A seizure of a popular TV station would be a blow for Georgian democracy

26 October 2015 / By Washington Post

SINCE A 2012 election led to a peaceful transfer of power rarely seen in former Soviet Eurasia, the Caucasian nation of Georgia has skirted the edges of democratic norms. A new government led by a populist billionaire tried to prosecute the election losers, including former president Mikheil Saakashvili, and suppress critics in the media and civil society. But it was often restrained by pressure from Western governments, including the European Union, with which Georgia completed an association agreement last year.

Now, with its popularity sinking and a new election due in a year, the ruling Georgian Dream party and its leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, appear inclined to take more drastic steps. A businessman aligned with the party is seeking to seize the country’s most popular television station, which often airs opposition views, and has succeeded in winning a court order freezing its assets. A decision on the takeover bid is expected this week.

The government’s claim that it has nothing to do with the legal battle over the Rustavi 2 channel is disbelieved by most Georgian political activists and international free-speech monitors, who point to past instances of government influence over the judiciary. Their skepticism was reinforced last week when Mr. Ivanishvili gave an interview in which he denounced the station as a “propaganda machine” for the opposition United National Movement. The prime minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, went further, saying the opposition party was a “criminal organization” that has “no right to remain in politics.”

This burst of aggression seemed understandable in light of a new poll of Georgian political attitudes released by the National Democratic Institute. It showed that the ruling party’s support had plummeted from more than 60 percent in 2012 to 14 percent in August and that an election would be a dead heat between it and the opposition United National Movement. Disturbingly, the poll showed that a majority of Georgians were disenchanted with all political forces; a majority were unlikely to vote. Still, Georgia retains a competitive multiparty political system, making it unique in a region where corrupt autocracy is the norm.

Rustavi 2’s directors are warning that if the station is handed to government ally Kibara Khalvashi, the country’s pluralism will be fatally undermined. Mr. Khalvashi, who sold the station more than a decade ago, is attempting to have the court reverse the deal. Civil society and media organizations have banded together to fight the action, saying it “calls into question any dissent or critical opinions in the media.” Last week Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has distanced himself from Mr. Ivanishvili, said the dispute “threatened constitutional order.”

Fortunately, Western governments and international organizations have begun to weigh in. A State Department spokesman said last week that “we take seriously any actions that would give the appearance of compromising media pluralism.” The European Union issued a statement Monday saying “we expect that the principles of rule of law, independence of judiciary and media freedom are applied in practice in Georgia at this important moment.” It seems that if the crackdown on Rustavi 2 continues, not just Georgia’s democracy but also the ties it has built to Western governments and institutions will be endangered.

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