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Caucasus Report: August 6, 1999

6 August 1999, Volume 2, Number 31

Is Tbilisi Seeking A Pretext To Neutralize Abashidze? The already tense and strained relations between the central Georgian government in Tbilisi and Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, have deteriorated still further in recent weeks. Abashidze recently protested the Georgian government's decision to delegate responsibility for imposing and collecting customs duties at points of entry into the country, including the port of Batumi, to a British company. He used as justification the 1921 Treaty of Kars (signed between Turkey and Soviet Russia), which provides for the duty-free import of goods from Turkey to Adjaria. Abashidze subsequently accused Tbilisi, first of imposing an economic blockade on Adjaria, and then of attempting to send army and Interior Ministry forces to the region. Georgian leaders have denied both those charges.

Speaking at a press briefing in Tbilisi on 2 August, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he had no intention of getting into a dispute with Abashidze, and that he hoped they would soon "find a common language." But the following day, Georgian Prosecutor-General Djamlet Babilashvili blamed leading officials from the Adjar Autonomous Republic for the near bankruptcy of the Georgian shipping line, which is based in Batumi, and currently owes some $100 million to foreign creditors. Babilashvili specifically accused Batumi Mayor Aslan Smirba, who is said to be one of Abashidze's closest associates, of misappropriating $120,000 belonging to the fleet, adding that a further $250,000 was illegally transferred from the fleet's London bank account to a fund controlled by Abashidze.

Three weeks earlier, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Georgian deputy parliament speaker Eduard Surmanidze as saying he believes that the Adjar leadership for years creamed off part of the merchant fleet's profits and used them, among other purposes, to finance Abashidze's Revival Union political party. The Adjar leadership, for its part, opened a criminal case in early July against the fleet's former general director, Bichiko Varshanidze, on charges of exceeding his authority, and the Georgian Prosecutor-General's office announced at the same time that it would launch its own investigation.

The Georgian merchant fleet meanwhile has been at least temporarily saved from bankruptcy by a $20 million credit from a German bank. But the ongoing investigation could conceivably furnish the Georgian leadership with incriminating evidence against Abashidze, possibly even grounds for his arrest. His disappearance from the political landscape would greatly augment the chances of victory in the 31 October parliamentary elections of the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia, and also Shevardnadze's chances of reelection for a second presidential term in 2000.

But it is noteworthy that on the basis of the evidence Georgian investigators have amassed to date, Adjar officials have been accused of misappropriating only approximately $1 million of the total $100 million embezzled. Further investigation could incriminate other political figures, possibly even some in Tbilisi. The circumstances of the sale in 1994-1997 of 20 obsolete vessels from the fleet also remain unclear. Last year Abashidze accused both Shevardnadze and former Georgian Premier Otar Patsatsia of malpractice in that undertaking--a charge that Shevardnadze denied. According to Varshanidze, part of the proceeds was used to buy food for the Georgian population, while the rest was used to finance repairs and modernization of the remaining ships. (Liz Fuller)

How Objective Are Georgia's Media? The upcoming Georgian parliamentary elections increase the importance of objective coverage by the country's media of political developments in Georgia. In the course of a round-table discussion convened in late June by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau, parliament deputy Ramaz Sakvarelidze, who is chairman of the parliamentary sub-committee on the media, and Republican Party chairman Ivliane Khaindrava, offered largely negative assessments of the Georgian media's professionalism and objectivity.

Khaindrava made the point that television is the main source of information for most of Georgia's population. He voiced approval that the independent TV station Rustavi-2 now broadcasts on state television's first channel and thus constitutes an alternative to state television that, unlike other private TV stations, can be seen all over the country. But at the same time Khaindrava expressed concern that state television remains under state control, to the point that it is the station of the leadership. The head of state television, Khaindrava pointed out, has the rank of a government minister, attends cabinet sessions, and "probably receives corresponding instructions and acts accordingly." Khaindrava suggested that it would be more appropriate to refer to "cabinet television" rather than "state television" in the Georgian context. That, Khaindrava said, is one of the reasons why the standard of coverage on state television is lacking, particularly as regards objectivity.

