aarrrrrrggggghhhhhhhhh — I missed the biggest political event of the year

How could this happen? How I could be rewriting my book proposal and editing my film at home when 80,000 people were gathering in the heart of Tbilisi in order to show their support for the opposition candidate for prime minister/president????  I could have missed the second Rose Revolution, for pity’s sake.

On the other hand, some Georgian journalists didn’t know that a huge crowd was going to turn out to show their support for Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party. The national TV stations did not inform the public, but that’s no surprise; the national TV stations are controlled by Misha Saakashvili’s party. I’ve heard that word was spread via Facebook and via the TV station owned by Ivanishvili.

To learn more, please read this article in The New York Times. The photo also came from The Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/28/world/europe/tens-of-thousands-in-georgia-protest-president.html?emc=tnt&tntemail0=y

Although I can’t report, I will add a little analysis. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I believe that Saakashvili will “pull a Putin.” After 8 years as president, he will serve as prime minister. Misha has already convinced “his” parliament to change the constitution in order to transfer most of the power from the president to the prime minister. Until yesterday, I didn’t think that any party could present a significant challenge to the National Movement Party. Misha’s party simply has too much power. It controls the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government as well as the TV part of the “fourth estate,” the news media. But today–today the opposition has hope, and the National Movement Party is scared. The key event will be the Parliamentary elections in Fall 2012. Will Bidzina’s party gain enough seats to choose the prime minister? Or will Saakashvili’s party prevail? If Bidzina’s party wins, who will become prime minister? If Saakashvili’s party wins. . . well . . . Misha has not denied that he would become prime minister.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

One final twist. Bidzina is not allowed to run for office. His opposition party, however, introduced a bill that would change the constitution to enable Bidzina to run. Parliament passed the bill. We are waiting to learn if Saakashvili will sign the bill. If Saakashvili signs the bill, Bidzina will NOT run for office. Surprise!! Why not? Because Bidzina disapproves of changing the country’s constitution to benefit an individual, even if that individual is himself. Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering whether Bidzina would truly stay out of politics after 80,000 people in Tbilisi showed their support? Maybe. Maybe Bidzina will push another into the prime minister role and Bidzina will simply become an advisor to the government. I don’t think that the richest man in Georgia, with $6 billion or so, is seeking power.

Look carefully at this photo. Notice that it says that Saakashvili is building a new Georgia. Not the National Movement Party. Not all Georgians. Just Misha. Moreover, the location of this sign is quite remarkable. It hangs on the front of the Parliament building. Can you imagine the US Congress allowing President Barack Obama to hang a huge campaign sign on the front of its building? The Republicans would go nuts, and rightly so.

Misha and family watch lelo in Shukhuti

President Saakashvili joins a crowd in the middle of a Shukhuti street where the ancient game of lelo is about to begin; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Crowd gathers in the middle of the street for the start of lelo; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, watched the start of the lelo game with his wife, younger son, and government members. About 300 people played the ancient game, and hundreds of people watched.

I had been waiting by the stage, for about 45 minutes, in order to photograph Misha, but then the crowd began to gather in the street for the start of lelo, so I gave up on the idea of photographing Georgia’s president. Instead, I climbed a ladder to the roof of the bus stop, where I was confident I could get an overview of the start of the game. To my surprise, Misha did not address the crowd from the stage. He walked into the middle of the crowd in the middle of the street.

Earlier a member of the president’s security team had approached me. Nini Chakvetadze translated and I learned that the plain-clothed guard did not want me to photograph the convoy of vehicles that was going to transport Saakashvili. I said OK and then asked if I could photograph the President. The guard said, yes. So I assured the guard I was far more interested in photographing the President than some cars with heavily tinted windows.

TV station makes sensational news!!!!!!!!!!!

A man named Erosi owned a TV station called Rustavi2

Rustavi2 supported Misha Saakashvili and facilitated the Rose Revolution in 2004.

Rustavi2 continues to support Saakashvili and his political party.

Erosi later sold Rustavi2.

After selling Rustavi2, Erosi created a management company.

Maestro is a TV/radio station that supports the opposition party

Maestro’s owners hired Erosi’s management company to manage the broadcasting company.

Erosi hired Maestro’s owners to fill top-level jobs at the TV station.

Maestro got into financial trouble.

Erosi gave/loaned Maestro money, perhaps $4.5 million.

Billionaire and potential presidential candidate Ivanishvili wants to buy an opposition TV/radio station.

Ivanishvili probably wants to buy Maestro to function as his mouthpiece during his campaign for president .

The owners of Maestro probably want to sell to Ivanishvili.

The owners probably cut out Erosi from any deal with Ivanishvili.

Erosi says, wait, what about me? I put $4.5 million into Maestro and I paid the owners’ salaries.

Erosi fires owners from their top-level jobs at Maestro!

Erosi finds Maestro’s doors locked; he jumps fence and “invades” the TV station!

Erosi locks himself in a studio with the TV control room on the first floor!

TV station suspends TV broadcasting!

One of the station owners, Glonti, locks himself in a room on the second floor; fears eviction!

50 police arrive to prevent fight!

Journalists locked out of their TV station!

Standoff continues for second day!

TV operating under “emergency regime!”

All of Tbilisi waits as Erosi remains on first floor; Glonti remains on second floor.

Stay tuned!

So how free is the news media in Georgia?

There are many ways to answer this question.

