The August 2008 war, events in Ukraine and role in Syria have raised concerns in the west that Russia seeks to reshape the post-Cold War international system and regain once lost positions around the world. “Deterring” Russia has become a crucial issue for NATO and its allies. But Georgia, where Russia is a crucial pillar of both domestic and foreign political narratives, has taken on this topic to a whole new level.
Russia may be actively involved in the Georgian economy, but our foreign policy narrative represents Russia as an existential threat. With Georgia’s status as a “beacon” of democracy in the South Caucasus taken as standard, the country finds itself under a continuous phantom threat from outside.
This is where Georgia’s domestic political narrative comes in. Ever since Mikheil Saakashvili divided society into “patriots” and “non-patriots” in the post-revolutionary years, the Georgian state has publicly searched for “enemy agents” in the form of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth columns” — these groups are “traitors” who try to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and aspirations to become a member of the civilised world.
Indeed, these exact terms have been used to abuse, oppress and libel various Georgian opposition groups and political parties by the political elite. Fast forward to 2016, this tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society and the country’s strategic partners.
In fact, there is no clear definition of Georgia’s “pro-Russian” phenomenon. Instead, there are various interpretations that make it easy to deploy this term against “undesirable” elements and thus legitimise the use of questionable methods against them.
Saakashvili’s rise, fall and rise again
Russia’s involvement in its southern neighbour’s political life is an old story. During the 1990s, the Russian state contributed to the unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separatist regions recognised by Russia) and Georgians were fully aware of that.
Still, there was no public obsession with Russia in Georgia. Russia wasn’t the focus of discussion locally or internationally. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003, did not push the idea of Russia as an enemy, instead trying to maintain good relationships with both the west and the north.
Everything changed dramatically after the Rose Revolution in 2003. The newly elected political trio of Mikhail Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze assured the international community that they will put the state on a democratic “path”. After the death of Zhvania in 2005, Saakashvili and his political team in the United National Movement (UNM) became the undisputed leaders of Georgia. Saakashvili tried to “restart” Georgian-Russian relations, but failed.
After the events of August 2004, when Saakasvhili’s government clashed with separatists in South Ossetia’s Tskhinvali region, it became clear that there was little ground for political dialogue between Georgia and Russia.
At the same time, the situation in Georgia itself also became more strained. Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian attitudes gave way to a political system with a “firm hand” and one dominant political party in parliament. Lacking balance, Saakashvili’s government made a few critical mistakes. By 2007, Saakasvhili’s popularity had seriously declined, which was reflected in a permanent protest that gathered thousands of people.
It was obvious that Saakashvili’s enormous support had melted away. In November of that year, Saakashvili ordered the dispersal of this peaceful protest, which led to mass riots, the closure of opposition TV broadcaster Imedi and the declaration of an emergency situation.
After Saakashvili was forced to resign and announce new presidential elections, it was clear Saakashvili was in need of a new political campaign that could consolidate Georgian society around him and legitimise his actions. He found it in Russia.
From November to November
The people who gathered in downtown Tbilisi in November 2007 came out against authoritarianism, abuse of rights and corruption. But prominent figures from UNM initially labelled it as a “pro-Russian rally” that aimed to dismantle Georgia, its sovereignty and overthrow the democratically elected pro-western government.
Saakashvili told local news agencies that “high-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this”. Givi Targamadze, the former chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, warned protesters that the government would not let the Russian flag be raised on Rustaveli avenue, Tbilisi’s central thoroughfare. Moreover, Targamadze argued, the participants of these events would “drown in blood”. This was the first case in which a high-ranking Georgian official directly accused a foreign country of an attempt to overthrow the government.
Later on, under the direct patronage of the government, Georgia’s Public Broadcaster released a documentary called From November to November, in which Nika Gvaramia, Georgia’s then deputy state prosecutor, argued that Georgian opposition forces were in a direct contact with the Russian security agencies.
Step-by-step, and using “secret recordings”, Gvaramia explained that the leaders of Georgia’s main opposition forces, such as Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party, Giorgi Khaindrava of the Equality Institute, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leader of the Freedom Party and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labor Party, directed the 2007 protests under the guidance of foreign agents. From November to November thus introduced the concept of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth column” into Georgia’s domestic political culture, justifying the government’s actions as a “necessary evil”. Despite these allegations, no one was arrested or with treason or the organisation of an attempted coup.
Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”. As Koba Turmanidze, the director of Caucasus Research Resource Center, argued, an openly “pro-Russian” position could provoke a “harsh response”. This “response” was revealed several years later on 26 May 2011, when protesters led by Nino Burjanadze in Tbilisi were accosted by security officers and brutally beaten. Four people were later found dead.
The government called this protest “pro-Russian”, and easily justified its actions while members of Georgian society — afraid of the same fate — turned a blind eye to this “punitive” operation. By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”.
Even though Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution government tried hard to stay in power, it lost parliamentary elections to the “pro-Russian” political party Georgian Dream in 2012.
Saakashvili’s attempts to represent Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarchic leader of Georgia’s opposition movement, as a close ally of Vladimir Putin failed. As soon as these “agents of foreign states” came to power, they assured Georgian society they would normalise Georgian-Russian relations.
But while there were hopes that the new government would dismantle the dubious concept of “pro-Russian forces”, Georgian society was deceived. Saakashvili’s legacy remained strong. Just like UNM in the past, Georgian Dream slowly haemorrhaged support thanks to its frequently illogical and ineffective reforms in various fields, including the extremely sensitive judicial and electoral systems. And on top of that, the failure of the Georgian-Russian “reset” intensified dissatisfaction among the electorate, on the one hand, and positions of anti-Russian groups, on the other.
By September 2015, one year before parliamentary elections in October 2016, and in the wake of Georgian Dream’s falling approval ratings, Russia became relevant again. In a BBC interview, Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s defence minister at the time, urged western states to support Georgia on its way toward NATO and EU integration — otherwise pro-Russian forces would be represented in the new parliament. Funnily enough, it was a colleague of Khidasheli’s who appeared in the secret recording with a Russian intelligence operative in From November to November that “proved” Russia’s involvement in the November 2007 events.
It is a paradox that Tina Khidasheli, an active participant of the “Russian-led” events in November 2007, began a search for “Russian spies” among opposition members in the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. Nowadays, both the government and opposition use the concept to corral votes and marginalise one another other.
For instance, take July’s OSCE parliamentary assembly annual meeting in Tbilisi. During the session, OSCE members should have voted for a new president. The UNM presented its own candidate Gigi Tseretely, while the ruling party opposed. By the end of the day, the dispute was not about Tseretely’s candidacy, but rather about which side was cooperating with the Russian delegation. It should be noted that while the Bush administration was previously keen to trust Saakashvili on “pro-Russian forces”, nowadays, it is a less popular topic abroad.
Russia is both an important trade partner and a threat to Georgian security, but Mikheil Saakashvili managed to transform the country into a popular political method to marginalise his political opponents and oppress them.
Now, two months before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, which is unable and unwilling to crack down on opponents, is also using the concept to consolidate the electorate.
So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.
The newly elected parliament of Georgia approved the cabinet of ministries headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili On October 25. The Georgian tycoon kept his word given to the citizens of Georgia to celebrate victory over the already former ruling party UNM (United National Movement) in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 and become Prime-Minister of the state.
Earlier, neither political position, nor opposition seriously considered his statements, noting that Ivanishvili hadn’t had experience of being a politician. As a result, many had expected that he could have shared the fate of another Georgian tycoon– Badri Patarkatsishvili, who once challenged the UNM. Finally, Patarkatsishvili was forced to flee from the country and later found dead at home under odd circumstances. But the realm proved opposite.
“Veni Vidi Vici” (or “I came, I saw, I conquered”) is a Latin sentence reportedly written by Julius Caesar in 47 BC as a comment on his short war with Pharnaces II of Pontus in the city of Zela (currently known as Zile, in Turkey). Veni, Vidi, and Vici are first person perfect forms of the three Latin verbs Venire, Videre, and Vincere.
‘Veni’ (‘he came’)
Ivanishvili appeared in the right place at the right time. The political opposition of Georgia was dismantled and fragmented; the UNM had no doubts that it would have won the parliamentary elections; as a result, Georgian civil society as well as international organizations and strategic partners were afraid that the ruling party could repeat the path passed by Vladimir Putin in the past; particularly, the UNM could win the parliamentary elections, form a one-party parliament and Mikhail Saakashvili would have occupied the post of Prime-Minister of Georgia, thus keeping reins of power over the country after his second-presidential term would have passed.
Though challenging the government at the right time, Ivanishvili instantly became a leader who had enough power to unite the oppositional forces around him and restore the trust of the voters towards a discredited Georgian opposition; on the other hand, he appeared as a long-expected appropriate alternative for the existing government in the eyes of the West.
