia: Who is believed to be able to support Georgia best?In recent years, Georgia has benefited from EU and US assistance, with around €400 million indicatively allocated for the EU’s projects in Georgia in 2017-2020, and the US government increasing assistance to Georgia in the 2018 Spending Bill. In contrast, Georgia’s relationships with Russia are tense, with diplomatic relations terminated in 2008.
Does our algorithm still work?Within the Russian Propaganda Barometer Project, funded by USAID through EWMI’s ACCESS program, CRRC-Georgia created a model, using a k-nearest neighbors algorithm, which attempts to predict whether a person falls into one of three groups: consistently pro-Western; anti-Western; or neither and potentially at-risk of being influenced towards an anti-Western foreign policy position. The model used data from NDI and CRRC’s polling between 2008 and July 2018. It included variables for age, education level, settlement type, and when the survey was conducted.
It’s the economy stupid: An experiment on Georgian support for the European Union
Georgians are enthusiastic in supporting the country’s accession to the European Union. Since 2012, when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC-Georgia started tracking attitudes, three quarters of Georgians approved of the government’s goal of joining the EU, on average. What motivates Georgians to support the Union, or alternatively, to abandon support? A survey experiment included in the latest CRRC/NDI poll suggests potential economic burdens have a modest yet significant effect on support for membership. Results do not support the common belief that a potential military threat from Russia dampens Georgians’ support for the EU.
Perceived Threats to Georgia’s SecurityRussian aggression is a key security issue for Georgia. In August 2008, a war broke out over the South Ossetia region with Russia party to the war. Since the war, there have been attempts to restore economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries. Some in Georgia support a policy of having closer ties with Russia. Still, the April CRRC/NDI 2019 survey shows that the public continues to see Russia as a threat.
What divides and what unites Georgian society?The last year has seen a number of conversations about polarization in Georgia. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, even commented on the issue in his Batumi speech. One of the components of polarization, though not the sole factor, is division in society over actors, issues, and institutions.
While many things could divide the public, what do the people think and which groups report more and fewer sources of division? The April 2019 NDI-CRRC poll suggests that there are fewer perceived reasons for division in rural areas and among ethnic minorities.
Young people are learning English in GeorgiaA common sentiment when discussing foreign languages in Georgia is that young people know some English, older people know Russian, and those in between are mixed. Previous CRRC Georgia analysis from 2014 supported this claim, showing that knowledge of English was on the rise among young people.
The 2019 survey on Knowledge and Attitudes towards the European Union in Georgia which CRRC Georgia carried out for Europe Foundation suggests that this trend is continuing in Georgia.
Georgia’s Foreign Policy Trilemma: Balance, Bandwagon, or Hedge? Part 1Georgia is a small, partly free democracy in a tough neighbourhood, and NATO membership remains an unfulfilled promise. While Russia is widely perceived as the main threat to Georgia’s security, the appropriate strategic or political response to the threat is not obvious. What options does Georgia have when faced with a powerful rival on its border, and what public support is there for these options?
Georgia’s Foreign Policy Trilemma: Balance, Bandwagon, or Hedge? Part 2The first part of this blog post discussed evidence of an association between perceiving Russia as the main threat to Georgia and a preference for a foreign policy that balances against that threat through alliances with the West. The relationship between threat perception and hedging, defined as attempting to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West, is less clear.
AI and Russian propaganda: it’s not what it looks likeIn the think tank world, talk about artificial intelligence (AI) is common. Using it is less common. One of the underlying causes of this may be a perceived lack of familiarity with the methods. However, AI methods – including machine learning – are probably more familiar to many thinktankers than they realise. The Russian Propaganda Barometer project, recently conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Georgia, demonstrates the potential of these tools in think tanks for policy insight – particularly relating to discourse analysis, and developing targeting strategies.
Грузини хочуть, щоби їхній уряд підтримав Україну
Війна Росії з Україною шокувала світ. Вона також шокувала Грузію, а нове опитування від CRRC Georgia викриває ступінь наявних політичних наслідків.
Наслідки війни, що стосуються зовнішньої та внутрішньої політики Грузії, виявилися доволі масштабними. Офіційна позиція Грузії щодо війни була суперечливою: в той час як прем’єр-міністр Іраклі Гарібашвілі категорично заявив, що Грузія не приєднається до санкцій, накладених Заходом проти Росії, президент Грузії Саломе Зурабішвілі почала медійний та дипломатичний бліц у Європі, висловлюючи рішучу підтримку Україні.
How do Georgians feel about the influx of Russians?Recent CRRC data shows that a large majority of the Georgian public is concerned about the migration of Russians to Georgia.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, at least 1.2 million Russian citizens have entered Georgia, equivalent to roughly 30% of Georgia’s population. While the number of Russian citizens who have decided to stay in Georgia remains unclear, the impact of this mass migration is strongly felt in rising rents and concerns over the country’s security.