2020 October-November Analysis

How USAID is helping Georgia secure the elections from cyberattacks, disinformation and COVID-19

USAID is supporting Georgia to build a stronger democracy that responds to the needs and interests of its citizens. As the Georgian people look forward to October’s parliamentary elections, USAID is partnering with Georgia’s Central Election Commission to develop new tools to prevent cyberattacks, counter disinformation, and protect voters amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the Georgian people have a historic opportunity to further consolidate their country’s democratic development. Georgian voters will go to the polls on October 31 to elect their representatives in parliament. These elections will take place under a reformed electoral system that has the potential to result in a more pluralistic parliament that reflects the diverse views and interests of Georgian society.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its Elections and Political Processes project in 2019 to empower the Georgian people to build a more responsive democracy in the long-term. Through this initiative, USAID is deepening its long-standing partnership with Georgia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), helping it upgrade its infrastructure and procedures to protect the elections from cyberattacks and disinformation and to ensure health and safety on election day.

“USAID assistance empowers citizens from all walks of life to contribute to Georgia’s transition to a mature, consolidated democracy. At the most basic level, that means ensuring that elections reflect the will of the people and are conducted in a way that inspires public confidence – confidence in the electoral process itself, and confidence in the legitimacy of the government that forms as a result. We are enriching our longstanding partnership with the Central Election Commission, helping them strengthen and diversify their toolkit for administering free and fair elections,” comments USAID/Georgia Mission Director Peter Wiebler.

Modern infrastructure to combat modern threats

The CEC took an important step forward on August 17 with the opening of a new USAID-funded cybersecurity server center to protect the election administration system from cyberattacks. Delivered through USAID’s partnership with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a key implementing partner of the Elections and Political Processes project, the center will enable the CEC to repel potential future cyberattacks and protect the voting process from manipulation by malign actors. In addition to the new servers, the assistance includes cybersecurity training for CEC employees.

This support is timely, and not only because 2020 is an election year. Georgia has been the target of several high-profile cyberattacks in the past 12 months. In October 2019, an attack by Russia’s military intelligence service knocked out several thousand web pages, including Government of Georgia pages and the website of the Georgian Public Broadcaster. In April, an attack resulted in the leak of personal data on Georgian citizens. On September 1, reports indicated another cyberattack targeting Georgia’s Ministry of Internationally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labour, Health and Social Affairs. The CEC’s new cybersecurity server center will strengthen Georgia’s defenses against election-focused attacks and bolster public confidence in democratic elections and political processes.

CEC Chairperson Tamar Zhvania emphasized the importance of cybersecurity in this environment:

“Cybersecurity and disinformation are modern-day challenges that impact various sectors across the globe. Indeed, they have no border and have the capacity to penetrate the most secure public and private spaces. We are not immune to this global threat and we realize the significance of the issue; having in place electoral security measures is a priority for our administration.

Left to right: U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly C. Degnan, CEC Chairperson Tamar Zhvania, USAID/Georgia Mission Director Peter Wiebler

In light of challenges related to the security of elections, for our administration to have long-term partners such as USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which support and facilitate the strengthening of our server infrastructure and cyber-hygiene culture, is critically important.”

In addition to cybersecurity support, USAID is supporting the CEC to establish an Information Protection Center. The center will be a unit within the CEC devoted to monitoring and responding to election-related disinformation. USAID assistance includes procuring hardware and software for disinformation monitoring, providing training for the CEC’s disinformation monitors, and delivering ongoing technical assistance to help the CEC set up the center and ensure that it continues to function effectively. Currently under development at the time of writing, the Information Protection Center is scheduled to go online in September, helping ensure that citizens have fact-based information during the pre-election period.

Keti Maisuradze, the IFES Country Director in Georgia, emphasized the importance of strengthening Georgia’s defenses against both cyberattacks and disinformation: “The 2020 parliamentary elections, which are critical for Georgia to continue its path toward consolidating its democracy, must be secured against cybersecurity vulnerabilities and the possibility of malign influence by domestic and foreign disinformation efforts.”

USAID assistance helping keep voters safe on election day

In addition to helping Georgia secure its election infrastructure, USAID is partnering with Georgian institutions to develop tools to protect citizens when they go to the polls in October. That includes helping the CEC prepare for a safe election day, engaging Georgia’s Ministry of Health and National Center for Disease Control and Public Health to develop a plan for ensuring adequate physical distancing and sanitary measures at polling stations. IFES is currently assessing the CEC’s needs for conducting safe elections. This assessment includes focus group discussions with voters to hear their concerns and ensure that measures are taken to ensure voter confidence in the health and safety of the voting process. When the assessment concludes, USAID will support the CEC to implement the recommended procedures and procure the necessary equipment and supplies, including medical masks and personal protective equipment to protect voters, polling station workers, observers, and others involved in the process. At the same time, USAID is engaging with the CEC and with civil society partners to ensure that citizens are well informed of voting procedures ahead of the elections.

This broad-based assistance represents the latest chapter in the long-standing partnership between the U.S. Government and the CEC, a point emphasized by Chairperson Zhvania: “It is important to note this large-scale unprecedented assistance. It should also be underlined that this is not the only aid we receive from our American partners. The US has long been a reliable and long-term partner for us.”

USAID’s growing emphasis on helping Georgia build resilience to malign influence

USAID’s partnership with the CEC reflects its growing emphasis on ‘resilience’ – helping Georgia build the institutions, infrastructure, and practices necessary to protect its society from malign influence, whether it be disinformation, cyberattacks against key infrastructure, Russia’s continued occupation of Georgian territory and the hardship faced in conflict-affected communities, or economic dependence on the Russian market.

Under its new Country Development Cooperation Strategy for 2020-2025, USAID is placing its highest priority on supporting Georgia to build resilience against these kinds of malign influence which pose significant challenges to Georgia’s self-reliance. Over the next five years and beyond, USAID will partner with the Government of Georgia, independent institutions such as the CEC, the private sector, and civil society organizations to help Georgia build a stronger, more inclusive society that is able to withstand external pressure and continue its journey toward self-reliance.

About USAID support for elections and political processes in Georgia: USAID’s Elections and Political Processes project aims to support Georgia’s democratic development by enhancing electoral integrity and citizen-responsive politics. The four-year, $14.4 million initiative, comprising seven activities and nine local and international implementing partners, will build political party capacity to better represent citizen needs; equip citizen groups with the tools to effectively engage parties and elected representatives on behalf of their interests; ensure level-playing-field electoral competition; and boost the electoral and political participation of underrepresented groups, including women, youth, persons with disabilities, and ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. This project will define USAID’s development assistance to Georgia for the 2020 parliamentary and 2021 municipal electoral cycles and beyond.

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