|Georgia: "Wag the Dog" Style TV Report Has Mixed Political Impact|
|March 22, 2010|
By Giorgi Lomsadze
The panic over Imedi TV's phony Russian invasion report may be gone, but questions remain about its long-term effects on popular support for Georgia's government and opposition.
The answer to those questions could prove critical on May 30, when voters head to the polls for the first direct election of the mayor of Tbilisi.
No public polling data has been released that measures the March 13 report's impact on viewers, but many observers believe that it was intended to smash support for opposition leaders Zurab Noghaideli and Nino Burjanadze.
Georgia's pro-government national television channels, including Imedi, have regularly lambasted ex-Prime Minister Noghaideli and Burjanadze, the ex-parliamentary speaker and a leader of the 2004 Rose Revolution, for holding talks with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Both politicians have been compared with Georgian political figures who collaborated with Bolshevik Russia as it moved to take control of Georgia in 1921.
Neither Burjanadze, nor Noghaideli have sizeable followings in Georgia, but sociologist Giga Zedania thinks that the government hoped the report would keep their number of supporters from getting any bigger.
"Noghaideli and Burjanadze's approval ratings are next to zero and their visits to Putin have been deeply unpopular with Georgians, but perhaps the government found that the public reaction to their moves was not strong enough," said Zedania, a professor of sociology at Tbilisi's Ilia Chavchavadze State University. "And a preemptive strike was made to discourage any support for collaboration with Russia."
While Imedi is a privately owned television station, many are still convinced that the government was the report's ghost producer. Giorgi Arveladze, the head of Imedi's parent company, Georgia Imedi Production Group, is a former government minister and presidential chief of staff.
The government, though, has distanced itself from the hoax: Tbilisi Mayor Givi Ugulava and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze have denounced it as "irresponsible;" President Saakashvili took issue with its format, but described its content as potentially accurate.
Imedi has apologized twice to viewers and diplomats featured in its fake report (British Ambassador Denis Keefe and French Ambassador Eric Fournier) for its broadcast.
That apology and criticism, though, have done little to dislodge television's ongoing message that association with Russia is a potential act of betrayal.
Tbilisi State University sociologist Iago Katchkatchishvili believes that Imedi's report built on that subliminal message to deliver a powerful blow against support for the opposition in general.
"When you see that your world is so fragile, when you are told that a powerful enemy wants and can destroy your life anytime, you just have to turn to the single authority available, the government," Katchkatchishvili said. "In such a situation, there is no time for choosing between political groups or demanding more civil liberties. You just have to focus on how to survive and the need for security takes precedence over the need for democracy."
Two middle-aged men shopping at a Tbilisi supermarket the day after the Imedi broadcast expressed opinions that reflected that analysis.
"We go too crazy fighting each other for a free press and fair elections and everything," complained one of the men, who asked not to be named. "So, if Russia invades, there will be no one left to fight [the Russians]."
His companion went still further: if Russia invades, he forecast, "[a]nd the Americans and Europeans will see that Burjanadze and Noghaideli hang out with Putin, they will say 'These people don't mind being with Russia.'"
Using Russia as a scarecrow against the opposition is nothing new in Georgia. When opposition parties mounted a public campaign against President Saakashvili in 2007, the government released video and audio recordings allegedly proving that opposition members were colluding with the Kremlin.
Both then and now, many Georgians took such claims with a grain of salt. The Kremlin's public threats against Tbilisi and the 2008 war, however, have made them sound more believable.
Sociologist Zedania, though, argues that the Imedi report's "clumsy" construction ultimately had little effect on support for opposition calls for reconciliation with Russia or for government warnings about Russia.
"Everyone who was against close ties with Russia still feels the same way, just as do those who have no qualms about negotiating with Russia," he said.
Popular radio host Nino Zhizhilashvili thinks that the program's effects on Georgia's political theater can only be gauged after the dust settles.
"Maybe we will see the results of this during the [direct mayoral] election in late spring, or sometime later," said Zhizhilashvili, who also serves as dean of Tbilisi's Caucasus Media School.
For Tbilisi office manager Natia Akhvediani, the report's most immediate result is the need for greater responsibility from both the government and media.
"I don't need to be reminded in such an obnoxious manner that Moscow is a threat to us," said Akhvediani.
Editor's Note: Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.
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