The saga of Rustavi Two took a few more twists in recent weeks as first the Georgian Supreme Court court ruled that control of the television station should be given back to its former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. In the following days the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recommended that decision not be implemented, restating that position in an appeals decision a few days later. The temptation on both sides to simplify the issues around all of this is strong. For opponents of the government, this is proof that the Georgian Dream (GD), now in their fifth year of in power, is authoritarian, tolerates no opposition and is ultimately just an extension of Bidzina Ivanishvili, who in this view, is the only real power in Georgia and has murky and nefarious ties to Moscow, or in the words of former MP Gia Baramidze, “perform’s Putin’s plans in Georgia.”
Supporters of the Georgian government see this very differently. For them,, this is a case of a court making a decision based on a reasonable assessment of the facts, thus constituting evidence of judicial independence. A statement by the government asserted, “(T)he ownership rights have been disputed in the court for several years now. This case has been judged by three instances of the independent judiciary and the final decision of returning the TV Company to its legal owner was made by Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court by unanimous decision of nine Supreme Court Justices.”
Obviously, neither of these interpretations are exactly right. While it is tempting to argue that there are elements of truth in both these positions, a more useful approach might be to point out that important insights lie outside of these two shopworn positions. It should, of course, also be remembered that ownership of Rustavi Two is in reality a complicated question. Moreover, the disagreement over who the rightful owner of Rustavi Two is grew out of an environment from roughly 2007-2012 when media ownership was generally a non-transparent web of relationships aimed at ensuring that the government had full control over the media. The shifts in the ownership of Rustavi Two during this period led directly to the current controversy. The fact that Rustavi Two is an important part of the media landscape today does not change that.
While Rustavi Two was has been a significant voice in Georgia, during most of the last four or five years it was essentially a mouthpiece for an opposition that was largely discredited by the Georgian people. This does not preclude Rustavi Two from having played an important role, but it was a far cry from say Woodward and Bernstein in the early 1970s. Being a voice of the opposition, however, is okay in a democracy and is part of media freedom. Similarly, harassing those opposition voices should have no place in a democracy.
A related point is that while Rustavi Two has often been outspoken, and less frequently eloquent, in its criticisms of the government, it has rarely been impactful. Rustavi Two’s constant, and thematically unaltering, drumbeat of criticism against the GD-that Ivanishvili is running the entire country, that the GD is beholden to Russia, that they have engaged in widespread election fraud and the like-must strike the government as dishonest, tiresome and annoying, but it in no way poses, or increases, a political threat to them. Therefore, any repression of Rustavi Two does more damage to the reputation of the GD government than anything Rustavi has said or done in the last four and a half years. It is not at all clear that the GD understands this, otherwise they would have sought a way to resolve the ownership controversy that did not threaten ongoing broadcasting from Rustavi Two.
More broadly, the most recent round in the long saga of Rustavi Two lays bare the extent to which democratic culture has not been internalized by Georgia’s political elite both inside and outside the government. Much of the tension could have been diffused, and much support could have been won by the government if a leader in parliament, or even the Prime Minister, had made a public statement, with support from his entire government, to the effect of. “Rustavi Two is a valuable part of media and political life in Georgia, but the rule of law is also important. We need to find a way to reach a compromise.” The Prime Minister’s proposal to establish an independent media ombudsperson "consisting of the most reputable international media rights observers.” is a step in this direction. Comments by President Margvelashvili stressing the need for free media were also very helpful. These statements may be helpful, but do not change the potential impact of the court decision.
Supporters of Rustavi Two have engaged in peaceful demonstrations stressing the need for free speech and free media in Georgia. Nonetheless, the speed with which opponents of the GD went back to the well of claiming the country is run by one Russian autocrat, does not exactly speak to a nuanced or deep understanding of democracy, or even recent Georgian history, on their part. Moreover, this argument got a fair amount of traction in the west in 2013 and 2014, but is no longer an effective strategy.
It is also becoming clear that the UNM strategy of securing strong allies in the west no longer really helps them and is a detriment to Georgian democracy. The UNM’s friends in the EPP and the right wing of the American Republican Party enabled them as in recent years they went down a rabbit hole of dysfunction, accusing the government of being Russian stooges and holding on to the bizarre belief that it was only a matter of time until former President Saakashvili was returned to power. Better friends of the UNM would have helped the party recover from its defeat in 2012 by urging them to come to terms with the problems of their decade in power. This is still the case today as UNM, or rump UNM, allies in Europe particularly have not simply pointed the problems this court decision raises for democracy, but have repeated opposition talking points and raised alarms about Georgian democracy that are not entirely proportionate to the problem at hand.
This recent Tweet from Jacek Saryusz Wolski, an MEP affiliated with the EPP “As expected, Georgia's government waited with takeover of @Rustavi2tv last independent TV until it got visa-free from naive EU” exemplifies this. It is perfectly appropriate to speak out agains the Rustavi Two decision, but a real friend of Georgian democracy might have spoken out with equal vehemence during periods of UNM led democratic rollback. A real friend of the UNM wold have helped them craft a more effective and forward looking post-2012 strategy. Instead, the EPP continues to throw rhetorical red meat to the UNM, while doing little to actually move Georgian democracy forward.
Georgian democracy will be stronger if Rustavi Two is allowed to continue to broadcast, but Georgian democracy will also be stronger when the rest of the world recognizes what occurred with regards to this issue between 2004-12. Although it is usually better to look forward than backward, it is often difficult to look forward if the past is misunderstood, in some cases deliberately, by those seeking to advise about the future. Western institutions, many of which now represent countries that are experiencing their own crises of democracy will have more credibility when they begin to recognize this.
A big part of the challenge for Georgia is that this case, like many major political issues is almost universally seen as a struggle between two political forces. There is obviously a great deal of truth to this, but it also necessarily makes it very difficult to arrive at solutions that are creative and strengthen democracy. For example, given the longstanding ownership problems related to Rustavi Two, the way to address this problem might have been to establish a committee of some kind on media freedom and ownership to ensure the survival of Rustavi Two while finding a compromise solution to the ownership issue. This would have been a big win for the Georgian government demonstrating their commitment to democracy, while leaving a loud but not particularly Rustavi Two in place. Instead, as is usually the case, the default setting of the same tired political fights won the day,
Georgia does not benefit from having every policy dispute or court case reduced to the same political question. When that happens, as it did again with regards to Rustavi Two, the merits of the case, and the positions of both parties, are obscured and a thoughtful solution conversation is all but precluded. The ECHR decision indicates that Rustavi Two will remain on the air, at least for now, but this issue, and the Georgian polities inability to constructively address it, is unlikely to go away.
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 region. 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.