He went on to say that state television's coverage of domestic political developments aims to rationalize every action by the country's leadership and to create the illusion that whatever the leadership does is the sole correct action in the given circumstances. He added that television, like any other media branch, should aspire to the maximum objectivity in its coverage of the opposition, which, like the country's leadership, is an integral part of the state.

Sakvarelidze concurred with Khaindrava's criticism of the general level of television coverage of domestic political developments, adding that in line with the Western standards that Georgia undertook to adhere to on becoming a full member of the Council of Europe, "cabinet television" in the sense that Khaindrava used the term ought not exist. Sakvarelidze observed that in the West strict and complex structures exist to ensure that there is no direct government control over the content of programming on public television, which is financed from license fees paid by the population. But, Sakvarelidze continued, because of "numerous, mostly political constraints"--which he did not identify--no country in the post-Soviet space, with the exception of the Baltic states and Ukraine, has succeeded in making the transition from "state television" to "public television."

Asked to comment on the standard of the Georgian press, Sakvarelidze observed that journalists tend to adapt themselves to the tastes of their readership, which in Georgian conditions has led to the "boulevardization" of the print media. He bewailed the fact that the popular press is not complemented by "a strong academic press" that would cater for the intelligentsia who, he said, constitute one of the country's economically most disadvantaged classes.

Sakvarelidze rejected as inaccurate the suggestion that he and other members of the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) are dissatisfied with press coverage of that party, commenting that he does not think the press is any more lenient in its reporting on opposition parties.

Khaindrava, however, disagreed. In his opinion, most newspapers are "exceedingly well disposed" towards the ruling party and its activities, and he suggested, there are financial reasons for this. Specifically, he claimed that one nominally independent newspaper recently received a sizeable credit courtesy of the SMK. Khaindrava added that 4-5 years ago he was more optimistic about the future of the Georgian print media than he is now, because the level of professionalism has in his opinion declined over that time period and the press has become "more politically engaged." At the same time, he expressed relief that in Georgia there are still newspapers that "preserve a high degree of independence," in contrast to Russia, where "every major newspaper and TV station is financed by a specific political force." But those independent Georgian newspapers are in a more precarious financial situation than those that have a "master."

Asked to estimate how much power the "fourth estate" wields in Georgia, Khaindrava said that in general the power of the media is directly commensurate with the degree to which the media are able to mold public opinion and in doing so, to exercise some degree of control over the actions of the leadership. That, he suggested, is the most important function of the media. Unfortunately, Khaindrava observed, the press in Georgia does not yet fulfill that function. He further noted that the largest print-run of any Georgian paper is between 12,000 and 15,000, which is totally inadequate for a population of 5 million, many of whom cannot afford to buy newspapers regularly. In addition, Khaindrava pointed out, the overall mediocre standard of the Georgian print media, reflected both in content and in sloppy editing, means that readers do not take the press seriously--and until readers begin to demand higher standards, the situation is unlikely to improve. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "If the absolute majority of the people are living under the poverty line, that means that the state simply does not have a domestic policy. Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev does not have a foreign policy either. [...] Aliyev does not have a foreign policy because he knows what America, Russia, or Turkey want and responds with purely political statements or gestures. [...] That man is a diplomat, but not a politician. A politician identifies a problem and sets about trying to resolve it." -- Former Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, interviewed in "Nezavisimaya gazeta -- Sodruzhestvo," No. 7, July 1999.

"Azerbaijan is not ready for the settlement of the [Karabakh] conflict. It has its internal problems. The authorities there are unable to solve even minor problems. They're not ready for compromises because they have promised the [Azerbaijani] people that the region will be theirs. The Azerbaijani authorities must find in themselves the strength to make decisions. I find the political climate positive. [...] The problem is that the sides must come to a compromise and make a decision. This is not expected of Azerbaijan; not because it is preparing to conquer by force--it is unable to do so--but because the authorities are not ready to make decisions." -- Samvel Babayan, defense minister of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, interviewed in "Armenian International Magazine," June 1999.

"It is not an easy task to achieve a further improvement and expansion of bilateral Russian-Georgian relations. [...] Many aspects of these relations are in need of rethinking and analysis. We must chart new frontiers." -- Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, quoted by ITAR-TASS, 4 August 1999.