Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 98

The Georgian political establishment has reacted angrily to a one-hour documentary entitled, “Who is Misha?” about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The film was broadcast on Russian television on September 29 by NTV’s popular program “Soversheno Sekretno.”

The film was heavy on the details of Saakashvili’s student days in Ukraine and generously related anti-Saakashvili statements made by his Georgian adversaries and Russian hardliners. This slant was likely intended to send several unpleasant messages to Tbilisi and the international community, including: state power in Georgia has always shifted by force during the last decade; an impulsive Saakashvili might share the fate of his predecessors; an unstable Georgia locked in confrontation with Russia would discourage Western investments and thus make Georgia dependent on Russia in the visible future; Saakashvili is a Washington’s puppet propelled to power by Western money, but he might be playing a double game; Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia this August because the U.S. government had rebuked Tbilisi for failing to resolve the issue with Moscow; and the Georgian population faces economic hardships as a result of worsening relations with Russia. Meanwhile, the film did not hide Russia’s nostalgia for the days when Moscow could manage the situation in Georgia completely.

According to the film’s director, Andrei Kaligin, the film crew approached fourteen prominent Georgian politicians for interviews, but eight flatly refused, including Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze, and Minister of Economics Kakha Bendukidze. Kaligin concluded that today’s Georgian political elites did not want to speak publicly about current conditions in the country.

There seem to be several reasons Georgian politicians are reluctant to appear in the Russian media. First, they may fear that their comments would be deliberately distorted by film editing, a scheme used several times previously. A second, and probably more accurate, reason might be that the ruling party is quite sensitive and alert to any opinion that questions its performance.

Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party and a staunch opponent of Saakashvili, did agree to appear in the film, which particularly embarrassed the ruling party and its parliamentary faction. The Labor Party remains a viable opposition force outside of parliament, and so far, Natelashvili has been the sole Georgian opposition leader to be officially invited to Moscow by the Russian State Duma.

Natelashvili argued that the film had exposed Saakashvili’s Janus-faced approach: simultaneously serving Moscow and Washington but failing to balance Georgia’s relations with the two powers. Natelashvili also referred to a portion of the film that described Saakashvili’s service in the Soviet border troops, a post typically requiring each serviceman to commit to a lifelong collaboration with the KGB.

These statements prompted vicious attacks against Natelashvili from Saakashvili’s party and, surprisingly, from some opposition leaders as well. At a September 30 session of the Tbilisi City Council, the Labor Party faction was denounced as “Russian agents” and “traitors.” The pro-Saakashvili majority bluntly demanded the faction break with its leader. “We can’t maintain relations with those who stand next to Russia and Natelashvili,” they stated. The chair of the parliamentary committee for human rights, Elene Tevdoradze, said that the lack of a law on lustration, which has been shelved by Saakashvili’s government, would only multiply and encourage politicians like Natelashvili. However, another legislator, David Tkeshelashvili, said the fierce reaction to the film by some Georgian leaders was patently exaggerated and only played into the hands of the Russian special services.

At a follow-up news conference on October 1, Natelashvili explained that one of the reasons he participated in the NTV film was that Saakashvili had turned down his challenge for a live debate on Georgian television. Natelashvili welcomes the adoption of the law on lustration, which he thinks would help to make public the agreements that Saakashvili reportedly signed with KGB.

Although most Georgian politicians and analysts consider the film to be part of the information warfare that Russia has long waged against Georgia, others find alarming trends in the ruling party’s attitude toward alternative opinions.

Independent analyst Ramaz Klimiashvili argued that the hysteria whipped up around Natelashvili testifies to the extreme lack of democracy in today’s Georgia. He says that by restricting the freedom of speech and hunting for enemies, Saakashvili’s government is repeating the mistakes of former presidents Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze. “Saakashvili’s current entourage could be damaging for him,” he warned.

Impatience toward alternative views seems to have become the operating order for the post-Shevardnadze regime. On October 1, the ruling party’s parliamentary majority rejected the nomination of David Gamkrelidze, chair of the opposition “New Rights” faction, to the parliament’s watchdog group that monitors the government’s expenditures for special operations. Only three weeks earlier, Gamkrelidze had criticized the government’s performance in South Ossetia and demanded that the government divulge the sources of funding for that military operation.

The South Ossetian separatist government has announced plans to rebroadcast the film on local television, and Ukrainian television reportedly plans to do the same.

(NTV, September 29; TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, September 30, October 1; 24 Hours, Resonance, October 1; Week, Alia, Resonance, Tomorrow, October 2).