‘Vidi’ (‘he saw’)
The Georgian tycoon not only ‘came’ in the right place at the right time, but also he clearly analyzed and understood the distributions of the forces on the political battlefield of Georgia. He used past experience of his predecessor to avoid common mistakes.
One of the main flaws of his predecessors was the abandonment of the strategic partners of Georgia, such as the US and the EU. Broadly speaking, neither Levan Gachechiladze (former leader of Georgian opposition who lost presidential elections held in 2008), nor Badri Patarkatsishvili, had the political support of the West. The Western allies considered both politicians as inappropriate alternatives to the regime of Saakashvili and his political team.
Consequently, the first political step of Ivanishvili was to consolidate the pro-Western political parties and through them, assure the West that the new force must be allowed to govern the country; and that the new government will maintain a pro-Western orientation as well as the aspiration to join NATO.
On October 15, the newly appointed US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, attending a civil Society Forum noted that, “we are confident that Georgia’s future is in good hands.” The gained ‘confidence’ of the US is a result of the right perception of distribution of forces on the political battlefield of Georgia, as well as the tremendous work done by Ivanishvili to prove that he is ‘axios’ (‘worthy’).
‘Vici’ (‘he conquered’)
As a result of his calculated actions, Ivanishvili became a leader of the joint Georgian opposition backed by the support of Georgia’s strategic Western allies. The victory over the UNM, which already exceeded all limits of trust and confidence, was inevitable.
The inevitability relied on two realms. The first one was the external and internal political realities. The victory of the UNM would have directly been considered as a duplication of the well-known and unappreciated political system of Russia. Both, the West, as well as Georgia’s civil society, desired to avoid such a deviation from the process of democratic development.
On the other hand, it was clear that the political misdeeds of the ruling party resulted in the loss of credibility and support of the voters; while Bidzina Ivanishvili, famous for his charity activities was ‘in the prime of his political life’. Consequently, the Georgian tycoon ‘conquered’ the reins of power despite harsh opposition from the ruling party and its leader Saakashvili.
Ivanishvili revealed the skills of the leader and politician through having a clear understanding of the political ‘game rules’ and the distribution of forces that led to the flash and absolute victory over the former ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2.
Despite the fact that his team didn’t get a constitutional majority as the Georgian tycoon was aiming for on October 25, it’s definitely his ‘triumph’ on the political battlefield, which can be described as ‘Veni Vidi Vici!’ (‘He came, he saw, he conquered’). And Georgia’s civil society as well as the West should keep a close eye on him and his political team to be sure that the ‘triumph’ won’t lead the country in the wrong direction.
In its second interim report published on September 24, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says that the polarization of the election campaign in Georgia “has increased.” Aimed at evaluating general issues such as the campaign environment, campaign finance, as well as media and the participation of national minorities, the report covered a period between September 6 and September19. Overall, OSCE’s report is more summary of the facts than their actual analysis.The OSCE launched the observation mission on August 22 with a core team of 16 experts in Tbilisi and 28 long-term observers deployed throughout the country.
“The polarization of the campaign has increased. The tone of the campaign messages from both the UNM and the Georgian Dream coalition senior leadership and majoritarian candidates is confrontational and rough” – exclaimed the OSCE Election Observation Mission assessing the general pre-election environment in the country.
According to the interim report, the main confrontation is going to have to take place between the ruling party (United National Movement, abb. UNM) and Georgian Dream Coalition (abb. GD) led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Both sides have chosen the policy of mutual accusations and charges. The UNM ‘questions the origins of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s assets and his political agenda in the case of victory’; meanwhile GD blames the ruling party for twisting the facts.
OSCE report emphasizes the facts of involvement of officials as well as public (administration) employees in the pre-election campaign of the ruling party. According to the document, the “UNM representatives, municipal authorities and at times the police, allegedly signal to such voters [public (administration) employees/recipients of social benefits] not to engage in opposition activities but rather attend UNM rallies.”
Another important accent has been made by the OSCE on the ‘campaign finance’ issue. The report notes that about 35 cases of illegal donations [mainly in favor of the GD] were examined by the mission. In all instances, the OSCE has doubts about the fairness of the decisions taken by the Georgian courts.
