Two recent controversies in Georgia – an ownership dispute over a TV channel and leaks revealing a coup attempt – might have foreign policy implications for the Kremlin.  

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili gestures while speaking during his meeting with the parliamentary chairman in Tbilisi, Georgia, Feb. 11, 2013. Photo: AP

Georgia’s fragile political balance has once again been put to the test. Two political shockwaves, coming in close succession, brought international attention back to this Caucasus country.

The first controversy involved a judicial ruling on an ownership dispute involving a popular Georgian TV station, Rustavi 2. This was followed by leaks in the media revealing plans for a coup attempt by Georgia’s ex-President, Mikheil Saakashvili. All of this culminated in a major political showdown for Georgia, with implications for Russian policy in the region.

What is Rustavi 2?

Rustavi 2 is one of the most successful private broadcasting companies in Georgia. Now based in Tbilisi, the service was founded in 1994 in the town of Rustavi, near the border with Azerbaijan, which serves as its namesake.

The company has a long history of political involvement. Known for its pro-Western perspective, it was in strong opposition to President Eduard Shevardnadze’s government in the 1990s. Later, it became the main outlet for opposition leaders during the Rose Revolution of 2003, which brought the United National Movement (UNM), led by Saakashvili, to power.

On Nov. 3, the Tbilisi City Court ruled in favor of Kibar Khalvashi, a former owner of Rustavi 2 TV, who sought to reclaim his shares in the broadcasting service through a lawsuit filed in early August. This resulted in 60 percent of Rustavi 2 shares being handed back to a businessman, who some suspected of manipulating the legal process. The move sparked widespread criticism from pro-Western political forces in Georgia concerned about a possible change in the station’s content.

The West also strongly condemned the move, warning of implications for media pluralism in the country. The United States has been following the case closely and American media outlets have also weighed in. On Oct. 26, The Washington Post published an op-ed from its editorial board slamming what it claimed was a “seizure of a popular TV station.”

The Georgian political context

The Rustavi 2 dispute comes amid an ongoing political rivalry in Georgia, between pro-Georgian pragmatists and pro-Western hardliners. Led by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and financially supported by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the incumbent Georgian Dream (GD) coalition is the leading pragmatist force in Georgia.

It advocates a more balanced relationship with the West, renewed ties with Russia, increased cooperation with China, and a peaceful settlement to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian disputes. Though originally a hodgepodge of parties with different ideologies, the GD has evolved into a social democratic political force.  An observer of the Party of European Socialists, the GD has been declared by Prime Minister Garibashvili to be a “socially-oriented” party.

The pro-Western parties in Georgia are comprised of three major political forces: the former ruling party UNM, Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats, and Davit Usupashvili’s Republicans. The first two groups are in political opposition to the GD.

By contrast, Usupashvili’s party is officially part of the GD, despite being increasingly at odds with it. These pro-Western parties generally oppose dialogue with Russia, which they view as “appeasement,” and see membership in the EU and NATO as a top priority for Georgia.  Domestically, they are center-right and liberal in their politics.

The GD has unsurprisingly faced vocal criticism from the UNM on the Rustavi 2 dispute. For his part, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has tried to play the role of the “mediator” between the pragmatist and pro-Western factions, called on the government to refrain from non-diplomatic statements.

“Current events damage the country’s democratic image and international reputation,” he maintained.

Perhaps in this vein, the court-appointed temporary managers of Rustavi 2 have offered the current owners the opportunity to name “any person to whom interim managers would grant power of attorney with full authority to perform all the executive functions required for smooth day-to-day operation of the TV station.”

One of the court-appointed temporary managers said during an interview with Imedi TV that the offer was made in order to “calm” tensions and “remove questions marks over the process that followed court’s decision on replacement of the Rustavi 2 TV management.” This offer was rejected by Rustavi 2’s owners on Nov. 8. On Nov. 12, the court temporarily reinstated Rustavi 2’s top management.

Saakashvili’s attempted coup?

Not only did the Rustavi 2 ownership dispute fuel political tension in Georgia, but also revealed information about an alleged coup attempt by Saakashvili, who now serves as the governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine, and who, on the top of that, is a wanted man in his own country.

