Approximately two weeks have passed since the UNM (United National Movement) was defeated by its main opposition– the Georgian Dream Coalition, in the parliamentary elections. The country is already shaking from the political, economic and social fall-out. The media seems to be the first to feel the tremors. TV companies once forcefully taken from the legal owners have been returned to the original proprietor or are going to be subjects of litigation.
On October 17, Imedi TV, one of the biggest Georgian TV broadcasters, was returned to the family of the late Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who founded Imedi in 2003. According to the official statement made by Imedi on Wednesday afternoon, the channel is going to freeze news programming for a month until the Patarkatsishvili family rearranges the management and policy of the TV.
“Kronika [Imedi TV’s news bulletin] will go back on-air in the near future, as soon as the process of [ownership] transfer is complete; suspension of the news bulletins is only temporary,” the announcement said.
Before that announcement, members of the Patarkatsishvili family visited the television station’s premises with Ina Gudavadze, Patarkatsishvili’s widow, saying “I hope that we will again make this channel balanced, impartial and free.”
Imedi TV was one of the most controversial cases under the shadows of the Saakashvili government. The channel was forcefully closed by the government in November of 2007 as part of the measures to clamp down on Patarkatsishvili who was supporting the opposition protest rallies. He was charged with an attempt to plot a coup d’etat, while Imedi TV was blamed for encouraging unrest and calling on the public to participate in illegal activities against the government.
In later developments which have remained in the shadow, Patarkatsishvili fled to the United Kingdom where he was found dead and his business partner Joseph Key took possession of the TV company. This was followed by the transformation of Imedi into a pro-Saakashvili channel. The tycoon’s family filed for international arbitration, but in 2011, they withdrew their complaint without disclosing the details of their decision.
Various foreign analysts have noted the Imedi case as an example of the restriction of media freedom and democracy in Georgia.
Even though public interest was high, details of the most recent deal, based on which the Imedi TV will be “transferred” to the former owners– Patarkatsishvili family, have not been made public either.
Currently Imedi, which also includes a radio station, is owned by Georgian Media Production Group, a company in which 45% of shares belong to Giorgi Arveladze, the ex-minister of economy and the former chief of the President’s administration. 10% of its shares are owned by Joseph Kay; the rest is owned by two businessmen– Giorgi Korakhashvili (30%) and Giorgi Mikeladze (15%); the latter, according to Civil.ge, contributed 35,000 lari to President Saakashvili’s UNM party during the October 1 parliamentary election campaign.
Not only Imedi, almost all major television stations – the First Public Broadcaster, Rustavi 2 TV, Mze TV, Real TV, PIK TV, TV Sakartvelo are facing changes.
Russian Language PIK TV which is part of the state-funded Public Broadcaster, and was created to support the government’s friendly politics in the North Caucasus, has found itself on the edge of shutting down.
The fate of Real TV and TV Sakartvelo which had alleged links with the government is undecided as well.
Kibar Khalvashi, former owner of Rustavi 2 TV as well as Vano Chkhartishvili, the ex owner of Mze TV, have also expressed their wish to have their assets returned, which were taken from them in controversial fashion.
As part of these developments, came news on October 15 from the Ministry of Finance of Georgia, which announced a program that would allow broadcast companies to write off a debt after submitting an official request. Such amnesty was granted two-years ago when the former government wrote off the multi-million lari debts of the mainly pro-governmental broadcasters to avoid bankruptcy.
Lasha Tugushi, editor in chief of Rezonansi reacted critically, saying that this is a clear example of corruption and selective justice. Mamuka Glonti, the founder of Maestro TV also noted that Mikhail Saakashvili is trying to write off his own debts, because the majority of channels have been financed and owned by him.
Overall, at this stage, we are witnessing more media panic rather than media development. Both so called pro-governmental media and former government itself are taking drastic measures to somehow adjust to the new reality of the UNM no longer being the ‘boss’.
All these have once again confirmed that media, in particular the TV landscape, has been and is still a slave of the Georgia’s political situation. The Georgian Dream has announced its ambition to introduce greater freedoms in all aspects of life, including the media, and by the looks of things, there will be more fundamental changes made in media ownership and content ahead.
On October 9, the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the members of his political team met with president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili, marking the moment in which the Georgian Dream would take reins of power over the country, thus forcing the UNM (United National Movement) to step aside and become the parliamentary minority after governing the state for the last eight years.
