A tip for NATO to keep Georgia even closer

A tip for NATO to keep Georgia even closer

Having a big circle of friends is exciting and cool. It is exciting because it is positively correlated to the number of events and supras I attend, and it is cool because getting together with close friends gives us an opportunity to discuss questions like “what would we ask for if we had a Gini in the bottle?” and how would we change and mitigate the reality we live in? For instance, just a couple of days ago some friends and I we were discussing some interesting findings that I received from one of my sources, who has access to data of registered businesses (and who preferred to stay anonymous).

When we met recently, I asked him to employ my algorithm and check the database to see what kind of email services the Georgian business community is using and their origins. The result was most alarming and certainly needs to be addressed carefully and ASAP. Moreover, my friends and I developed an outline of a marketing campaign that we are tentatively calling “Shame and Educate.” And of course, we are most open to handing it to anyone when and if there is interest.

To start with, did anyone know that well over one third (39%) of Georgian businesses are using mail servers owned by Russian businesses and located in Russia? Well I did not. But I am sure we all (or most of us) can agree that this poses a serious and imminent threat, one that can blow up in our faces at any moment. While I understand that business needs to be transparent, I don’t understand why anyone would want to be transparent with the Russian security services. I also aware that Georgian businesses are not developing a space program or any high-tech startups, but just imagine if one day all these services were to be blocked by the service providers…. If GORBI was relaying on a .ru mail service and was shut down, we would simply be out of business in a month’s time, nothing to say about losing all correspondences and information that has been archived over the last two decades.

And of course, here is the million-dollar question: Is this sabotage? NO – this is my free answer. Let’s do a brief tour of the evolution of electronic communication including email in Georgia. I am here to describe this based on my personal experience. I obtained a corporate email in 1991 (yes, nineteen ninety-one) thanks to a joint project between the Georgian Academy of Sciences, NATO and the Soros Foundation which set up the very first email server in Georgia. At present, very few businessmen can recall the cost of sending one page of text via a fax machine to the EU or USA, but I do - it was USD 2.50, and we used to send tens of pages of multi-language questionnaires and survey instruments to our clients. Now, perhaps it is not a big deal to spend a few hundred bucks for communications if you are talking about the average project, but at that time, USD 2.5 was equal to enough rubbles to purchase a roundtrip ticket to Moscow.

And then email came along – it saved not only a huge amount of cash, but we were able to send and receive documents in electronic format. We were pioneers, and electronic mail became popular by the end of 90s when internet penetration reached 10%, and even higher among businesses.

At that time the service was offered by Western and Russian companies, and knowledge of English among the public as well as the business community was miserable. As a consequence, they had to rely on Russian services. However, time has passed, all major Western email services now have Georgian interface. People either don’t want to move to a new email address or they don’t know how to (and I believe most of them have never heard about synchronizing more than one email account or exporting archives into another service provider, etc.). And of course, it is all about institutional culture as well, especially for the large and medium businesses.

Naturally, we are talking about FREE services here and the only good thing is that Russian email services are most prevalent among small businesses. As the size of a business rises, the number of .ru domains are decreasing. The latter is basically on an expanse on having the own domain and in majority of cases - .ge

My eyes caught this “anomaly” the first time when I was doing an on-the-ground survey of Georgian troops in Iraq in 2008. While walking into an “internet café” on one of the largest military bases where we had several hundreds of soldiers stationed, I remember noticing at least logged out interfaces of .ru domains on at 7 out of 10 PC screens. Despite several attempts, GORBI has never had the chance to repeat the survey among Georgian troops in Afghanistan for the sake of comparatively and I can only hope that those figures are at least smaller now.

As shown in Table 1: the size of a business largely determines the type and origin the email service it uses. Almost half of the large businesses (45%) have their own email system and every fifth is using free Western emails, while 7% is still tied up with Russian services. The smaller the business is the more they rely on Russian free email services, 37% small, 33% medium and 24% large businesses are consequently using .ru emails. Among very few free Georgian services, only posta.ge has a noticeable presence and especially among small business owners – 3%, the rest, medium and large businesses have each 1% penetration only.

As we all are aware, some selected NGOs in Georgia are given grants to monitor Russian propaganda. They are trying to undercover and report it to their donors, conduct seminars and sometimes publish their findings so they can earn another tranche. Of course, I have nothing against this, like the pre-election media monitoring exercises that are always exclusively given to a certain group of people via strange tendering procedures and conducted using an archaic methodology... well, at least this helps the Georgian labor market and money is spent in my country. However, as I said earlier, we are facing a serious issue, and someone needs to deal with it. Given this reality, there are only a few players left, and I would name NATO in the first place. Here is why – despite Georgia’s NATO aspirations, we are approaching membership very slowly. While plenty of experts are convinced that technically and based on its reforms, Georgia deserves MAP, followed by full NATO membership, this is still not happening and based on my personal assessment, the only issue now is to choose the right time and not provoke another Russian attack. When is this going to happen? Well, I think sooner that most skeptics think. But in the meantime, I think NATO should put this on the agenda as one of the requirements to qualify for membership and then, someone should run a “Shame and Educate” campaign or similar and over the next few years, monitor and assess how Georgian businesses are moving to .com free mail domains and preferable, creating their own ones. And NATO can help us, like they did 27 years ago when they provided a handful of businesses including GORBI access to emails.

Someone at NATO’s Headquarters in Brussels may think that Georgians should be able to solve this issue quickly based on our track record of military reforms. But then they will still be faced with the dilemma of granting membership without irritating the Kremlin. I can tell him/her that Georgia would still be facing other big issues that needs to be addressed and changed and some of them are harder then the story described in this column. One issue off the top of my head is the question of what to do with the 30,000 or so Georgian men from the central Georgia (especially Gori region) who during every single supra drinks at least one toast to comrade Stalin? Well, I have a solution for this problem too, but would rather wait and see how Georgian business’s electronic communication culture changes first.

Note: I would like to extend special appreciation to Ani Lortkipanidze who assisted with the analysis and charts featured in this article
GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research (gorbi.com)