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Monday, January 07, 2008

Victory in Georgia

Georgia's President has won an emphatic victory and been reelected despite the malignant efforts of Russia's dictator to unseat him. Observers confirmed the election was a model of fairness, an amazing statement given the besieged quality of the President. The Boston Globe reports:

Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat heading an election-monitoring mission sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said about two hours before the polls were to close that the election to that point appeared fair. "There does not appear to be anything to suggest there is an election being stolen," she said.
Regardless of the facts, of course, Russian's treacherous minions, of course, will not accept any result other than their own victory, and plan to continue the street protests that precipitated the elections in the first place. With that in mind, it's wise to remember just who these "opposition" leaders really are.

Writing in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vladimir Socor explains how pro-Kremlin oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili sought to upset Georgia's apple cart. Remember, this is EXACTLY the kind of thing the Kremlin hypocritically accuses Boris Berezovsky of doing, but when it is done on Russia's behalf then the Kremlin has no problem with it whatsoever.

Part I: Violence and Corruption

Video and audio recordings released by the Georgian government on December 24 and 25 indicate that Badri Patarkatsishvili—the multibillionaire media tycoon and presidential candidate—intended to finance an operation to overthrow Georgia’s government in the wake of the January 5 presidential election.

The recordings show meetings held by Patarkatsishvili, his election campaign manager Valeri Gelbakhiani (a sitting parliamentary deputy and former senior prosecutor), and election campaign staffer Maria Gabunia (a former judge)—at their initiative—with Irakli Kodua, head of the Georgian Interior Ministry’s Special Operations Department, whom they tried to recruit for their operation. Kodua reported these conversations to the Georgian government at every step.

Held from December 17 to 23, the meetings were covertly recorded by Georgian authorities with due judicial authorization in Tbilisi, and with the consent of British authorities in London, where Patarkatsishvili is currently based. The Georgian government showed the recordings to chiefs of diplomatic missions in Tbilisi before releasing the key portions via websites and television channels, with accompanying transcripts in English translation.

On December 17, Gabunia met at her request with Kodua and offered him $100 million for an operation whereby police units under Kodua’s command would help to overthrow the government in the wake of the January 5 election. Gabunia made the offer ostensibly on Gelbakhiani’s behalf and proposed that they meet for more elaborate discussions.

On December 18 and 21, Gelbakhiani and Gabunia together met with Kodua and outlined to him the post-election scenario they envisioned. Gelbakhiani made clear that Patarkatsishvili had authorized that scenario and the $100 million offer. On December 19 Gelbakhiani flew to meet with Patarkatsishvili in London and, back in Tbilisi on December 21, dispatched Kodua to a meeting with Patarkatsishvili in the latter’s mansion near London on December 23.

Patarkatsishvili and Gelbakhiani discussed their plan at some length in these meetings. They made clear that they expected Mikheil Saakashvili to win re-election as president on January 5. Consequently, on January 6, opposition members of the Central Electoral Commission would refuse to certify the election’s outcome, claiming fraud. The opposition would appeal to international organizations and foreign embassies and governments to not accept the election as free and fair. Gelbakhiani was to coordinate the internal aspects—and Patarkatsishvili the international—of this operation.

The two said that they would go ahead with this scenario even if Saakashvili won a free and fair election. The goal was to prevent recognition of the election’s outcome. They insisted that creating the perception that the election was rigged—as well as fostering the corresponding atmosphere internally and internationally—could be decisive. They expected that such pressure would cause the government and Saakashvili’s inner circle to split and collapse.

The conspirators planned on the help of Imedi Television to mobilize public protests, repeatedly citing Patarkatsishvili’s personal links with the channel’s Georgian management (thus belying Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s claim that it exercises operational control over the channel). They planned on thousands of demonstrators gathering in downtown Tbilisi on January 6 and 7, some of them attempting forcibly to enter the parliament and key government buildings. Patarkatsishvili and Gelbakhiani expressed confidence that rowdy elements in these crowds, as well as alcohol consumption, could escalate the events beyond the control of the authorities.

At this juncture Kodua would come into play, they said. Kodua would use the police units under his command to seize the office of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, arresting or shooting him and his entourage if necessary, so as to paralyze police resistance to the riots. Moreover, Kodua would appear on television, showing sacks full of fake election ballots and claiming that he had refused government orders to stuff the ballots into election boxes. Imedi TV was prepared to immediately turn Kodua into a “national hero,” Patarkatsishvili said. This should raise public protests to fever pitch and “the world should see that people are coming out to protect their rights.”