The defeat of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 represented a drastic shift in the political, social and economic environment in Georgia, and at the same time it was the marked a precedent in the region when the ruling force recognized its defeat in the elections and allowed the political opposition an opportunity to lead the state.
Such dramatic events were considered by some domestic as well as foreign experts as an important step away from Georgia’s post-Soviet era towards democracy. This transition was symbolic of the positive changes occurring not only in Georgia itself, but in the whole region. Therefore, the worldwide media just couldn’t turn blind eye on the ongoing developments in Georgia. The BBC, CNN, RIA Novosti, Foreign Policy, The Times, Sunday Times – all these prominent magazines and newsmakers kept tabs on the vote itself, as well as the post-election events in the country.
Three main issues are under discussion in the international media: the reasons behind the UNM’s defeat, the incoming government, Georgia’s democratic transition and the country’s relationship with Russia.
What led to the loss?
“Indeed, defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him [Mikhail Saakashvili] and his country’s reputation,” notes James Nixey, Manager and Research Fellow, at the Russia and Eurasia Programme.
In his article ‘Georgia: Post-Election Analysis’ that Chatham House published on October 2, James Nixey concludes that the recognition of defeat was the only and the best way for Mikhail Saakashvili and his political team to “ensure that his [Mikhail Saakashvili] legacy is not entirely in tatters.” The reason behind total loss, according to him, lies in the “disappointing economic picture, the centralization of power and the small matter of partial responsibility for the August 2008 war.”
In the short paper published by the Georgian Journal on October 3, Mark Mullen, the former Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Georgia from 1997 until 2004, emphasizes two fundamental reasons behind Misha and the UNM’s decreased popularity among citizens of Georgia: “the punishment of those in Shevardnadze’s government and the amendment of the constitution on 6 February 2004.”
Defining the first reason, Mullen notes that “so many great things happened: the administrative reforms, the end of petty corruption, fixing roads and in general creating a real state. But at the same time, a large part of [that] was based on punishment. On treating people as if they were a problem to be rolled over rather than a constituent group to be listened to.”
The international media as well as local experts agree that Mikhail Saakashvili definitely played a role on improving democracy in Georgia, but the main problem of his was “accusations of authoritarian behavior masked as democracy.”
In the article ‘Democracy wins as Rose Revolution admits defeat in parliament elections,’ published in The Times Europe, Roger Boyes exclaims that “Bidzina Ivanishvili’s victory in the parliamentary elections has astonished the region.” According to the journalist, it seems that Georgia is on its way to shaping real democracy in the region where before the Rose revolution, no one could even imagine such a possibility.
In another report, the BBC’s Damien McGuinnes notes that “it is [parliamentary elections] a momentous day for Georgia– a day which strengthens the country’s democratic credentials.”
In another article published by BBC, Georgia’s election is described as “a milestone for democracy in the ex-Soviet state.”
By and large, the peaceful transition of power was welcomed by the international media; this fact has demonstrated that a Soviet country can become a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space and particularly, in a strategically important region.
Russia or the West?
Doubts about Bidzina Ivanishvili’s political orientation– which included questions of whether Georgia will replace its pro-Western orientation with a pro-Russian approach, was prominent in the minds of many during the whole pre-election campaign. Considering the international reaction, the international community expects that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition will be loyal to the old pro-Western approach chosen by the former government of Mikhail Saakashvili.
On October 3, The Sunday Times published an article by Maria Antonova entitled ‘Georgian Dream to ease, not end Russia’s nightmare.’ In it, the expert noted that there won’t be drastic changes in the political attitude between representatives of two states; the only innovations that could appear may be an attempt to more or less place the Georgian-Russian relationship in the scope of the world’s widely accepted ‘game rules’; but there can’t be agreement on the main issues such as the fate of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia.
Bidzina v. Misha
It’s no secret that personal aspects are still important when it comes to political developments in any country.
“More than 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West has become familiar with a wide variety of leaders to emerge in this space — Soviet apparatchiks, fierce nationalists and K.G.B. trained strongmen. However, Bidzina Ivanishvili nominated Monday as Georgia’s next prime minister, does not resemble any of them, not even remotely,” writes Ellen Barry of the New York Times in the October 8 article ‘Georgian Leader Emerges as an Enigma.’
