The Media: Soon after Saakashvili became president three late night discussion programmes were pulled from Imedi, Mze and Rustavi 2 television channels. Later, 2 independent TV stations – Iberia and the Ninth Channel – were closed. Action was taken by the authorities according to the (much decried) Russian method of charging media owners with ‘tax avoidance’. This practice came perilously close to shutting down Rustavi 2 when its owner, Erosi Kitsmanishvili was accused of getting above himself in business deals and Rustavi 2 was said to owe $4.5 m. in back tax to the state. Kitsmanishvili was forced out and replaced with regime insiders. Saakashvili had promised not to let what he called the “channel of the victorious” go down.
Now, most shares in the company are owned by Khibar Khalvashi, a friend of Okruashvili. 50% of the shares in Mze are owned by MP Davit Bezhuashvili, brother of Gela, Secretary of the Georgian National Security Council and another 50% by Vano Chkhartishvili, a former Shevardnadze minister. Mze itself has been censored – it was banned from showing the funerals of dead Georgian troops after the debacle in South Ossetia and, again, was “in trouble” for its reporting following prime minister Zhvania’s death. Its daily talk show was halted following the demonstration over the arrest of wrestlers on 30th June.
Plans were announced to revamp the state TV broadcasting station, including the introduction of rules that make former Shevardnadze era employees ineligible to work there. Independent media owners have complained that state-run TV receives government funding while simultaneously running advertisements which gives it an unfair advantage.
Journalists from the both the print and broadcast media recently appealed to international organizations to pressure the government into respecting their freedom. Somewhat bewildered, they claim to have been ‘betrayed’ as, overwhelmingly, they supported the ‘Rose Revolution’. Now, they complain that media freedom is much reduced since Shevardnadze’s day when they were allowed to criticize the government.
Not everyone fell for the ‘Rose Revolution’ propaganda: in 2004, former Georgian Times editor, Zviad Pochkhua, told BHHRG that he and the paper were harassed for asking awkward questions in the run up to the November 2003 election, calling it instead a ‘coup’. The Georgia Times remains one of the only consistently critical media voices in Georgia. Its present editor, Rusudan Kbilashvili, told BHHRG that for this reason, its circulation has risen in the past year. But, the paper has problems. It has been raided by the financial police and subjected to court proceedings over alleged copyright infringements. It also has difficulty attracting advertisements, particularly in its Georgian edition. For example, the US embassy and US chamber of commerce boycott the paper.
Opposition politics: BHHRG was told that few people had any faith in Georgia’s opposition parties: “the opposition is so weak it has no electorate”. The 2004 parliamentary election resulted in only one other party - the New Conservatives - gaining seats in parliament. BHHRG interviewed officials from this party before the 2003 election. Spokesman, Irakli Areshidze (who called himself a ‘neo-con’) described the party as free market, pro-business and pro-NATO. It is difficult to see how this recipe can appeal to poverty-stricken Georgians. In a normal country the disadvantaged tend to favour a leftist political agenda to defeat unemployment, energy shortages and unaffordable health care. Perhaps the New Conservatives were regarded as sufficiently unthreatening to the status quo to be allowed some seats in parliament. Otherwise, some supporters of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania, are rumoured to be sufficiently disenchanted to consider joining the opposition Republican Party. However, defecting has its risks: on 14th July 2005, independent MP Valeri Gelashvili, who had joined the Republican Party recently, was attacked in the street by masked men.
In April 2005 BHHRG interviewed a group of New Conservative MPs in the Georgian parliament. In the preceding weeks the party’s leader, David Gamkrelidze, had launched a series of withering attacks on the government, in particular, on the defence minister Irakli Okruashvili for misappropriating ministerial funds. BHHRG was told that, apart from the official budget in the ministry, money was raised unofficially. There were allegations that government-inspired heavies had broken into the New Conservatives’ party offices and stolen information “damaging for the government”, evidence “of senior government officials involvement with crime”. On a mundane level the party complained to BHHRG that they only had representation on two parliamentary committees – Human Rights and Healthcare and that they had ongoing difficulties getting information about legislation.
