Primakov's 'gift' to Georgia: a Kremlin-linked university

By Tengo Gogotishvili

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) toasts former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow on October 29, 2009, to celebrate Primakov's 80th birthday. Medvedev presented Primakov the Service to the Fatherland (1st degree) state award. [Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/AFP]

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) toasts former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow on October 29, 2009, to celebrate Primakov's 80th birthday. Medvedev presented Primakov the Service to the Fatherland (1st degree) state award. [Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/AFP]

TBILISI -- Plans by a Russian-backed think-tank to start a Kremlin-funded university in Georgia have raised concerns among security observers who see the effort as aimed at increasing Russian influence in the country.

"A conversation is under way about creating a Georgian-Russian university," Dmitri Lortkipanidze, the director of the Primakov Center, said in July following a trip to Moscow.

"We are currently looking for a place [in Georgia] to put the university," he said.

"It will be free, funded by the Russian Federation. This will be a unique educational institution fully staffed by Russia. I think by the end of September we will have a clear picture."

Former Russian prime minister, foreign minister and spy chief Yevgeny Primakov (1929-2015) was well known in Soviet Georgia's capital, where he was in 1982 named an "honorary citizen of Tbilisi".

He grew up on Leningradskaya Street and married a Georgian woman.

His association with Tbilisi continues today, in the form of the Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center, which was founded in August 2013, a few years before his death.

Like its namesake, the Primakov Center has a direct link to the Kremlin and has raised uncomfortable concerns for many Georgians.

Georgia's Institute of International Relations and the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund established the pro-Russian think-tank.

The Gorchakov Fund is itself a Russian think-tank, founded in 2010 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.

Displeased Georgians

Lortkipanidze's remarks were widely condemned in Georgia, and popular reaction was intense enough that Education Minister Giorgi Amilakhvari said in July that "no university bearing the name of the occupier will open in Georgia."

Russia has occupied 20% of Georgian territory since a 2008 war, making any pro-Russian initiative an instant target of public wrath.

Former Georgian intelligence chief Batu Kutelia was among the many Georgians alarmed by the idea of bringing in a "Trojan horse" in the form of a university.

With the Kremlin now embroiled in its troubled invasion of Ukraine, Georgia holds increasing appeal for Russia, Kutelia noted.

To make its relationship with its southern neighbor sustainable in the long term, Russia needs to cultivate new elites in Georgia, he said.

"Any Russia state-funded educational institution [is a] national security concern," he added.

An educational institution funded by a foreign power "can be used to disseminate disinformation, undermine trust in democratic institutions, and foster divisions among the populace," he said.

"Such institutes can engage in information warfare, sowing discord and confusion among citizens, ultimately posing a threat to the national security."

They can also "serve as recruitment grounds for foreign intelligence services seeking to identify and groom potential agents or assets within the host country," Kutelia added.

"A Russian state-funded institute in a democratic country can become a channel for corruption and illicit financial activities," Kutelia also warned.

"Corrupt practices, such as embezzlement or money laundering, can be hidden under the guise of educational or cultural activities."

According to an I-Fact investigation published in 2021, "data on the Primakov Center's finances are not publicly available."

Georgian March, a nationalist organization that Lortkipanidze headed practically in parallel with the Primakov Center, has faced similar questions.

The Primakov Center's co-founder -- the Gorchakov Fund -- has been under European Union (EU) sanctions since July 2022 for its support of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Last September, Georgia's TBC Bank froze the Primakov Center's account because it was directly tied to a sanctioned Russian government agency (the Gorchakov Fund).

Disinformation and propaganda

"A university funded and staffed by Russia will become a very big problem in terms of the spread of disinformation and propaganda," Media Development Foundation researcher Nika Shekiladze told Caravanserai.

"This will especially impact the distortion of history, and the revival of Soviet propaganda."

If the Russian university does open in Georgia, it will create more problems for the host country, Nino Bakradze, founder of the I-Fact media and investigative site, told Caravanserai.

"How it works out for the university is one thing, but our educational system is trying to integrate with the Western system," she said.

"Opening a Russian university will move us away from Western education."

Objections to the university have antagonised the Georgian ruling party Georgian Dream, which has been accused of promoting the Kremlin when 89% of Georgians want to join the EU.

Georgian Dream has many policies difficult to sell to that vast majority of pro-Western Georgians: the 284 weekly flights between Russia and Georgia that Russia's air transport regulator approved this year, the more than 1.7 million Russian citizens who entered Georgia in 2022, recently launched Black Sea cruises between Russian and Georgian ports, noncompliance with Western sanctions against Russia and many other signs of Tbilisi's tilt toward a neighbor that invaded it in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.

Now a potential Russian university awaits its addition to that list.

The Georgian ruling party, when pressed on this loyalty to the Kremlin, sometimes cannot explain itself.

"Excessively pushing such topics... is wrong," said Georgian Dream party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze in July, reproaching journalists for their inquiries and coverage.

"I am not participating [in this conversation]. Pushing Russian topics is in your interests, not mine. Shut down this topic."

In this situation, the Georgian regime's pro-Russia reputation is a significant concern, Bakradze told Caravanserai.

"With this regime, any worst-case scenario is realistic," she said. "The only barrier is public opinion, which will not tolerate serving Russia's cause."

"If the question of creating the university really does get on the agenda, I think the government will approve it," she cautioned.

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