Predictions that Georgia might replicate the Russian practice of taming disobedient media owners appear to have come true. The voluntary renunciation by Georgian media mogul Erosi Kitsmarishvili of his lucrative media business has rekindled the thorny question about how Saakashvili’s government treats the private media (See EDM, July 29, September 24).
On October 13, Georgia’s First Deputy Foreign Minister, Nika Tabatadze, unexpectedly announced that he would quit his post to become general director of the Rustavi-2 television company, where he had previously worked as head of the news division and currently is a 10% shareholder.
Tabatadze did not make secret that both Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and President Mikheil Saakashvili approved his return to Rustavi-2. “The discussion with them was emotionally hard, but finally they advised me to act in the best interests of the business,” he added. Tabatadze said that he would make changes at Rustavi-2 but did not go into detail. According to the media, Tabatadze has been directly assigned to head Rustavi-2 by Saakashvili with the single task of making the freewheeling broadcasting company fully loyal to the government. Tabatadze, however, claims Rustavi-2’s current general director, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, offered the post to him. According to Tabatadze, Kitsmarishvili is now going to have some time off.
Kitsmarishvili did not comment on the reasons that compelled him to abandon one of Georgia’s strongest media holdings, which he has nurtured since 1994. According to some sources, the real story is that Kitsmarishvili had to resign after sharp disagreements with the government, particularly Saakashvili and Zhvania.
As co-founder and president of Rustavi-2, Erosi Kitsmarishvili managed to make a provincial television station from the city of Rustavi, near Tbilisi, into one of Georgia’s leading broadcasting companies. This gave him a good opportunity to serve as an opposition mouthpiece, on the one hand, and enter into deals with the high and mighty on the other. Beginning in the late 1990s the information policies of Rustavi-2 have frequently aligned with the political interests of Zhvania and Saakashvili, who were known as the “reform team” in Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. In November 2001, when Ministry of State Security troops stormed the Rustavi-2 office to seize financial documents relating to charges of tax evasion, it was Zhvania and Saakashvili who championed Rustavi-2 and used the incident as an opportunity to stage an anti-Shevardnadze public protest under the pretext of defending freedom of speech in the country. The protest served as a dress rehearsal for the eventual revolution and further increased Kitsmarishvili’s reputation as a leader of a popular television company able to influence public opinion.
Thus, it was quite logical that Rustavi-2 played a prominent role in last November’s bloodless Rose Revolution by supporting Zhvania and Saakashvili against Shevardnadze’s regime. In fact, Rustavi-2 began to call itself “television of the winners.” But since the new government assumed power, Rustavi-2’s opponents have frequently criticized its for transforming into a pro-government television network.
Kitsmarishvili’s contribution to the revolution was acknowledged by offering him the influential post of president of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on February 24. Meanwhile, Kitsmarishvili likely assumed his pre-Rose Revolution efforts entitled him to claim special privileges in the post-Shevardnadze redistribution of power. His interests rapidly spread beyond the media industry to encompass oil transport, the Rustavi metallurgical works, and other profitable industries that had already been informally divided among different clans, including those close to Zhvania and Saakashvili.
Apparently, the government and the business establishment could not tolerate the newly emerged oligarch’s attempts to become a player into the oversaturated market. Kitsmarishvili reportedly threatened to withdraw his media support, and Rustavi-2 even launched a short-term anti-Zhvania information war by exposing his brothers’ questionable business deals.
As conflict between Kitsmarishvili and the government accelerated, troubles began to brew for Rustavi-2, Kitsmarishvili’s principal weapon. When tax authorities announced that Rustavi-2 owed the state and private creditors some $4.5 million, Kitsmarishvili was forced to announce that Rustavi-2 was bankrupt.
On July 19, controlling stock of Rustavi-2 went into the hands of Ajarian businessman Kibar Khalvashi, widely seen as a straw man for the influential Interior Minister Irkali Okruashvili and his entourage. Although Saakashvili publicly promised that he would not allow anyone to kill Rustavi-2, the fate of the broadcasting company and its owner was already sealed. On August 31, Kitsmarishvili resigned as president of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and gave up his ambitious economic plans. Sources say this move likely saved Kitsmarishvili from imminent arrest.
The Georgian media are speculating that Kitsmarishvili will leave Georgia either for Russia or Europe. Kitsmarishvili appears to have been pressed out of the Georgian media community much like the Russian media moguls Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, who also fled abroad. Indeed, the latest developments around Rustavi-2 resemble what happened with Russian NTV. The Georgian civil sector has unanimously assessed Kitsmarishvili’s departure as an alarming trend in relations between the state and media and a sign of increased fighting for influence between rival groups in the government and business.
(BBC, Kavkasia-Press, Civil Georgia, TV-Imedi, October 13; New Version, 24 Hours, Resonance, Akhali Taoba, Alia, October 14).