According to her, “Mr. Ivanishvili provides a contrast with Mr. Saakashvili, a cosmopolitan charmer who speaks fluent English and intuitively understands what the West expects.”
In order to portray Bidzina Ivanishvili, she cites Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, as saying that the billionaire politician is a novice, and that has its pros and cons.
“The bad side is he is quite unpredictable and says some quite eccentric things. The good side is he is still learning and corrects himself. He is receptive to advice,” Thomas de Waal is quoted.
Hence, it is clear that the international media, as well as foreign experts, are in some kind of euphoria over the parliamentary elections and probable developments in the country.
And still, there are serious challenges for democracy in Georgia and the euphoria which exists in the West may further prompt opportunities for the crisis. Last time the West was in such excited state about the events in Georgia was during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Consequently, Georgia’s strategic partners overlooked some misdeeds of the former government which finally led to the crisis of democracy in the country.
By and large, Georgia expects that both the domestic and the international community will overcome its euphoric condition and begin a sober evaluation of the developments. It is up to the people to start pushing the new government to be loyal to democratic institutions and values.
News that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, refused to take part in the historic TV debates arranged by the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) on September 9, left many surprised and disappointed.
The debates, which were organized with support from USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), marked a precedent when the leaders of Georgia’s political establishment gathered to take part in a well-designed debate aimed at deepening and strengthening the ties between political entities in Georgia and Georgian society. The political figures invited to participate were all prime ministerial candidates: Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, Christian-Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze and PM Vano Merabishvili of the United National Movement.
Ivanishvili, who was busy with pre-election campaigning in the regions at the time the debates were due to begin, cited two reasons behind his refusal to participate. First, he referred to the participants as the ‘pseudo opposition.’ Ivanishvili doesn’t recognize the Labor Party and Christian-Democratic Movement as oppositional forces; in fact he publicly called them an ‘appendage’ of the ruling party. The second reason for his absence was that according to the Georgian billionaire, Merabishvili has no real power or authority inside the ruling party. Consequently, Bidzina asked to debate with the actual leader of the UNM, Mikhail Saakashvili.
The GPB debates were structured in such a way that featured less actual debating – obviously in an effort to avoid chaos, which tends to appear during direct debates between Georgian political figures. All participants of the TV debates were given questions two days prior to the debates. As a result, their answers to each of the four questions were essentially just prepared three-minute speeches. There were a total of four questions provided that covered unemployment, budget distribution, tax and fiscal policies and territorial integrity and safety. At the end of the responses, each participant was permitted to make a one-minute rebuttal following the opponents’ answers.
In their introduction speeches, the leader of the Labor Party Shalva Natelashvili, as well as Vano Merabishvili emphasized the absence of the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. “I think this meeting would have been much more interesting if all the candidates had participated. I think it would have showed more respect to voters and TV viewers [if he were present],” Merabishvili noted.
Indeed, the participation by all the main political forces in Georgia could have promoted civil awareness and increased the political importance of the debates. The Georgian Dream coalition is definitely the key opposition force in the country and the refusal of its leader to take part in the debates was a vote of no confidence, which in turn decreased society’s interest in the discussion.
Ivanishvili’s refusal to take part in the debates does make sense in the minds of his supporters however. It’s no secret that the real power inside the country is in the hands of Mikheil Saakashvili – not Ivanishvili. Misha is the main striking force of the UNM and it is he who enjoys the support of Georgian society. Hence, if the Georgian Dream and particularly Bidzina Ivanishvili plan to achieve victory, this victory must be achieved against President Saakashvili, rather than Prime Minister Merabishvili.
The leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, Giorgi Targamadze, was chosen to answer the first and one of the most important issues –regarding unemployment. According to Targamadze, there are three pillars that must be addressed to deal with unemployment: the first is fair tariffs/prices, as well as the privatization of the energy sector. His party plans to allocate one billion Georgian lari to address this issue. The second is the renewal of the agriculture sector via creating agricultural cooperatives. And the third is the promotion of small and mid-sized businesses.
On his behalf, PM Merabishvili emphasized the importance of creating the Ministry for Employment. According to him, the ministry is already working on shaping the list of unemployed citizens, as well as studying the job market. He assured the audience that they will make available comprehensive information about the professions that are in demand. Additionally, he underlined the necessity to further promote tourism.
