Billionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili has turned his Imedi Television, which broadcasts across the country, into a stronghold of political opposition to the government. Along with that move in 2006, he sold a 49% stake in Imedi TV to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In October 2007, Patarkatsishvili sold an additional 2% to Murdoch and handed over the operating authority on Imedi TV temporarily to News Corp. in order, as he claims, “to avoid a conflict of interest between financing the opposition and operating Imedi TV” (Georgia Today, November 2). However, it is widely assumed that Patarkatsishvili retains de facto control, which, along with his co-ownership of the channel, does seem incompatible with his roles in bankrolling opposition parties and seeking regime change.
The other leading television channel, Rustavi-2, is privately owned and de facto controlled by the governing party. Officials from the government and parliamentary majority appear on Rustavi-2 TV while refusing to appear on Imedi TV. By the same token, opposition leaders are turning down all invitations to appear on Rustavi-2’s talk shows and interview programs because these leaders have Imedi TV at their disposal. They also appear on some talk shows of Public Television.
Thus, the opposition can choose from multiple television channels and apparently feels that it can afford to ignore one of them. Georgia is an exceptional case among post-Soviet countries in this regard. Meanwhile, the country is watching both Imedi and Rustavi-2 for political news and comment, with many — probably most — viewers alternating between the two channels with their respective slants.
The government and the opposition alike are closely attuned to Western opinions on the political situation in Georgia. Opposition parties (except perhaps two or three, out of 12 small parties in the opposition alliance) are trying to compete with the government for political approval in Washington and Brussels. Some opposition leaders are genuinely committed to the Euro-Atlantic orientation while others in the opposition alliance must support that orientation at least declaratively, given the strongly pro-Western sentiment among Georgian voters. U.S. officials such as Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Bryza have been meeting both with government officials and opposition leaders, in Washington and Tbilisi, during October and early November, while several Georgian opposition leaders have been received at the European Union in Brussels.
All sides to this debate emphasize the protection of the opposition’s rights and the need for a democratic opposition to evolve in Georgia. Meanwhile, opposition leaders receive a free pass, notwithstanding their inflammatory rhetoric and disregard for constitutional processes in seeking regime change.
Furthermore, the Georgian government’s attitude toward the opposition will influence the country’s prospects to obtain a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the alliance’s April 2008 Bucharest summit. Thus, the onus falls mainly on the government to guarantee stability and order as well as civil liberties in its handling of the protest movement. In this context, the protest movement involves a test for both the government and the opposition. The test is far more complex for the government, given its responsibilities generally and NATO aspirations in particular. The opposition’s test is the simpler one of defusing any perception of political instability that would jeopardize Georgia’s MAP goal.
The United States and other governments supporting this goal are especially keen to defuse the internal political confrontation in Georgia. On the other hand, some nay saying governments are beginning to cite Georgia’s allegedly unstable internal situation as an excuse for delaying Georgia’s MAP, whereas their real motive would be deference to Russia. Well aware of this situation, Moscow might seek to instigate elements in the opposition into escalating the confrontation with the government of Georgia.
With President Mikheil Saakashvili’s support, Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze has attempted to hold talks with the opposition alliance. The first attempt fell through when the opposition insisted that parliamentary elections be held in April 2008, which would be six or seven months ahead of the constitutionally mandated schedule. This seems to be the opposition’s most intransigent demand, designed to separate the parliamentary elections from the presidential election due in the autumn of 2008. Such separation could reduce Saakashvili’s locomotive effect on the governing National Movement in the parliamentary elections.
“Georgian authorities will not make or change their decisions in response to opposition rallies and pressures,” Burjanadze noted. However, she and Saakashvili are prepared to discuss other opposition demands, including amendments to the electoral code that could lead to an increase in the number of opposition seats in parliament.
(Civil Georgia, Messenger, Imedi TV, Rustavi-2 TV, November 2-5; see EDM, October 26, November 5)