He confirmed the promise to pay $100 million, starting with a personal prepayment to Kodua and continuing with disbursements for the operation as it unfolded. Patarkatsishvili would immediately begin the disbursements from his office in Israel through a trusted aide whom he identified as Anatoly Motkin, adding that Motkin is also his liaison with Imedi TV.

Patarkatsishvili also said that he intended to contact unspecified individuals for information on the political situation in the army.

Furthermore, as part of the plot the Patarkatsishvili campaign would finance protests in Georgia’s provinces by tens of thousands of former members of Aslan Abashidze’s dissolved party, Revival, to strengthen the official opposition after January 5. Gelbakhiani, a former Revival parliamentary deputy, claimed that the Patarkatsishvili campaign had recently organized and financed a wide network of supporters of former Revival members, presumably through Gelbakhiani’s contacts.

Thus, the plotters talked about arranging incidents at selected polling stations—for example, “unknown persons” stealing or setting fire to ballot boxes, or ransacking the stations—and then blaming such incidents on the government. At many other polling stations, they predicted, opposition representatives would refuse to sign the ballot-counting protocols in any case, thus throwing the election into doubt. Patarkatsishvili and Gelbakhiani were confident that such actions could succeed because the police force would be too small to protect all of Georgia’s 4,000 polling stations from incidents; and because the opposition, holding as it does one half of the seats on election commissions, can block the certification of precinct returns, which requires a two-thirds majority.

Following the release of the recordings, Patarkatsishvili acknowledged their veracity in an interview with the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal. Admitting that his $100 million offer was “absolutely true,” he claimed that his sole aim in planning this operation was to avoid violence and shooting (Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2007).

Similarly, Gelbakhiani claimed via Georgian television channels that he had sought in Kodua an ally who could prevent the authorities from “repressing peaceful demonstrations” after the January 5 election. Gelbakhiani was speaking by telephone from a location “in a neighboring country, near Georgia’s border” (Imedi TV; Rustavi-2 TV, December 25, 2007).

The Georgian Prosecutor General’s Office has launched an investigation into a conspiracy to change the constitutional order through violent means. Gelbakhiani has been summoned in absentia for questioning as a suspect. Such questioning is allowed under the law. However, issuing an arrest mandate or filing criminal charges would require lifting Gelbakhiani’s parliamentary immunity. Meanwhile Gabunia has been placed in two-month pre-trial custody.

Patarkatsishvili announced on December 27 that he is ready to halt his presidential campaign and to notify the CEC that he is no longer running for president. However, he would wait until January 4 before requesting the CEC officially to remove his name from the presidential election ballot. Meanwhile he continues to enjoy legal immunity, and his electoral headquarters remains operational.

(Recordings at; Georgian Internal Affairs website; aired on Rustavi-2 Television and other Georgian channels and monitored by the BBC, December 25, 26, 2007; Civil Georgia, Messenger, December 24-29, 2007)

Part II: Abuse of the Media

Imedi Television’s core journalistic staff is abandoning the channel, no longer tolerating its use as a political tool by its billionaire owner and presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili. On December 26 and 27, eight journalists from Imedi TV’s political department resigned, six as a group and two others individually. Their move followed the release of recordings that showed Patarkatsishvili preparing violent actions against the government—including the intended use of Imedi as part of the plot—after the January 5 presidential election (see Eurasia Daily Monitor,
Georgian Election Special, January 4). Two popular anchors of Imedi’s political programs had already resigned in October and November, respectively, also uncomfortable with Patarkatsishvili’s use of the channel for his own political agenda.

Following the latest defections, Imedi’s general director Bidzina Baratishvili and political director Giorgi Targamadze—close associates of Patarkatsishvili—announced on December 26 and 27 that the channel would be going off the air until further notice. They described the decision as a “temporary suspension,” not cessation, of Imedi’s broadcasts, which are to recommence when the channel’s ownership status is clarified.

Barely alluding to the recordings that expose Patarkatsishvili’s plans, Targamadze attempted to dismiss them as a “misunderstanding involving the channel’s owner [Patarkatsishvili]” and blamed the government for creating “absolute hysteria.” Trying to explain the recent resignations, Targamadze accused the government of “blackmailing” the journalists and their families, but provided no evidence of such. Revealingly, Targamadze alluded to Patarkatsishvili as “the owner” throughout his address from the Imedi studio and in follow-up interviews. Ostensibly on behalf of Imedi’s staff, Targamadze proposed that “the current owner” [Patarkatsishvili] consider selling his 100% ownership of Imedi, either to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp or to the channel’s staff. Targamadze asserted that discussions were underway both with Patarkatsishvili and with News Corp for a possible transfer of ownership (Georgia Today, Rezonansi, December 28; Civil Georgia, December 27, 28, 31, 2007).