The New Conservatives have good connections in the US political establishment - Gamkrelidze and Areshidze are always asking the US to crack down on the Saakashvili government’s perceived excesses. Areshidze even appealed to Bush in an article published to coincide with the president’s visit to Tbilisi to provide Georgia with the “morally clear leadership” he has shown in Iraq! For the moment, the party has be content to play the ‘loyal opposition’. It has also received the green light to cooperate with the anti-Putin opposition, Union of Rightist Forces, in Russia, a relationship that also involves economic co-operation on privatization issues.
Former Saakashvili supporters in the NGO sector – the Liberty Institute and Young Lawyers – are now in opposition. David Usupashvili was elected chairman of the Republican Party in July 2005. They have recently joined the Conservatives to protest recent changes to the law i.e. changes that enable the president to chose all members of the Central Election Commission. Later, Saakashvili refused to accept demands for direct elections for mayors (including of Tbilisi) and other district heads. However, the New Rights MPs “didn’t participate in the vote boycotting the session” that passed the new measures which some voters might think was a questionable way of using their parliamentary mandates.
The opposition’s aim, in the short – term is to contest 5 parliamentary by-elections scheduled for October, 2005. Several have joined up to fight ‘primaries’ as a unified bloc, but not the election proper. The only party to have opposed Saakashvili from the outset – the Labour Party led by Shalva Natelashvili - has also joined the new, opposition coalition.
The most publicised act of the opposition came on 30th June when activists from, among other parties, the New Conservatives joined people protesting in the street against the arrest and pre-trial detention of 2 well-known wrestlers for alleged racketeering. The riot police were called and dispersed the demonstration with (what opponents call) excessive force. Fisticuffs followed in parliament bringing the chamber into further disrepute.
As one commentator put it: “The actual opinion of the people seems to matter less to politicians than their rank in terms of popularity among other prominent public figures”. According to a poll conducted by the International Republic Institute (IRI), the National Movement is still supported by 57% of the public. This seems incredible to BHHRG who found total disillusionment with most politicians during their two visits to Georgia in 2005. But, if the opposition does look like coming to power it will be when organizations like the IRI decides (sic) that it is time for a change. In other words, change is not in the hands of the electorate.
BHHRG also met Malxaz Guluashvili who founded a new movement, Forward Georgia, in 2004. Guluashvili echoed other opposition parties’ complaints about the difficult business climate in the country and its continuing, woeful situation for the poor and unemployed. He said that the new movement had “good relations” with the New Conservatives but, unlike them, he had been associated with Georgia’s dissidents – Gamsakhurdia and Merab Kostava - in the late 1980s. The Zviadist opposition has almost imploded as many of the former president’s followers supported the ‘Rose Revolution’ and were even thrown some (minor) scraps when jobs were handed out by the new government. No doubt, many of them were enticed into cooperating with Saakashvili by his cynical use of the Gamsakhurdia name to whip up Georgian patriotism.
However, Gamsakhurdia’s widow, Manana, remains implacably opposed to the new regime. She and a small band of followers hold small, but regular, meetings to oppose everything they see as anti-Georgian from the Soros Foundation to President Bush’s visit. They refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the new Georgian flag and resolutely cling to the old, Menshevik red, white and black banner. BHHRG talked to Mrs. Gamsakhurdia in the burnt-out ruins of the house of Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, Zviad’s father and a Georgian literary hero. The government is seeking to take the house into state control and turn it into a national monument. Manana Gamsakhurdia hasn’t been seduced by the blandishments of any political party. Unlike many of her late husband’s followers who gloat over the misfortunes of imprisoned members of the Shevardnadze regime she condemned torture of anyone whatever their past loyalty, including Sukhan Molashvili. However, as the media tells people to regard her as exasperating and eccentric, her often penetrating understanding of what is going on in Georgia is unappreciated and misunderstood.
 Zaal Anjaparidze, “Georgian Media Mogul Forced Out of Business” Eurasia Daily Monitor 15th October, 2004,
 “Government Controls Editorial Policies of the Private TV Stations” Civil Georgia 28th February, 2005 http://www.civil.ge/eng/,
 See, Human Rights Information and documentation Center (HRIDC) July 2005 bulletin, www.humanrights.ge,
 Irakli Areshidze “Bush and Georgia’s faded ‘rose’” Christian Science Monitor, 9th May, 2005 http://www.kvali.com/kvali/index.asp?obiektivi=show&n=374.