Georgia’s Back and Forth Freedom Marches: The Case of Rustavi-2
The Supreme Court of Georgia recently ruled in favor of transferring the ownership of the nation’s most-watched nationally broadcasted television station, Rustavi-2, from its current co-owners, Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. If this decision was to go forward, the broadcast media landscape would be primarily pro-Russian and pro-government. Like its predecessor the United National Movement (UNM), the Georgian Dream (GD) government of Bidzina Ivanishvili confuses being pro-Western with being pro-democratic. Its desire to punish political opponents exceeds its commitment to freedom of speech.
In early March, the European Union (EU) agreed to grant Georgians visa-free travel. This agreement is a major victory for Georgians who care deeply about EU membership. This milestone reflects the progress Georgia has made since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Visa free travel is the most tangible Western benefit thus far for Georgian citizens, promoting integration into the European economy, and potentially improving their security as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted repeatedly to lure Georgia away from its pursuit of EU membership, most recently by promising his own visa free program.
This visa-free success was set into motion by the EU Association Agreement, which was signed in 2013. But Ivanishvili has made it clear that he is determined to join Europe on his own terms, as was true of his predecessors. The GD commitment to the rights of political opposition and free media is conditional. Ivanishvili has repeatedly made clear that he views Saakashvili, the UNM, and Rustavi-2 television as not only synonymous, but also as threats greater than Russia. Ivanishvili’s government has systematically built a dangerous narrative: the pro-Russian opposition is preferable to the UNM, the UNM was responsible for killing former PM Zurab Zhvania, UNM politicians deserved to be beaten, the UNM sought to disrupt the 2016 elections, the UNM tried to kill its own member of parliament. It is therefore no surprise that the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Khalvashi reflects the views of Ivanishvili’s team, going back to 2012, about returning the TV station to its “real owners.”
On March 1, only hours after the official diplomatic ceremony recognizing the new visa free travel regime, the Supreme Court announced that it would consider the Rustavi-2 case without an oral hearing and render a final decision. At approximately 8:00 P.M. on March 2, the court transferred ownership of the nation’s dominant television station, editorially aligned against the GD government and in favor of Saakashvili’s UNM, to Kibar Khalvashi, the brother of GD MP Pati Khalvashi. Khalvashi was not among the original owners of Rustavi-2, two of whom had indicated in 2012 they might file suit. But after the third original owner, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, died in 2014, Khalvashi brought the case forward in 2015. Khalvashi bought and sold his controlling shares in the early years of Saakashvili’s term. Despite questions about whether the statute of limitations to file suit had already passed, the complicated paper trail of Rustavi 2 ownership and Khalvashi’s Rustavi-2 history with former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Khalvashi won two lower court rulings before the Supreme Court decision.
The court’s ruling caps the rapid changes in Georgian broadcast media following last year’s parliamentary election. The Imedi Holding Group (IHG), named for Rustavi-2’s broadcast rival and owned by the family of the late Badri Patarkatsishvili, has purchased both Maestro TV and GDS, formerly owned by Ivanishvili’s son, Bera. Imedi’s editorial policy—understandable given its seizure by the Saakashvili government in 2007—is pro-GD. The board of the Georgia Public Broadcasters (GPB) selected the former producer of Ivanishvili’s political talk show on GDS, Vasil Maghlaperidze, as director general. He, in turn, announced that GPB will not have current events talk shows during the constitutional amendment process or this year’s municipal election. GPB, which had already made the controversial decision last year to participate in an exit polling effort with pro-government commercial media stations—all now members of the IHG—is unlikely to be a watchdog over government policy.
Georgian Dream supporters think Rustavi-2 is a bad actor (comparable to Fox News or Russia Today) and say that there is nothing noteworthy about these developments because they are a function of the courts and also say that Georgia has a diverse media landscape. But their assessment is based on the proliferation of anti-Western, pro-Russian media outlets: Media Union-Obieqtivi, which spawned the pro-Ivanishvili Alliance of Patriots; and Iberia TV, which also purchased Ivanishvili’s former television Channel 9 and is owned by the couple Zaza Okuashvili and Nato Chkheidze, who hold office respectively as a member of the Adjaran Supreme Council and Deputy Chair of Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee for the Alliance of Patriots.
The ruling would leave only two television stations that are not editorially wedded to the government or advancing Russia’s narrative: the relatively new Pirveli TV, owned by a former Nino Burjanadze ally, Avtandil “Chuta” Tsereteli, and Tabula, run by Tamara Chergoleishvili, who is the spouse of recent UNM breakaway party, Movement of Liberty – European Georgia (MLEG) leader Giga Bokeria. Tabula has been a solely online entity since it left Georgian cable networks in November 2016. In a country where most people receive their news from broadcast channels, alternatives to pro-government and pro-Russian narratives would become rare if the Supreme Court’s decision to switch ownership of Rustavi-2 was to stand.
It is ironic that in the same week Georgia was rewarded for its democratic progress with greater freedom of movement in Europe, the GD has raised serious questions about its commitment to media freedom and judicial independence. These developments have not gone unnoticed by the international community. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights (CoECHR) and Amnesty International have expressed concern about the continued politicization of the country’s justice system. These judgements about Georgia’s judicial independence have the potential to jeopardize both its own democratic and pro-Western aspirations.
As the Amnesty International report details, there are a number of cases that demonstrate the partisan nature of the judiciary, including the statute of limitations allegation that would have precluded Khalvashi from even bringing a case against Rustavi-2. Both the Amnesty International and CoECHR reports address concerns about the disparity in the prosecution and administrative penalties (which don’t require judicial sanction) that are levied against pro-Western opposition as compared to other political parties as well as the detention of former PM Vano Merabishvili. There have also been troubling allegations of pressure on judges. Two weeks ago, UNM activists were arrested at a public demonstration in front of Tbilisi City Hall after it was learned that the government had recently reimbursed the family of a Rustavi-2 case Appeals Court judge with $1 million lari (nearly $400,000 USD), which the government insisted was unrelated to the court’s favorable ruling for Khalvashi.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg initially ordered the Supreme Court’s ruling suspended until March 8, and on March 7th ruled that it would be suspended indefinitely. The government has responded by proposing the establishment of a Media Ombudsman. How that person would be appointed and how a government body could objectively monitor media that is either critical or supportive of the government is unclear.
The GD believes nothing which befalls the UNM or presumably the MLEG is unjustified given Saakashvili’s time in office. By his efforts to manipulate the judiciary and media towards his interests, Ivanishvili and his allies are following former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s and Saakashvili’s legacy of overreach. This shows a lack of fundamental change, in the government’s approach to the rights of the political opposition even though the GD has advanced the cause of European integration beyond what either of their predecessors could achieve. Despite knowing that the independence of Rustavi-2 was among the West’s top concerns, Ivanishvili’s GD is attempting to redefine the democratic values associated with EU membership. That would be welcome news—even if an unintended consequence—for Putin.
 This is not a quality unique to Ivanishvili, both Shevardnadze and Saakashvili were also interested in EU membership while retaining corruption/election rigging and similar punitive measures against the opposition, respectively. Also, unlike them, Ivanishvili doesn’t currently hold formal office, but operates as a grey cardinal.
 Television remained the main source of information about parties and candidates for 73% of respondents, followed by internet – 6% based on NDI polling.