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Georgia: Imedi TV returns, but will Patarkatsishvili?

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Molly Corso
Publication Date 12 December 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Georgia: Imedi TV returns, but will Patarkatsishvili?, 12 December 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47838667d.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
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Molly Corso: 12/12/07

Imedi Television returned to Georgian airwaves on December 12, amid growing speculation over whether or not former Imedi co-owner Badri Patarkatsishvili will return to Tbilisi to launch his own presidential campaign.

Imedi's hour-long evening news program, Kronika, was the first broadcast to air since the station's takeover on November 7. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Introduced by emotional scenes of Imedi staff reentering the station on December 7, the newscast featured a review of events in the weeks after the closure of the television and radio company. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Station staff have said that damaged station equipment means that their broadcast schedule will be limited to three half-hour news slots per day, in addition to Kronika and a political talk show. Representatives of the channel also claimed that technical issues would limit Imedi's reach to households in and around the capital Tbilisi.

The station's closure has emerged as a focal point of the presidential campaign for Levan Gachechiladze, who is backed by a nine-party opposition coalition known as the United National Opposition Council. At a December 10 campaign stop in the Tbilisi suburb of Varketili, coalition leader Tina Khidasheli jubilantly held up an Imedi journalist's microphone to onlookers and told them the station's reopening was "your victory."

Whether or not Imedi's broadcasting return has a significant impact on the presidential campaign cannot be predicted. Its association with presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili, who has been under investigation for allegedly seeking to topple President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, was used to justify its closure, and remains an ongoing source of contention for the government and its supporters.

Patarkatsishvili, who lives in London, is expected to return to Tbilisi on December 14 to take over management of his presidential campaign. Although under Georgian law a registered presidential candidate cannot be arrested, Patarkatsishvili's campaign staff have demanded a guarantee for the tycoon's security. "We need a guarantee from the representative of the acting president, Nino Burjanadze, and at present we do not have such a guarantee," said Gocha Jojua, a member of parliament and one of Patarkatsishvili's campaign managers. "[W]e believe that the comments made by officials indicate that they will either arrest him when he arrives, or attempt to create such a situation so he cannot work."

Saakashvili campaign spokesperson Davit Bakradze termed the immunity demand "absolutely illegitimate."

"I would like to say that all presidential candidates are in equal conditions that are stipulated by the law. Correspondingly, neither the Central Electoral Commission nor any other structure can increase or decrease any candidate's personal security, given the fact that all this is regulated by the law, which places everyone in equal conditions," Bakradze said at a December 11 televised news briefing.

Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee chairman, Levan Bejashvili, a member of the ruling United National Movement Party, stressed that law enforcement bodies have to go through the Central Election Commission if they want to press charges against a candidate. "There can be exceptions only if an offender is detained on the scene, but even in this case, power-wielding departments should inform the CEC, which is to permit further investigation within three days," Bejashvili told journalists on December 11. "Otherwise, the detained person should be released."

Georgian media have reported that the tycoon has pledged to pay the population's electricity and gas bills for the next two years. Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili has countered that such a move could be interpreted as "indirect bribery of voters." Campaign staff have declined to comment pending Patarkatsishvili's return to Tbilisi.

In response, Saakashvili has also made overtures to pay the public's utility debts; on December 11, he "urged" the government to negotiate with gas and electricity providers to pay for customers in arrears.

Though analysts and local media have previously portrayed Patarkatsishvili's wealth as a formidable weapon in a political campaign, Tbilisi State University political scientist Malkhaz Matsaberidze notes that the allegations raised against the tycoon after November 7 have only strengthened popular suspicions of the reclusive Patarkatsishvili's long-term intentions.

"Patarkatsishvili does not have a big rating.... It would be better for the opposition if he did not run," Matsaberidze said. "It is good for Saakashvili that he [Patarkatsishvili] is running – his candidacy takes votes away from the opposition and discredits the opposition as a whole."

Opposition leaders believe the government is already trying to turn Patarkatsishvili's support against them. Parliamentary Defense Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze and other pro-government politicians have alleged that opposition candidates will use donations from the media tycoon to finance their candidacies. Several opposition members have flown to London recently to meet with Patarkatsishvili.

In a December 11 interview published in the pro-opposition daily Rezonansi (Resonance), Davit Usupashvili, a leader of the opposition Republican Party denied the allegations. "There was not a conversation about financing," Usupashvili said. "We talked about the fact that we must absolutely have a relationship and coordination, that we must use our resources as effectively as possible." Election observers backed by opposition parties were the focus of Usapashvili's comments.

"[W]e are both partners and competitors," he said. "For this reason, there was not a conversation about the issue of financing."

In a televised interview with journalists on December 11, Gachechiladze stated that he had taken out a loan from Bank of Georgia to finance his campaign.

Nonetheless, Gachechiladze's supporters are looking to Imedi, a station founded by Patarkatsishvili, to boost their candidate's standing in opinion polls against Saakashvili. The 43-year-old wine merchant, commonly known by his nickname "Grechikha," or "Buckwheat," has routinely been ranked in second place, though by widely varying margins.

That margin will start to narrow once Imedi, widely seen as pro-opposition, starts broadcasting again, argued Kakha Kukava, a Conservative Party MP and member of United National Opposition Council.

"This balance is preserved thanks to the fact that the population of Georgia has recently been receiving information only from television channels controlled by the government," Kukava was quoted as saying on December 10 in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

But some political analysts in Tbilisi believe it will take more than Imedi to improve the opposition's showing in opinion polls.

Political scientist Matsaberidze argues that Saakashvili has the best chance of winning the January 5 vote largely since he still enjoys the support of the "government apparatus." As required by law, Saakashvili resigned as president on November 25 to run for reelection.

With six opposition candidates running against Saakashvili, Matsaberidze noted, opposition parties have a splintered base of supporters. Aside from Saakashvili, the final list of candidates includes Gachechiladze, New Rights Party leader Davit Gamkrelidze, Party of the Future leader Gia Maisashvili, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, Patarkatsishvili and Hope Party leader Irina Sarishvili.

"If the opposition could unite and nominate just one candidate, then their chances would be greater," Matsaberidze commented. "They could not define who among them had the best rating before the election, and now they are going to let the electorate decide."

Giorgi Khutsishvili, founder of Tbilisi's International Center on Conflict and Negotiation, said voter tendencies in Georgia could also play against the opposition. Georgian voters have "traditionally and historically" voted for an individual rather than a platform, he added.

As the events of November 7 "fade" from the collective memory, new social programs offered by Saakashvili could further add to his popular appeal as a candidate, Khutsishvili noted, though hr added that many Georgians believe Saakashvili's show of concern could prove temporary.

"The National Movement is working actively ..." he observed.

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Posted December 12, 2007 © Eurasianet

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