The recent court order in Tbilisi to give control of Rustavi 2 to people appointed by Kibar Khalvashi could precipitate one of the most troubling developments to occur in Georgia since the 2012 election. Silencing a major opposition voice, a very possible outcome to this Rustavi 2 saga, would make it more difficult for democracy to continue to develop in Georgia. The Georgian government has sought to defend itself against criticism on this issue by arguing that this was the decision of an independent court and did not occur with encouragement or support from the current government or Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has remained highly visible since stepping down as Prime Minister in late 2013, and who is widely believed to wield great influence within the government.
The problem with this position is that while it is possible, although not altogether likely, that the government had nothing to do with this decision, it is not very plausible. Since coming to power in late, 2012, the Georgian Dream (GD) government, has never relented or tempered their rhetoric against the United National Movement (UNM) and has consistently challenged the legitimacy of the UNM playing an ongoing role in Georgia’s political life. Additionally, the government has struck a similar tone with regards to both the media generally and Rustavi 2 specifically. A few months ago, it was possible to view these words as just that, poorly chosen and unfortunate words, not backed up by actions. Today that is no longer possible.
The threats to Rustavi 2 are bad for democracy in Georgia, but it also is a significant misstep on the part of the Georgian government. Media freedom is an issue that resonates throughout the west; and the events surrounding Rustavi 2 can be portrayed clearly and starkly, albeit not always entirely accurately, to the west in a way that is looks very bad for the Georgian government and the Georgian Dream. The almost universally harsh response from the west to these events is evidence both of the significance of the issue itself, but also of the lack of any reservoir of goodwill towards the Georgian government in western capitals. This latter problem has made it very hard for the government to make their position clear or defend themselves to the west. This would be challenging under any circumstances, given what is going on with regards to Rustavi 2, but is even more difficult now.
The western response is not unjustified but it also should be kept in mind that Rustavi 2, until recently, was not a truly independent media voice, nor was it a bastion of political and journalistic independence. It was a mouthpiece for a discredited political force, and had been playing that role, for the same political force, for around a decade. While this is true, it does not change the reality of Rustavi 2’s right to broadcast its views, and that abridging that right would be a blow to democracy.
Rustavi 2 has been biased, often practiced shoddy journalism and has been captured by political backers of the UNM. That explains why Rustavi 2’s presence was so annoying and frustrating for the GD government, but it is precisely shoddy annoying opposition oriented voices whose survival is most essential for freedom of media to be a reality. The government's actions are additionally puzzling because due to Rustavi 2’s strong identity with the UNM, their ability to damage the government was, in fact, quite limited. In this regard, Rustavi 2, was a benign annoyance, rather than a genuine threat, to the Georgian government. By seeking to silence Rustavi 2, the Georgian government has damaged themselves far more than anything the UNM-Rustavi 2 echo chamber could have done on its own.
The legal pyrotechnics around Rustavi 2 in recent weeks have also taken attention away from another important story, one that is much better for the Georgian government. The leaked recordings of former UNM officials, including the until recently current director of Rustavi 2, sloppily planning violent demonstrations in the vague hope of bringing down the Georgian government, showed the UNM to be something considerably less than the stable democratic opposition force they have sought to portray themselves as over the last years. While that story has receded from the headlines, it provides important context and indicates that the leadership of Rustavi 2 is not averse to working to overthrow the Georgian government not through reportage, but through violence and demonstrations. Somehow, that seems like a part of the political picture that should not be overlooked entirely.
While recent events are a clear, if potential, setback for democracy and media freedom in Georgia, to understand the repression of Rustavi 2 as either a clear reversal of a decade long trend of increasingly free media or evidence that the GD government is less democratic than its predecessor would be wrong. The former interpretation represents a grave misunderstanding of recent Georgian history; the latter is little more than a UNM talking point. The UNM’s decade in office saw a media policy that included, removing popular and often critical political talk shows from the air, violently seizing control of an opposition media station, excluding opposition voices from government controlled stations and, particularly in 2012, legal shenanigans aimed at precluding opposition controlled stations from reaching voters.
These points that the GD has implicitly tried to muster in its defense are accurate, but not relevant. It is cold comfort to the Georgian people, or Georgia’s friends and supporters internationally, that the GD is, on balance, better on free media than its UNM predecessor. This low bar was never the goal of the GD when it came to power. They campaigned in 2012 on the promise that they would bring democratic reform to Georgia, not just that they would be marginally better than their semi-authoritarian predecessor.
The international response to the court ordered change of management at Rustavi 2 has been clear and unequivocal, but it is also a reminder of the limited ways the west has of exercising leverage over Georgia. The critical statements have succinctly expressed western disappointment and concern about these developments; and some in Georgia have, rightly, pointed out that actions like this damage Georgia’s international image and reputation. The actual policy impact of this is less clear.
Political opponents of the Georgian government can argue that GD shortsightedness has cost Tbilisi its chance of receiving a MAP at the upcoming Warsaw NATO summit. While it is true that NATO countries are not happy about what they see as the shrinking space for media freedom in Georgia, it is equally true that Georgia’s chances of getting into NATO anytime soon were quite slim even before this event. Thus, NATO countries cannot threaten to take something away from Georgia that they were not prepared to give them in the first place, Although few Georgian leaders will say that publicly, many understand that to be the case. Thus the concern and anger in the west about the Rustavi 2 judgment is genuine, but it is very unlikely to lead to any major western country to cut assistance, walk away from Georgia or substantially restructure its relationship with Tbilisi.
This dynamic is not new to Georgia’s relationship with its western friends. During the UNM years, western countries occasionally expressed their concerns over the worst excesses of the then Georgian government, but even, perhaps particularly, at that time, this did not translate into changes in policy towards Georgia. The issue for the government and the opposition is not just policy but perception. It is clear that the UNM opposition is savvy enough to make this event something that defines the GD government to the west and that will, therefore, frame western views of the pre-election climate next year as well as the election itself-and the absence of opposition media, if the situation persists, will be a clear blemish on any election in Georgia. However, the UNM will also likely present this as an atrocity that far exceeds anything that happened under their watch. The prima facie absurdity of could well be lost on many in the west who have long felt more comfortable with UNM narratives and relationships.
The Georgian government now faces a problem that is largely of their own making. By starting a legal proceeding that threatens the survival of a major opposition media outlet after a three year period where former government officials have been arrested and indicted, and when GD leaders have made very intolerant sounding statements about media critics, the government has placed itself in a difficult position. They will not be able to explain their way out of this by detailing the legal questions, because for the moment nobody in the west, and perhaps not so many in Georgia, care about that. However, the GD has received similar criticism in the past, notably around the indictment of former President Mikheil Saakashvili; and that has passed too. There is, therefore, a strategy for the GD to move past this, but the more important question is how to get Georgia back on the path to meaningful media pluralism.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.