“In some 35 cases examined in detail by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM, the courts have deemed the donations by such individuals illegal on the grounds that ‘the donor failed to prove the origins of the property donated,” – notes the mission and continues by pointing out that all citizens are obliged by the law to declare income and pay taxes. Still, the Law on Public Unions of Citizens doesn’t demand any documents proving the origins of the donated property to assess donation as legal; consequently, the facts of disagreement between the law and the reality create basis for criticism.
The OSCE interim report hadn’t avoided the issue of discretionary power given to the SAO (State Audit Office). According to the report, legislation grants the SAO as well as the courts “wide discretion in determining whether a donation is ‘justifiable’” which spreads doubts regarding objectivity of the institutions.
Additionally, the document complainss about the cases when “potentially illegal donors were summoned without being informed about their status as witnesses or suspects. They were body searched and deprived of personal belongings during lengthy interviews conducted in a manner that did not indicate due process.”
The Georgian media environment became an issue of concern as well. According to the OSCE interim report, the media is highly politicized and tends to be biased toward the ruling party or the opposition: “…the majority of broadcasters monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM appear to follow partisan editorial policies in their news and current affairs programs.”
The OSCE marked out the broadcasters mainly promoting the UNM and humiliating the main Georgian oppositional force GD: Rustavi 2, Imedi and TV Adjara. According to the report, despite the fact that all these channels are pro-governmental there are differences in their policies; in particular, Rustavi 2 is more focused on praising achievements of the ruling party; meanwhile, Imedi TV tries to humiliate the GD and spread mistrust toward Bidzina Ivanishvili and his political coalition.
On the other hand, Maestro TV as well as TV9 was recognized as the oppositional ‘mainly positive in tone, to the opposition GD bloc’. In the same time, Kavkasia TV well-known for its oppositional ‘soul’ has been considered as more or less neutral.
The only broadcaster recognized as fully neutral and who tends to promote media fairness was the Public Broadcaster (GPB). According to the report “GPB offered balanced coverage of the campaign. In the newscasts of First Channel (GPB1), both UNM and GD received similar proportions of mostly positive and neutral coverage… GPB1 has also devoted extensive coverage to further seven political parties’.
The OSCE mission is concerned that minority groups such as Azeri, Armenians mainly concentrated in border regions with only six MPs in the outgoing parliament are not able to fully integrate into civil society.
Finally, the OSCE responded to the latest developments in the country and exclaimed that the mission will be to further observe the political environment and assess the impact of the shocking videos [showing scenes of torture and the abuse of prisoners in prison number 8 located in Gldani, Tbilisi] unveiled by the broadcasters on 18 of September.
The representatives of the ruling party have not made any comments regarding the report. Meanwhile, the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, noted that the OSCE mission fully reflected the existing injustice in its interim report.
According to the new survey commissioned by The National Democratic Institute (NDI), employment, healthcare and territorial integrity remain the most acute problems for Georgian society. At the same time, controversial issues related with Maestro TV, Global TV and the exorbitant fines imposed on the Georgian Dream coalition and– in particular, its billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili concerns a major part of the respondents.
The survey, conducted through nationwide face-to-face interview with 2,038 respondents, has a margin of error of plus/ minus 3%. The survey was fielded by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) for NDI on July 31-August 12 and was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
Georgia Today interviewed NDI Director for Georgia, Luis Navarro, asking him to interpret the latest survey’s findings.
Q: Mr. Navarro, what are the main findings of NDI’s latest survey in your view?
A: The main findings were that jobs, healthcare and territorial integrity remain the top three concerns of Georgian citizens going into these elections. There is high interest in the elections; 77% of Georgians have indicated that they intend to vote in the elections. In addition, now, by a 42% to 40% margin, Georgians have a more positive assessment of democracy. However, by a nearly 2:1 margin those who are aware of the Global TV and Maestro controversies, disapprove of the actions taken by State Audit Agency and the Prosecutor’s Office.
Q: The previous survey was conducted in June. What makes this latest survey different from the June survey and the other surveys published previously this year?
A: Well obviously people were more positive about assessing democracy in this poll than may have been in the June poll. The number of respondents who say that Georgia is a democracy increased in the August poll slightly beyond the margin of error to 42% from 38% in June. Also, there was a slight decline outside of the margin of error among people who saw themselves as worse off economically.
Another thing that was different obviously is that this time we spent some time trying to assess the new governmental structure with (PM) Vano Merabishvili’s appointment and looked at how the ruling party’s plan compares to the plan of the Georgian Dream– not in terms of substance, but in terms of how the people perceive it. The biggest concern that we have is that only half of the population know about what the UNM is proposing; while only a quarter know what the Georgian Dream is proposing. So we are hoping that both parties will do a better job of communicating with the public on these issues.
