TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia plans to launch a Russian-language television channel targeting ethnic minorities across the Caucasus, in its latest challenge to Moscow's influence in the strategically important region.
Russia and the West are vying for influence over the region, a strategic crossroads at the threshold to Central Asia and criss-crossed by pipelines carrying oil and natural gas to the West.
The head of Georgia's public broadcaster, Gia Chanturia, said the company planned to launch the first regional channel in the Caucasus. "Its main goal is to talk about national minorities living in this region," he told Reuters.
Moscow is unlikely to look kindly on a Georgian-run channel broadcasting to its southern republics, where it has fought two wars against Chechen separatists in the past 15 years and faces a growing threat from Islamist insurgents.
Chanturia said the plan was in its early stages, and was spurred in part by the situation after pro-Western Georgia's five-day war with Russia in August last year.
"In a way the creation of this channel is linked with the processes in our country after the war last year and in the region in general," he said.
He said the channel would probably begin broadcasting via the Internet before moving to satellite.
Chanturia flatly denied media reports that fugitive Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky would finance the project, saying the claims were, "if not strange, then very stupid."
Berezovsky wielded huge political influence in Moscow in the 1990s before falling foul of then-Russian president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He now lives in self-imposed exile in London.
Berezovsky also denied involvement, telling Reuters by telephone: "This is not true. I repeat, it is not true."
Chanturia said the channel would be funded from the Georgian budget and would contain news from across the region.
Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway pro-Moscow region of South Ossetia last year after days of deadly clashes and months of rising tensions between Moscow and staunch U.S.-ally Tbilisi.
Georgian media reports say the project will involve a number of high-profile Russian journalists known for their criticism of the Russian leadership.