I rely on Freedom House, which reports the press is “partly free.” It states: “The constitution and legal system provide for strong protection of freedom of the press. However, in practice the government has sought to stifle independent and opposition media, particularly broadcast media. The authorities have continued their efforts to control editorial and news content at all major television broadcasters in the country.” http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=251&year=2010&country=7827.

In 2010, Georgia ranked 126, and the Russian Federation ranked 175 on a scale of press freedom (#1 is the most free; #196 is the least free). In 2011, Georgia improved to 118. The three countries with slightly higher rankings were Senegal, Turkey and Uganda. The three countries with slightly worse rankings were Malawi, Moldova, and Columbia.

According to the Paris-based media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Georgia ranked 100th out of 178 countries in 2010. RSF compiles its annual survey based on 43 criteria measuring, among other violations, attacks and violence against journalists, as well as censorship and impunity enjoyed by those responsible for press freedom violation. http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2010,1034.html

Recent events also indicate whether Georgian press is free. On July 18, 2011, Georgia’s main newspapers published front pages without any photographs to protest the arrests of three photographers accused of espionage. One photographer said that he and his colleagues had been targeted for photographing the bloody aftermath of an opposition demonstration on 26 May when riot police clashed with protesters. “Our photos travel around the whole world and the press of many countries where Mikheil Saakashvili proudly presents the image of himself as a champion of democracy,” wrote Abdaladze. “He did not forgive us that we spoiled the image.” http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/2011/07/18/press-freedom-in-georgia-or-lack-thereof/

I’ll give the last word to President Mikheil Saakashvili. In April 2010, he said that complaints about press freedom in Georgia were “total bullshit.” He said: “I usually hear complaints that there is no press freedom live on television. Georgia has channels that are more or less sympathetic towards the government, tend to be sympathetic [towards the government], but there are channels, that are totally against the government, [they] hate the government,” Saakashvili said. “But even sympathetic ones are less sympathetic [towards the Georgian government] than CNN towards the Democratic Party and print media is 95% against the government. Everything is said in Georgia, there are no taboos; there are no libel, defamation laws.” http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22237

Please send more ties to Misha

I think that Mikheil Saakashvili is getting more nervous every day about the upcoming elections. Then again, maybe it is just coincidence that Georgian police stopped a Cartu Bank vehicle owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili and then seized the cash (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24047). If Misha is not concerned about the upcoming elections, then he should be concerned about the negative publicity his party is gaining every time it blocks Ivanishvili’s path to become a candidate. Either way, the president is chewing on his ties, so please help by sending him some replacements. I think that Saakashvili should show the world that he wants Ivanishvili to run for office. Then Misha should campaign hard so that his political party maintains control of Parliament. Then he should refuse an offer to become Prime Minister (if such an offer is made). If he follows my advice, he’ll become a hero and gain acclaim as the “father of Georgian democracy.”

Annnd in this corner . . . the President . . . MIIIIISSSHHHHAAAAAA

Misha Saakashvili cannot run for president again in 2013 because he’ll already have served two terms. But let’s not fool ourselves, Misha is the “heavyweight champion” in the next election.

And . . . he may “win” the next election. He may pull a Putin and become the prime minister.

I’m a journalist, which means that I’ve been trained to suspect people’s motives. The result of such suspicions is that journalists are often cynical. But I’ll let you decide.

Here are the facts. Georgia is in the process of revising its constitution. A draft of the new constitution appears to concentrate power in the office of prime minister rather than with the president. The party that dominates parliament selects the prime minister. In May 2010, Saakashvili’s party, United National Movement, won 63 percent of the votes. Georgia’s parliament will continue discussing the draft constitution this fall. Coincidence? (http://www.rferl.org/content/Georgian_Opposition_Wants_Saakashvili_Barred_From_Becoming_Prime_Minister/2079394.html)

It is also difficult to hide my cynical nature when I think about a particular decree issued on October 12, 2011, a week after Bidzina Ivanishvili (the billionaire) announced he would run in the upcoming elections. In this decree, the Civil Registry stripped Ivanishvili of his citizenship (and, therefore, his chance to participate in the next elections). Did the government have grounds for its actions? Yes. Could it have avoided taking such actions? Yes (in my opinion). Will Ivanishvili regain his citizenship in time? Yes (in my opinion).

By the way, both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili support the United States. For a conspiracy theory on “how the US will replace Mikheil Saakashvili with Bidzina Ivanishvili,” read comments by the leader of the Labor party, Shalva Natelashvili, in The Messenger Online. (http://www.messenger.com.ge/issues/2465_october_18_2011/2465_gvanca.html).

(If you are wondering, the “shvili” part of their names means “child,” and many Georgian names end in “shvili.”)

I wonder if Misha is nervous about the upcoming election. If so, he might begin chewing on his tie again. I was looking for a copyright free photo of Saakashvili and found this image of him chewing nervously on his tie. He had been waiting for a television interview at the height of the August 2008 war with Russia and he was not aware that the camera was already rolling. Bad news for President Saakashvili, but good news for at least one entrepreneur. Oleg Panfilov, a supporter of Saakashvili, created an edible tie made of traditional Georgian dried plum puree. He calls them “Edible Reformist Ties” because they will “whet the appetite for democracy and freedom.” (http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/14990-edible-tribute-to-georgia-s-tie-chewing-president)