Regardless, Saakashvili has always had Georgia on his mind. Indeed, wrote analyst Nicolai Petro, Saakashvili’s “ambitions in Odessa are best understood in the context of Georgian rather than Ukrainian politics.” Therefore, it was not a surprise that he might throw his hat into the Rustavi 2 case.

On Oct. 29, a wiretapped audio recording of Saakashvili speaking to former Georgian National Security Secretary Giga Bokeria was leaked by a Ukrainian website. The conversation included a discussion about creating a “revolutionary scenario” in Georgia in response to the Rustavi 2 case.

According to the leaked audio recording, this would involve “physical confrontation” and that “faces should be smashed.” This hit a sour note in Georgia, where memories of the 1990s civil war are still fresh, and sparked widespread public outrage.

“The Georgian population believes that [Saakashvili’s] place is not in Georgian politics anymore,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. “If you ask me, Mikheil Saakashvili’s place is in prison.” Official Tbilisi has launched an investigation into the recordings, which it views as part of a coup plot against the Georgian government.

This was not the first time that Saakashvili expressed a desire to regain power in Georgia through revolutionary means if necessary. In April 2014, the Georgian Interior Ministry claimed that Saakashvili and his associates were plotting a Maidan-style revolution in Tbilisi.

The Interior Ministry repeated this in September 2014, prompting Bidzina Ivanishvili to remark that Saakashvili and the UNM “want Georgia to burn in flames, because they are no longer in power.”

Then, in January 2015, Saakashvili vowed “I will be back” and said that he was “certain” he would return to Georgia “even before” the 2016 Georgian parliamentary election.

In addition to the Saakashvili-Bokeria leak, an audiotape of an alleged phone conversation between Saakashvili and singer Sofia Nizharadze was also released.

In this tape, the planned coup was reportedly discussed again. Georgian counterintelligence services seem to be taking the claims seriously, with investigations ongoing.

Read Russia Direct's report: "Frozen Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space"

Moscow’s view of the Georgian situation

What are the implications of the events — the ownership dispute and rumors about Saakashvili’s plans — on Russian foreign policy in the region?

In contrast to the reaction from the United States and the West, which responded with outrage to the change in Rustavi 2 ownership, Russia has been noticeably more cautious. Moscow views the Rustavi 2 case as an internal Georgian matter.  At the same time, it is watching developments closely.

Seeking stability in the Caucasus, Moscow ultimately wants to find a language of common dialogue with Tbilisi.  Both countries share common interests, including combating Islamic extremism and ISIS recruitment efforts, especially in the Pankisi Gorge and the North Caucasus.

Therefore, it would be concerned about any attempt — especially led by Saakashvili — to destabilize a government that has made dialogue with Moscow a key priority. In Moscow’s view, this would only serve to undermine the stability of the broader Caucasus region.

In addition, differences between Moscow and Tbilisi remain over Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian hardliners and several Western commentators contend that Russia is pursuing a “creeping occupation” of Georgian territory.

For its part, Moscow denies this, though it has recently concluded security agreements with the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in response to Georgia’s continued NATO ambitions. A high-level meeting between the Georgian and Russian leaderships and the full re-establishment of bilateral relations would help to ease tensions and prevent regional instability.

Georgia’s pragmatists support such a move. By contrast, the pro-Western parties in Tbilisi oppose it and instead favor a greater NATO presence in Georgia. This, in turn, has created fears among the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, who look to Moscow for protection.

As for Georgia, its international course is much less certain than it once seemed. While many people in the country are still waiting for a signal from the West, many more increasingly support diversifying Georgia’s options, especially with regard to relations with Russia and China. Broader global events, such as the Eurozone crisis, the situation in Greece, the conflict in Ukraine, and the nearby wars in the Middle East, have influenced this view.

In September, while speaking about Georgia’s foreign policy direction, Georgian Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili remarked that in addition to the West, there are “lots of other interesting developments taking place in the world, including of course in respect to relations with the east, new processes on the Eurasian continent.”

More recently, Georgian Energy Minister (and former football superstar) Kakha Kaladze met with Gazprom’s Aleksei Miller in Milan to discuss “diversifying” Georgia’s energy options.

How these developments will ultimately play out over the long run remains to be seen, but the region will continue to be a place to watch. Given the proximity of the Caucasus and Georgia to the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, the area will be of great importance for years to come.

The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.