Georgia: NGOs Sound the Alarm about Bidzina the Broadcaster
The Turkish and Brazilian soap operas and scandal-sheet talk shows that deluge Georgian TV might need to move aside. To help guide Georgia’s national narrative in the “correct” direction, the all-powerful Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is making a new, “real-life” political drama series and also will host a political talk show.
The TV saga’s proposed title, 9 + 1 Years, has already drawn jocular comparisons to "9 & 1/2 Weeks," the erotic 1980s Hollywood drama that was a smash hit in the ex-USSR. But in fact, it refers mostly to the 2004-2013 rule of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, still ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s arch-nemesis . (The film may also focus on the Georgian Dream's first year in power, from 2012-2013; hence, the +1.)
The Ivanishvili-Saakashvili battle is certainly worth a dramatic interpretation, but 9 + 1 Years is expected to be a one-sided take on just how hellish Saakashvili’s nine years in power supposedly were. “Nine Years” has become a mantra that the ruling, Ivanishvili-created Georgian Dream Coalition repeats to outshout just about any kind of attack on its governance record, be it failure to fix the roads or the lethargic economy. To many observers, it also reflects the government’s failure to develop and articulate any other vision for Georgia’s future; a problem that is noted both inside and outside Georgia.
It was in that same vein that Ivanishvili in a recent television interview shifted away from a conversation about people’s worries about the depreciation of the Georgian lari against the dollar to focus on how Saakashvili’s opposition party, the United National Movement, allegedly continues to set the national agenda through the TV station Rustavi2, an outspoken critic of the Georgian Dream.
To fight fire with fire, Ivanishvili has set up his own think-tank, and is also planning a talk show to be aired on his rapper son Bera’s MTV-style TV-channel, GDS. The station will also broadcast 9+1 Years.
Ivanishvili claimed the talk show “will help the public make the correct analysis” about events in the country, and will push Rustavi2 off its perch.
Granted, political filmmaking is something of a tradition in cinema-focused Georgia -- as the mediocre action-film Five Days of August made clear under Saakashvili.
Yet, with a combination of his own policy wonks, television shows and civil society groups, Ivanishvili may be launching a media war against not just his political rivals, but against criticism of the government in general, some fear.
The billionaire said that he has commissioned reports on the chairs of top human rights and anti-corruption watchdogs Transparency International Georgia, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association.*
These civil society groups have taken Ivanishvili’s plans as an attack on what breathing space exists for impartial debate about the health of Georgian democracy.
Forty-six civil society organizations, including the Open Society Georgia Foundation, said in a collective statement released on February 2 that Ivanishvili’s words came as part of the government’s attempts to intimidate civil society. “We believe that the statement of Bidzina Ivanishvili is . . . a view of an informal leader,” they charged.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, largely seen as Ivanishvili's apprentice, has dismissed such fears, emphasizing that freedom of speech is alive and well in Georgia.
Time and the 2016 parliamentary elections will show how far Ivanishvili plans to go in picking a bone with civil society. But Georgian voters seem set to expect more of a propaganda-war about the past than a policy-debate about the future. And yet another bad film.
*The Open Society Georgia Foundation is part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is financed under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation - New York City, a separate part of that network.