On January 4, two leading Georgian private television companies announced a merger, suggesting to analysts that these changes in the country’s media industry reflect domestic political jockeying.
According to the deal, most likely concluded behind tightly closed doors, the owner of Rustavi-2 TV has bought 78 percent of Mze (Sun) TV shares. Most media experts agree that the ownership of a large media outlet in Georgia is associated with the political ambitions of its owners. Both Rustavi-2 and Mze are known to be grant-in-aid television companies, and the purchase of an additional television by Rustavi-2 owner, Kibar Khalvashi, has generated a wave of rumors. Some analysts view this move as an additional financial burden for Khalvashi, a person who has never displayed political ambitions or aspired to be at the helm of a strong media empire. Meanwhile, it is an open secret that Khalvashi is a close friend and reportedly subservient to the scandal-prone but influential Georgian Defense Minister, Georgia Irakli Okruashvili. Yet Khalvashi is widely perceived as only a straw man in front of Okruashvili and his political ambitions.
Contrary to expectations, Rustavi-2 has not become an outspoken mouthpiece of Okruashvili. This is likely the result, according to analysts, of President Saakashvili, who reportedly is weary of the growing influence of his Defense Minister.
The Mze television company also changed owners after the Rose Revolution. At that time, David Bezhuashvili, parliamentarian and close confidant of Saakashvili, controlled Mze. Bezhuashvili’s brother Gela Bezhuashvili is Georgia’s Foreign Minister.
Analysts are divided about the political effect of Rustavi-2 TV’s takeover of Mze. One theory suggests that Khalvashi, an apolitical figure, has earned Saakashvili’s favor by making once freewheeling Rustavi-2 into a pro-government outlet outside the orbit and influence of Okruashvili. This scenario is the likely reason for Khalvashi to extract Mze from Bezhuashvili, who allegedly had failed to tame what was perceived to be excessive criticism of the government on Mze’s broadcasts. Last July, under the cover of re-organization, Mze owners closed the daily political talk-show Archevanis Zgvarze (On the Verge of Choice) for broadcasting sensitive topics, including the mysterious death of Georgian PM Zurab Zhvania.
The re-organization of Mze resulted in a secretive redistribution of its shares, which made co-owners of Sakcementi, the company controlled by the Bezhuashvilis, shareowners of Mze.
Henceforth Mze is expected to broadcast exclusively entertainment programs, which, according to analyst Ia Antadze, will completely support the authorities’ plans to “lull the public vigilance” before this fall’s local elections. This theory is partially supported by the fact that Rustavi-2 still owes the state some $5 million, and therefore has limited financial maneuverability to assume control of Mze.
Yet this very fact has prompted other analysts to assume that Bezhuashvili bought a significant portion of Rustavi-2’s shares in order to weaken the Khalvashi-Okruashvili duo’s control over this popular media outlet. The ultimate goal of this deal, analysts say, is to restrict Okruashvili’s political ambitions. Last November, media speculation was rife about an anti-Okruashvili plot reportedly hatched by another group of Saakashvili’s confidants to limit Okruashvili’s influence (EDM April 22, November 3, 2005).
Bezhuashvili, who has long been known as Saakashvili’s sponsor, has always preferred to remain in the shadows and has never displayed any overt political ambitions. Zaza Tananashvili, director general of Mze, confirmed the purchase of Rustavi-2 shares by Bezhuashvili. The amount of shares reportedly varies from 22 percent up to 50, giving Bezhuashvili the opportunity to serve as Saakashvili’s eye in the new media holding.
The new television company will be the largest Georgian media outlet and a competitor to Imedi holding. The merger also unites television and radio stations and magazines, some of which are owned by an influential tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili. He has displayed relative political neutrality, but this will not last long. Indeed, previously Patarkatsishvili prohibited the broadcasting of sensitive material that implicated Saakashvili’s chief of financial police in abuses.
The intersection of business and personal interests of media owners with editorial control is a subject of sharp discussion. Georgian media moguls are widely known to control televisions as a “reserve arm” to ensure good relations with the government and secure business. Saakashvili’s government is well aware of the political influence of television and attempts to keep this type of media under tight control. On January 13, the court left in custody Shalva Ramishvili, co-founder of the independent private television station “202.” He was arrested last August on questionable charges of money extortion from a member of Georgian Parliament. The influential Georgian daily Resonance (January 17), referencing knowledgeable sources, claims that at the initiative of President Saakashvili several loyal government cohorts of media moguls Erosi Kitsmarishvili, ex-owner of Rustavi-2, and Zaza Shengelia, ex-director of state television, plan to seize the two remaining opposition televisions “Kavkasia” and “202.” Moreover, the new television company “Europe” established in 2003 still cannot start broadcast due to artificial barriers created by authorities, the television founder Temur Shengelia complained.
Media, which was quite instrumental in the success of Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution, now has unexpectedly been subject to increased pressure from yesterday’s allies. Georgian television stations, now involved in the political process, will be increasingly associated with “power games” in Saakashvili’s government. Yet, how the appearance of the new media holding will affect balance of power in President Saakashvili’s team remains to be seen.
(Chronica, January 16, 24 Saati, January 11, The Georgian Times, January 5-12, Akhali Taoba, January 11, 12, Civil Georgia, January 13, Resonance, January 5, 2004, TV-Rustavi-2, January 4)