The second issue had to do with budget distribution. Merabishvili reminded society that the UNM is going to hand out1,000 lari vouchers as well as plans to keep its word given to pensioners concerning increasing the state-provided monthly allowances to one-hundred dollars equivalent in lari all senior citizens.
On the same populist note, Targamadze claimed that Christian-Democratic Movement plans to allocate 0.1% of the Georgian budget (about 100, 000, 000 lari) to maintain the Georgian Orthodox Church which is considered to be the main pillar of Georgia’s well-being.
Lastly, Natelashvili further promoted the pre-election statement of the Labor Party “Take from the Rich, Give to the Poor,” which is based on the idea that the era of oligarchs and multi-millionaires must be ended and the country’s wealth should be divided between all citizens of Georgia. How this task will be carried out in reality Natelashvili never elaborated.
The final two questions touched upon tax and fiscal policies as well as territorial integrity and the safety of the state. As expected, the participants focused on Georgia’s relationship with Russia and NATO integration. Unsurprisingly, Natelashvili explained that if he becomes the new PM, Georgia will cease its path towards NATO integration.
In a nutshell, the debates lacked the essence of actual debates: however, the debates represented a huge step forward in establishing a democratic society in Georgia. The debates also highlighted the fact that the culture of debates must be further developed to create a foundation for having direct and comprehensive discussions between political figures and parties.
The public prosecutor’s office in Zugdidi, Samegrelo regioninterrogated Maestro TV journalist Nana Fajava on August 7 regarding an incident which took place earlier between Fajava and representatives of an unknown media organization based in the same region.
According to Fajava, as she was interviewing her subject, representatives of the unknown media organization were recording the process on camera. Fajava asked them to turn off the camera. They refused. Finally, she became upset and used Maestro TV’s microphone to hit their camera. The Zugdidi police department opened a case over the damage of private property.
Those people, Fajava said, while calling themselves reporters, had been following her for some time already and interfering with her work.
In the same day, Maestro TV officials published a statement condemning the reality that the Georgian police have been ignoring the disturbances of Maestro TV journalists by unknown individuals in the regions for a long time. The channel expressed regret regarding the incident and emphasizes that the behavior of their regional correspondent, Nana Fajava deviates from established ethical norms. Consequently, Maestro TV confirmed their readiness to “compensate” the damages caused by the Maestro TV journalist.
This incident once again demonstrated the deepening tensions not only between the political establishment but also between pro-government and pro-opposition media.
The government tends to support so called pro-government newsmakers such as Rustavi 2, Imedi, Samegrelo region media-organization and so on. These media agencies seem to have easy access to all members of the ruling party for comments and opinions and therefore are used as their key mouthpiece.
At the same time, some opposition media outlets like Maestro TV, Channel 9, Kavkasia and Info 9, which are described by anti-government forces as ‘independent’ or ‘objective,’ have a hard time obtaining information. The government vetoed interviews and direct contacts with such media years ago; and it has been PM Vano Merabishvili who broke the barrier between pro-government and opposition channels and gave an interview to Maestro TV. Still, newsmakers with a critical tone have to import a lot of data from pro-government media in order to produce news.
Since the end of June, the regional news agency Info 9 and some other oppositional channel journalists working in Georgia’s regions have been chased and disturbed by unknown individuals. These individuals have been introduced as journalists of different regional media organizations.
Ekaterine Dugladze, a female journalist with the pro-opposition news agency Info 9, noted that “They follow me everywhere by car or on foot, preventing me to move freely; they interfere with filming, come physically very close when making inappropriate remarks about my work and private life and ask questions in a non-stop manner.”
Later prominent international organizations such as Transparency International and Amnesty International called for the government to start an investigation regarding the incidents. This request has fallen on deaf ears thus far.
On August 6, Bidzina Ivanishvili the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, in his speech in Poti, called for pro-government media organizations’ journalists to stop “obeying violence”, regain power as the fourth branch of the government and “serve the public.”
“Time is running out,” he said. “We will definitely see the present authorities off on October 1 and the new authorities will definitely come; you [addressing the journalists] have little time left for proving to society that you are resisting lies, planted by one man [President Saakashvili].”
This harsh language also signals that the pre-election period will surely deepen the confrontation between pro-opposition and pro-government newsmakers unless a miraculous dove of peace appears on the horizon.
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.