Erosi Kitsmarishvili, the man who changed Georgian television and who helped spark the 2003 revolution that brought President Mikheil Saakashvili to power, now claims he can unseat Saakashvili with the help of a tiny Tbilisi television channel.
On November 21, the forty-something Kitsmarishvili, the former co-owner of the Rustavi-2 channel, took over management of Tbilisi's Maestro television. He immediately expressed the intent to turn Maestro into a 24-hour Fox News-style national news outlet, and a one-stop shop for supposedly spin-free news.
The comeback of Kitsmarishvili, whose use of Rustavi-2 against ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze earned him an image as Saakashvili's pugnacious kingmaker, has sparked speculation that a new round of political jockeying in Georgia is about to begin.
"Will I make a revolution? People can make a revolution if they want to. It is their right," Kitsmarishvili affirmed in a recent interview with EurasiaNet.org. "I will make a television station that covers everything that is happening in Georgia and beyond. If this open information will make people want to revolt, based on the injustices they will see, that is their constitutional right."
Maestro currently only covers the Tbilisi metropolitan area and has a poorly paid permanent staff of 20. Its broadcasting facility does not even have a security guard. The pro-opposition station gained widespread popularity this year with a series that features pop singer Utsnobi, the brother of ex-presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, holding discussions in a jail cell about life under President Saakashvili.
That budding popularity no doubt played a role in Kitsmarishvili's takeover, although the ex-television executive noted that the current low viewership of Maestro, along with another pro-opposition TV channel, Kavkasia, means the two channels are not major players in the country's information market. Pro-government private broadcasters Rustavi-2 and Imedi and government-friendly Georgian Public Broadcasting easily dominate news coverage.
Kitsmarishvili, who has a contract to manage Maestro for the next three years, says that the revamped station will take a broader critical look at government policies, not least Tbilisi's tormented relations with Moscow, where Kitsmarishvili served as ambassador from February to September 2008.
Maestro's first likely hard-news testing ground will come next spring, with Tbilisi's first-ever direct mayoral elections.
Questions linger about how independent the station's coverage will actually be. Kitsmarishvili says that he will not object to contributions from political parties to finance the stations estimated annual budget of $2 million to $4 million.
Such contributions would complicate Kitsmarishvili's efforts to secure grants from the US Agency for International Development, which is considering launching a major media assistance project in Georgia.
Concerns about Georgian media diversity and transparency have recently become a hot development topic; in November Transparency International released a report that asserted Georgian media's environment is less free and pluralistic than before the 2003 Rose Revolution.
A spokesperson for USAID in Georgia underlined that the agency has neither promised to assist, nor is considering assisting Maestro. "We are generally not in [the] practice of providing major assistance to a particular television company," said Maka Japaridze.
Kitsmarishvili, though, is not deterred. "They [Georgian government officials] know how to deal with international organizations, and can easily hold up a small, inexperienced television station as petty and reactionary," he said. "But they have learned these tactics from me, and I will be able to respond to that."
Few doubt the business credentials of Kitsmarishvili, who, roughly a decade ago, transformed another shoestring television station in the industrial town of Rustavi into the country's most popular news channel, Rustavi-2. The station broke the mold in Georgian television with its aggressive news reports and scorching criticism of Shevardnadze's policies. It played an instrumental role in prompting Georgians to take to the streets after the falsified 2003 parliamentary elections, and later dubbed itself the TV station for the victorious people.
But Kitsmarishvili, a onetime close Saakashvili ally, ran afoul of the Georgian leader after his posting to Moscow. He now says the government forced him to leave Rustavi-2, and wants to sue the Saakashvili administration to get the television station back.
The government is showing no sign of fear that a Kitsmarishvili-run Maestro could become a Rustavi-2 clone. Since the controversial takeover of pro-opposition TV station Imedi in 2007, simply ignoring television stations that promote opposition protests has become the government's new modus operandi.
Giorgi Kandelaki, an MP from the governing United National Movement, stressed that stirring up support for political protests against the administration will be a tall order, no matter how outspoken Maestro becomes. "They [opposition politicians] maintain the radical facade because they think otherwise they will lose the electorate, but privately we do talk, and in a very civil manner," Kandelaki said. [Editor's note: Kandelaki previously worked as a researcher and writer for EurasiaNet].
Davit Paichadze, an assistant professor of journalism at Ilia Chavchavadze University, expressed similar sentiment concerning the potential political impact of Kitsmarishvili's project. Georgians, he says, are tired of chronic crisis, while Maestro lacks the financial and intellectual resources to become a significant political player, particularly as the Internet draws away television audiences.
"At best, he can produce a faint version of Rustavi-2 and stir up some trouble, but nothing major," Paichadze said. "Lightening does not hit twice in the same place. Times have changed."
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.