While in Britain billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili's recent death conjured up parallels to former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko's assassination in late 2006, at home it raised questions about the fate of his Georgia-based businesses, chief among them the beleaguered Imedi TV channel.
Patarkatsishvili died suddenly from an apparent heart attack at his home outside London late on February 12. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For the last two days the late financier's friends, relatives, celebrities and politicians have been heading to the downtown apartment of Patarkatsishvili's sister to offer condolences. Mzia Tortladze, Patarkatsishvili's sister, was seething on February 12, when reporters asked her what she makes of her brother's death. "I'll let you know when your government stops living in fear," Tortladze retorted.
Some politicians insinuated that the tycoon had fallen victim to the barrage of accusations concerning a coup conspiracy. Although an autopsy revealed that Patarkatsishvili suffered from a severe heart ailment, some opposition leaders in Tbilisi did not seem willing to accept the possibility that Patarkatsishvili's death was by natural causes. "I wouldn't trust Scotland Yard too much. They couldn't even investigate Princes Diana's death properly," Kakha Kukava, of opposition Conservative Party, said in comments broadcast February 14 by Georgian Public Broadcasting.
Comparisons to Litvinenko's death are not completely far-fetched. In a bizarre coincidence Andrey Lugovoy, the main suspect in Litvinenko's murder, and the man Britain wants extradited from Russia, once served in Patarkatsishvili's personal security detail.
Conspicuously absent at Tortladze's apartment were President Mikheil Saakashvili's supporters. In televised comments, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze expressed her sympathy to Patarkatsishvili's family members.
Giorgi Khaindrava -- a member of the nine-party opposition coalition that has opposed Saakashvili during Georgia's recent political turmoil -- flew to Britain on February 14 to help coordinate the repatriation of Patarkatsishvili's remains.
In recent months, coalition leaders had been frequent visitors to Patarkatsishvili in Britain. The tycoon was reportedly a major funder of opposition political activities. After the release of recordings implicating Patarkatsishvili in an alleged conspiracy to overthrow Saakashvili's administration, most opposition coalition members, including its presidential candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, distanced themselves from the billionaire and denied close financial or political ties to him. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Patarkatsishvili's sudden and unexpected death did not alter opposition plans to launch on February 15 a protest against the Saakashvili administration. Thousands of opposition supporters gathered in central Tbilisi for the opening of what its organizers billed as an open-ended demonstration. In addition to opposing Saakashvili's policies, his critics claim that the January 5 election was rigged. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We'll show them that we're stronger than ever, and we'll continue this rally until they give in," Gachechiladze said at the rally.
In the meantime, Georgian officials considered suspending the broadcasting license of Imedi TV, an opposition-oriented channel owned by Patarkatsishvili. The Saakashvili administration has portrayed the station as a component of Patarkatsishvili's alleged coup conspiracy. On January 21, Georgia's National Communications Commission (NCC) determined that the station, which has been off the air for over two months, had violated Georgian laws that prohibit a political party or a party official from owing a broadcasting company. In 2007, Patarkatsishvili suggested that he had transferred his ownership stake in the channel to media baron Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But this was never the case, and, therefore, Patarkatsishvili remained in a position to directly influence the station's political coverage, Georgian investigators found. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to the commission's January 21 statement, Patarkatsishvili's charity organization held a 15 percent stake in GMC Consulting, a 65 percent owner of I-Media, which in turn owned 100 percent of Imedi TV's shares.
Imedi briefly resumed broadcasting in December, but the release of a secret recording, in which Patarkatsishvili tried to coax a high-ranking Georgian official into helping him destabilize Saakashvili's administration, caused an exodus of station staff. Management voluntarily closed the station pending a decision on changing Imedi's ownership structure.
The NCC was planning to make a final decision February 15 on Imedi's formal suspension, but because of Patarkatsishvili's passing, along with lingering confusion about the channel's ownership structure, the hearing was postponed until February 22.
It is still not clear who is going to inherit Patarkatsishvili's fortune and businesses. His Georgian lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze told the Rezonansi daily newspaper February 14 that in light of Patarkatsishvili's death, the NCC has no grounds to suspend Imedi's license. The lawyer added that talks are underway to sell a controlling share in Imedi to News Corp.
Imedi TV general director Bidzina Baratashvili is due to meet with a delegation from News Corp. in Istanbul on February 18. "We will discuss future plans. [Rupert] Murdoch's son will arrive to hold talks," Rezonansi quoted Baratashvili as saying.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter also based in Tbilisi.