Saakashvili keeps opposition TV off air, calls democracy movement "imitation"

By bne IntelliNews November 19, 2007

bne -

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has defended the violent crackdown on democracy demonstrations in Tbilisi on November 7, while keeping the main opposition's television channel Imedi off air.

"Of course, it's not very pleasant, friends, to beat them over the heads with clubs, but the government is the government," Saakashvili explained to Interfax, while calling last week's giant demonstrations "an imitation revolt with the goal of showing that Georgia supposedly does not hold democratic values."

A close Saakashvili ally, Minister of Reform and former Russian oligarch Kakha Bendukidze, also suggested the demonstrations had been held with the deliberate intention of damaging Georgia. "There is no doubt the latest events damaged the reputation, political image and economic policy of Georgia. If anyone tries to pretend that nothing has happened, that is wrong. I am positive that this outcome was the goal pursued by the people who started the whole thing," Bendukidze said in an interview published in the Monday issue of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Similar theories are being used to justify keeping the opposition TV channel Imedi off air, with charges brought against management following a police raid last week. Bidzina Baratashvili, general director of the Imedi TV company, ridiculed the charges brought against his company by the Georgian Prosecutor General's Office. "We will try to prove in court that the charges brought against our company are unfounded," Baratashvili told journalists on Friday evening, according to Interfax. Deputy Prosecutor General Nika Gvaramia declared at a news briefing also on Friday evening that the TV company's management colluded with businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili in a plot to overthrow the government.

The opposition is now rallying round the TV station as a symbol of democracy. Opposition People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili announced that the united opposition would resume its protest actions if the Georgian authorities prevent Imedi from broadcasting, according to Interfax. "Georgia will remain under a state of emergency until the Imedi television channel, rejected by Saakashvili, reappears on air," Labor Party leader Giorgy Gugava was quoted as saying. "Freedom of speech has ceased and has been locked behind the doors of the Imedi television company, which means that the state of emergency remains in place, violence will continue and more attempts will be made to usurp power."

Presidential poll

The opposition declared its campaign for the snap presidential elections due to be held January 5 would be launched Monday, November 19. "We are launching the presidential election campaign of the only opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze on Monday," a leader of Georgia's united opposition Jondi Bagaturia told the press on Sunday. Gachechiladze is the opposition's candidate in the election and in a pre-election poll held by the weekly Mtela Kvira he polled almost 2% more than President Saakashvili.

Saakashvili has been accused of using the snap poll as a political ploy to exploit the opposition's disunity, but Minister of Reform Bendukidze defended Saakashvili's actions as being entirely democratic. "The European democratic tradition demands that the president step down and seek a new mandate. The president will resign on November 20, and new elections will take place," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Saakashvili is replacing Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli with Lado Gurgenidze, head of the country's largest bank, Bank of Georgia. However, Saakashvili promised to make Nogaideli prime minister again if he is re-elected. Saakashvili and Gurgenidze are currently discussing the new cabinet.

The opposition, on the other hand, intends to abolish the presidency altogether if Gachechiladze is elected, with French-born Salome Zurabishvili, Saakashvili's former foreign minister, becoming prime minister.

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