Q: Which developments affected the results in your opinion?
A: That is hard to say. Clearly, the fact that people continue to see the government as making changes that matter to them has to have some bearing on the fact that people say that the country is going in the right direction. They are different in terms of intensity on that issue, but in general, they say that they support the direction the country is going in. I assume also that because you saw a decline among people who describe themselves as economically worse off, also contributes to that.
Questions around democracy are always a little bit less clear, because obviously Georgians place a greater emphasis on freedom of speech, the media and hearing different views as the primary determinant. What has been changed in terms of democracy? We asked this question in two ways: The first was a yes or no question. The another was whether or not people agree with certain statements. Clearly, what happened here is that people not only had a more positive assessment on yes or no questions, but they also had a more positive assessment based on different statements: Either Georgia is a democracy already, but needs improvement or Georgia is not yet a democracy, but is heading in the right direction.
Q: Employment is an issue that concerns the majority of your respondents. According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, only 15% of Georgian citizens are unemployed. How would you describe such a difference between your survey and the official statistics?
A: We ask the people how people perceive themselves. So, it is outside the context of what the state defines as unemployed. Secondly, what we find in our focus groups is the people who do not have a dress code, who do not get paid through a pay-check, or are not working in a job where they are trained or educated, these people have a tendency to see themselves as unemployed even if they are making income as a taxi driver, a farmer or as an owner of a store at a bazroba. If you are selling your product by the roadside instead of selling to the distributor, you tend not to see yourself as being employed. We qualify that by saying that there is a difference between people who say that they are employed and people who are actually looking for work; that’s why the number is only 33%. This is because people who are part of the non-active labor force like homemakers, students and pensioners – they are obviously not people who are looking for a job. So, when added all up in the end, the difference between our numbers and the state’s numbers are 2:1. But again, these are self-descriptions and we know that there are differences in the way people perceive themselves and their economic environment.
Q: According to the majority of respondents, Georgia is already a democratic state, but there is room for improvement. At the same time, democracy is perceived by the interviewers as freedom of speech, media and free and fair elections. Despite this, only a minority of the respondents are concerned with the lack of democratic freedoms. What is your explanation?
A: This is a question of how they define democracy. The way we ask them to qualify that is by asking: what does democracy mean to you? One thing that many Georgians can agree on (almost 60%), is that democracy for them means the ability to hear different views, freedom of speech/media. The next two values that are consistently in close proximity are equality before the law and protection of human rights. But clearly, people make a distinction between how they value those qualities versus the first issue. So, all we can say for certain is that the vast majority of Georgians agree on what the primary value is.
Q: The majority of the interviewed disapprove of government’s measures against Maestro TV, Ivanishvili and Global TV. Still, approximately 47% of them think that the country is going in the right direction and support the government. Doesn’t it seem illogical?
A: They think that the country is going in the right direction and they think that the government makes changes that matter to them… this is not necessarily support for the government; these are different identifications. So, in terms of Maestro and Global TV, what Maestro and Global TV says is that first we ask the question whether or not people are aware of these issues; then we ask the question whether they approve or disapprove. What is interesting to us is that by a 2:1 margin, the people who are aware of this issue, a large proportion disapprove of these actions.
But you see the large number of people in both of these issues say they don’t know; and I will argue that is a functional effect that being able to follow all of the details of these two issues requires some attention. So unless you are someone who is really following that issue closely, you may be aware that there is a problem or that there is a controversy, but you may not feel as if you have enough information in order to pass judgment. What we can say is that among those people who say that they are aware, they are decisively disapproving of this action, but it is also noteworthy that a large percentage of people say that they don’t know.
Q: The main Georgian oppositional force Georgian Dream Coalition has cast doubts on the objectivity of the surveys conducted by NDI by questioning the methodology. Your comment?
A: The difficulty we have is that we are the most transparent in terms of methodology of any of the publicly released polls. For example, we say who is funding our polls; it is the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); we talk about the time period in which the polls took place; and we talk about what the margin of error is. We also mention how we go about conducting the poll in a much more comprehensive way that I believe any other entity does.
So, as a democracy promoting institute, we certainly feel obliged to transparency in that regard; but we would expect that anyone else who says they have a poll should face similar scrutiny, because too many times we find that whether or not someone likes a poll or whether or not they agree with its findings has no bearing on whether or not it has been methodologically conducted in an appropriate fashion.
