Patarkatsishvili had set up his fully owned Imedi media holding in 2002 and the Imedi television channel in 2003. Given Georgia’s meager advertising market, Imedi was a money-losing enterprise, heavily subsidized from Patarkatsishvili’s funds. It cost him some $20 million annually, according to Georgian financial and law-enforcement authorities (Prosecutor General Office briefing, Civil Georgia, November 16, 17). That investment may well have aimed to build political leverage in Georgia as contingency planning, should Patarkatsishvili decide to use such leverage at some point in time. That point drew near in 2006, when Imedi TV moved from political neutrality toward opposing the government systematically.
Patarkatsishvili began financing activities by political opposition groups selectively in 2006/early 2007. A pro-Patarkatsishvili group in the Georgian parliament emerged and has since then developed into a party, “Our Georgia.” That group’s leader is Valeri Gelbakhiani, who had previously led the group of deputies from the party of Ajaria’s pro-Moscow leader Aslan Abashidze in the Georgian parliament. Giorgi Targamadze, who was also a leader in Abashidze’s parliamentary group, doubled at that time as a manager of Abashidze’s television in Ajaria and is currently the director of political programs for Patarkatsishvili’s Imedi TV.
At the same time, Patarkatsishvili’s relations with the Russian authorities improved significantly. From early 2006 onward, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office stopped requesting Patarkatsishvili’s extradition from Georgia. Patarkatsishvili then mediated the sale-and-purchase of the Moscow-based Kommersant publishing enterprise — centered on the influential Kommersant daily — between Boris Berezovsky and Gazprom, a transaction that would not have been possible without Kremlin approval. In January 2006 Berezovsky sold his controlling share to Patarkatsishvili, who proceeded to increase his own share to 100% and sold it in August that year to Gazprominvest, the holding of Gazprom’s non-gas assets.
In November 2007, after a long-running investigation, a Moscow court found Berezovsky guilty of embezzling assets from the Aeroflot airline in 1996-97 and sentenced him to six years imprisonment in absentia (Kommersant, November 30). Nikolai Glushkov, Aeroflot’s deputy director general at that time and a close associate of Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili, was indicted as an accessory. However, Patarkatsishvili’s name was no longer mentioned in this context. Cumulatively, these developments indicated some rapprochement between Patarkatsishvili and Russian authorities.
Andrei Lugovoi, the long-time chief of Patarkatsishvili’s personal security detail, seems to have been part of this rapprochement in some way. Imprisoned until 2004 for complicity in Glushkov’s abortive escape, Lugovoi metamorphosed into a businessman and visited Patarkatsishvili in Georgia. He made eight visits in 2006 alone, using a multiple-entry Georgian visa obtained for him by Patarkatsishvili’s charity foundation. On October 16, 2006, Lugovoi arrived in London where traces of radioactive polonium were found in all the hotels he visited. After meeting with defector Alexander Litvinenko in London, Lugovoi visited Georgia on November 2-3 for the last time. Litvinenko died at the end of November 2006 from exposure to radioactive polonium. During 2007, Russian authorities rejected Britain’s requests for extradition of Lugovoi to stand trial.
In December 2007 Lugovoi was elected to Russia’s Duma in the number-two spot on the list of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party — again, a move that would not have been possible without Kremlin approval. At his post-election news conference in Moscow (alongside Zhirinovsky), Lugovoi described Patarkatsishvili as “my friend” and an “absolutely decent and law-abiding man” and accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of having “demolished” Georgia’s relations with Russia (Interfax, Regnum, Rustavi-2 TV, December 5).
Patarkatsishvili launched the “Georgia Without a President” campaign in October 2007, as informal leader and self-declared financier of an alliance of nine small opposition parties. Aware that it could not defeat the popular Saakashvili through the normal process of elections, the alliance called for abolishing the presidential institution altogether. Patarkatsishvili has also called for dividing Georgia into ten “federal” units, which would practically dissolve the state.
As a presidential candidate, he has promised to spend $1.5 billion of his own money to subsidize electricity and gas consumption for Georgia’s population, pay out unemployment insurance, and finance other social programs, all within a period of 12-18 months after the election, if he is elected president in the January 5 snap election. Meanwhile he is openly discussing financial support to other candidates and parties within the nine-party coalition, consistent with his public vow to spend his entire fortune for regime change.
Patarkatsishvili’s claims to have sold 51% of Imedi TV’s shares to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp are not confirmed by any known legal or financial document nor by News Corp itself. The only confirmed transaction is the transfer of operating rights to Imedi TV, from Patarkatsishvili to News Corp, for a 12-month period starting in November 2007. Following the November 7 disorders in Tbilisi, which Imedi TV openly encouraged, the Prosecutor General’s Office on November 9 charged Patarkatsishvili with conspiring to overthrow the constitutional order. However, Patarkatsishvili had already left Georgia for London on November 3.
Meanwhile, his organization is campaigning freely in Georgia on his behalf. The Central Electoral Commission registered Patarkatsishvili as a presidential candidate on December 9 and law-enforcement authorities allowed Imedi to return to the airwaves on December 12 after a five-week suspension (see EDM, October 26, November 5, 12, 21, 30, December 12-14).