Until now, Patarkatsishvili and the Imedi management had claimed many times that 51% of Imedi’s shares had been sold to News Corp in 2006-2007. Targamadze’s statement, however, implicitly admits that Imedi’s Georgian management had misled the Georgian government and public all along. The idea of “selling” Imedi to its staff cannot be taken seriously because the staff lacks the funds for such an expensive purchase. Such a proposal seems designed as a populist stunt, a means to preserve Patarkatsishvili’s ownership under a different cover, a lure to the remaining journalists to stick with the company, or is perhaps attributable to all of these motives.

For its part, News Corp never confirmed or denied its Georgian partner’s incorrect claims and refused to disclose the actual ownership situation to the Georgian government even after the November 2007 disturbances, which Patarkatsishvili’s management team at Imedi helped trigger.

On paper, News Corp has held 100% of the operating rights to Imedi since November 2007. According to the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal (December 28, 2007), it was News Corp that decided to take Imedi off the air, effective on December 26. However, Targamadze and Baratishvili described the suspension as their own decision.

A joint statement by six of the resigning journalists explained, “Since Badri Patarkatsishvili has been at the center of recent developments, it is unacceptable for us to continue working for Imedi TV, where our journalistic freedom can now be misused. For this reason we are now resigning.” Members of this group also made clear that they felt it necessary to quit Imedi ahead of disturbances that Patarkatsishvili said he was planning for the aftermath of the January 5 election. Nevertheless, the group took pride in its previous work for Imedi, praised Targamadze for allowing them purportedly “total freedom,” and condemned the temporary closure of Imedi on November 7 by the government, not mentioning however that the channel had incited disturbances in downtown Tbilisi (Imedi TV, December 26; Civil Georgia, December 27, 31, 2007).

Commenting on that joint statement, editorialist Eka Kvesitadze wrote that Imedi journalists had basked in illusions of defending a citadel of free speech with Patarkatsishvili, but after the November and December events they began realizing that they were being used in a political operation dangerous to the country (24 Saati, December 27, 2007).

The government takes the position—as stated by Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze and other officials—that the suspension is Imedi’s internal matter, but that the government hopes for an early resumption of the broadcasts. It is up to Patarkatsishvili to decide whether or not to sell the channel, and to whom, Gurgenidze said. The government makes no secret of its wish to see a change of ownership. It discussed this possibility with News Corp shortly after the November incidents and is willing to continue that dialogue (Rezonansi, Civil Georgia, December 27, 2007).

The Georgian government had suspended Imedi’s broadcasts on November 7 for instigating unlawful actions to overturn the constitutional order. The channel was able to return to the air on December 12, although far from fulfilling the government-stipulated conditions for reopening. Those conditions were: disclosure of ownership, financial transparency, adherence to professional and ethical standards, and an independent board of respected media professionals to monitor that adherence.

Although these conditions are normal ones in any democratic country, many Western officials and pundits urged that Imedi be reopened immediately and almost unconditionally. They seemed willing to overlook the fact that this channel was overtly being used since September against Georgia’s democracy and had been turned into a potential security threat to the Georgian state. They also misunderstood the issue as involving freedom of speech, whereas the real issue in Imedi’s case is defending the media’s freedom and integrity from abuse by politicians pushing their personal agendas. A growing number of Georgian journalists seem to understand this situation more clearly than much of the Western punditry.


Anonymous said...

"Although these conditions are normal ones in any democratic country, many Western officials and pundits urged that Imedi be reopened immediately and almost unconditionally. They seemed willing to overlook the fact that this channel was overtly being used since September against Georgia’s democracy and had been turned into a potential security threat to the Georgian state."

Now what does this remind me of?


Chavez and RCTV.

Anonymous said...

What do you make of allegations of fraud from the opposition?

The coalition backing Levan Gachechiladze, the principal opposition candidate, said that they had uncovered violations that invalidated up to 100,000 votes, more than the margin of Mr Saakashvili’s first-round victory.

Party officials told The Times that they had uncovered many discrepancies between vote protocols submitted to the Central Election Commission (CEC) from Georgia's 3,511 electoral precincts and records collected by their own monitors.

Kakha Kukava, a member of parliament with the Conservative Party of Georgia, which backs Mr Gachechiladze, showed two examples where numbers had been altered to increase Mr Saakashvili's total and reduce those of his rival.

A bundle of 200 ballot papers — all in favour of Mr Saakashvili and stamped with an official seal — were in a plastic bag on his table. Mr Kukava said that a supporter of Mr Saakashvili had been prevented from stuffing them into a ballot box at a precinct in western Georgia.


We must fight for greater democracy everywhere - in Russia, in Georgia and in the West.