On August 8, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) considered the actions of Maestro TV against Silknet, a cable operator, on the Must-carry principle and refused to satisfy Maestro TV’s claim. Instead, the GNCC called upon Maestro TV to provide the cable operator with all the requested equipment in order to be carried.
Maestro TV lawyer Dimitri Gabunia assessed the resolution as senseless based upon the fact that legislation passed pertaining to the ‘Must-carry’ principle doesn’t obligate news programming channels to supply cable operators with equipment necessary for broadcasting.
On the other hand, Silknet Chief Executive Officer Levan Buchukuri exclaimed that half of its subscribers can start watching Maestro TV anytime, meanwhile others can only watch once the cable operator receive the necessary equipment; he added that the only reason Maestro TV isn’t carried by Silknet so far is the channel’s unwillingness to cooperate.
The Must-Carry principle, which was launched on August 1, was adopted by the Georgian Parliament on June 29. The new legislation requires cable TV providers to carry all channels with news programming. The government has put this legislation into force for 60 days and the requirements will expire just before Election Day.
The ‘Must-carry’ legislation has continued the long-standing enmity between Maestro TV and Silknet. The dispute started on August 2 when Silknet, one of the most prominent Georgian cable operators, published an official statement refusing to carry opposition-minded Maestro TV in their broadcasting list unless the channel makes an official appeal.
In the same day, Bacho Kikabidze, Maestro TV’s general director, noted that the only company to which they would not make an appeal to carry their channel is Silknet, unless it apologies for causing the previous longstanding conflict between the two companies.
Maestro TV is one of the three most popular oppositional channels that broadcast in the capital. The others are Kavkasia and Channel 9.
The cable operator Silknet is the daughter company of the Silk Road Group, a Georgian conglomerate with business interests in transportation, telecommunications, banking and property development.
According to official data, Silknet has 65,000 subscribers in twenty-three towns across the country.
In the past, Silknet not unlike other cable operators has long been refusing to carry Maestro TV. Asked why Silknet was not carrying Maestro TV, Silk Road Group Chairman Giorgi Ramishvili responded: “We will switch it on when it [Maestro TV] behaves properly… If there is a constructive dialogue, instead of pressure, every problem can be resolved.”
With the Must-Carry rules in force, Silknet demanded special equipment from the channel to carry Maestro TV. The channel officials refused to fulfill the request and Mamuka Glonti, the Co-Owner of Maestro TV, expressed willingness to appeal to the Georgian National Communications Commission to take measures against Silknet if the cable operator did not fulfill its obligations by August 3 and include Maestro. Finally, the confrontation was re-directed to the GNCC which shared the position of the cable operator.
It seems that the rivalry between Maestro TV and cable operator Silknet will further deepen, but it is hardly imaginable that the main reason of such misunderstanding is demand for ‘appeal’ or ‘equipment’. It is more likely that the ‘Must-carry’ framework itself forces two organizations to confront one another.
The ‘Must-carry’ rules were first used in Canada in the 1970s and later in the US in 1997. The whole idea of the principle was the willingness of society to provide an electorate with comprehensive and diverse sources of information. Thus, every member of society could make informed and intelligent choices.
A lack of an alternative point of view has been seen by some Georgian NGOs, Transparency International, Amnesty International, the US former Ambassador to Georgia George Bass and other officials, as a big problem in the Georgian regions during the pre-election period. Consequently, these organizations and individuals have been supporting the idea of implementing the ‘Must-carry’ rules to provide Georgian voters in the regions with different approaches and information.
Originally, the Georgian government was opposing this by emphasizing that it is “meddling in private businesses.” However, on June 5 the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited Batumi and called on the government to implement the ‘must-carry’ principle. Consequently, the ruling party was forced to give up.
Silknet’s father company–the Silk Road Group, is closely tied with the government; on the other hand, Maestro TV is one of the most popular and influential opposition channels associated with the main opposition political force the Georgian Dream Coalition and, particularly, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
By not allowing the opposition media to receive coverage in the regions, the government is attempting to maintain the status quo outside Tbilisi. Meanwhile, opposition forces believe that bringing a critical opinion to the regions will help win over the hearts of the undecided voters.
While the conflict between such heavyweights remains unsolved, it becomes clear that the issue with Maestro TV and the Silknet cable operator isn’t just a business misunderstanding and has deeper political overtones.