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Protests and Western condemnation follow jailing of Georgian government critic

19 May 2022
Protesters let off flares outside parliament demanding the release of Mtavati Arkhi director Nika Gvaramia. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

The jailing of opposition TV head Nika Gvaramia in Georgia has provoked protests and condemnation from abroad.

Several thousand people took to the streets of the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday over what they called the politically motivated persecution of Gvaramia, the co-founder and director of opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi.

The demonstration was organised by local media groups and was joined by opposition politicians and civil society organisations.

On Monday, Tbilisi City Court sentenced Gvaramia to three years and six months in prison for abusing his position during his management of another TV company, Rustavi 2, in 2019.

Gvaramia previously held a number of senior government positions during the rule of the United National Movement (UNM) and has remained one of the staunchest allies of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. He was also one of the lawyers representing Saakashvili in court. 

Smaller demonstrations were also held in the cities of Batumi and Zugdidi.

Protesters marched from Republic Square to the Parliament building, eventually ending their demonstration outside the offices of Mtavari Arkhi. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

While Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has not commented on the possibility, some of Gvaramia’s supporters have floated the idea of her pardoning him.

Leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream party have warned against such a step, with an apparently coordinated party message that Gvaramia had been disrespectful to her.

During one live broadcast on Facebook, Gvaramia called Zurabishvili a ‘dickwoman’ — a misogynistic term — and a ‘motherfucked resident’ of Russia. 

Georgian Dream rebuff Western critics

Gvaramia’s conviction has been met with widespread condemnation by local and international rights groups as well as Western governments.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International called his sentencing ‘a blatant act of politically motivated prosecution in retaliation of his dissenting views and criticism of the authorities’. 

Acting British ambassador to Georgia, Clare Allbless said she was  ‘dissapointed’ at the sentencing while the US Embassy in Georgia said that it ‘called into question Georgia’s commitment to rule of law’.

‘Particularly at this time, when Georgia has an unprecedented opportunity to advance its Euro-Atlantic integration, even the perception of politicised prosecution is detrimental’, the US Embassy statement read.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has responded by lashing out at their critics abroad.

Party Chair Irakli Kobakhidze accused foreign diplomats, without specifying who, of helping ‘criminals’.

Georgian Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Culture Tea Tsulukiani rejected the idea that Gvaramia’s sentencing endangered Georgia’s path toward EU membership.

Speaking with pro-government TV channel Imedi, Tsulukiani accused Western critics of working with the UNM to overthrow the government.

She said the opposition was ‘trying to sell a small group of 10–11 foreigners’ — who she said were ‘disrespecting the Georgian nation’ — as being the ‘real Europe’.

Tea Tsulukiani. Official photo

‘Among them, I mean Viola von Cramon who has almost become a Georgian politician and who directly interferes in Georgian politics, wagging her finger to one and another like she has that right’, Tsulukiani stated. 

Von Cramon, a German MEP from the Greens–European Free Alliance, was among nine MEPs to criticise Gvaramia’s sentencing. 

‘There’s also Ian Kelly’, Tsulukiani said, referring to the US Ambassador to Georgia from 2015–2018. ‘Georgian mothers have probably shed tears the weight of one Ian Kelly while sending their children to battle to defend [Georgia’s] European and western choice’.

Kelly had called Gvaramia’s imprisonment a ‘dark day’ for supporters of Georgia democracy and its ‘Euro-Atlantic aspirations’.

A tireless anti-Ivanishvili voice for a decade 

At 45, Gvaramia is a controversial figure in Georgia. Having served in several positions in the UNM government, after Georgian Dream won power, he transitioned to become one of the most outspoken and visible government critics and politcal pundits. 

Weeks after Georgian Dream won the 2012 parliamentary elections, Gvaramia took over the management of TV channel Rustavi 2.

Nika Gvaramia addressing an anti-government demonstration on 17 July 2021 in Tbilisi. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Five weeks later, he was charged with being behind a corruption scheme earlier that year. In November 2013, Tbilisi City Court found him innocent, something that inspired him to praise the Georgian judiciary. 

Serving not only as director of Rustavi 2 and then Mtavari Arkhi, he also frequently appeared on screen to anchor TV shows. His at-times foul-mouthed speeches took aim not only at the Georgian Dream government, but also cultural and religious elites in Georgia whom he found to be too close with the authorities.

From his time in government, Gvaramia is perhaps most remembered as the Deputy Prosecutor General who ‘exposed’ what the UNM insisted was an attempted coup by the opposition in 2007. The government subsequently violently cracked down on opposition protests in the capital and raided and shut down TV station Imedi.

[Read on OC Media: The 2007 crackdown — Saakashvili’s greatest mistake?]

Nika Didishvili was shot in the leg when police dispersed protesters in November 2007. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media.

His critics have also identified him as the brain behind state-run propaganda targeting opponents while in power. 

Gvaramia also served as an MP, as Justice Minister, and as Education Minister during the UNM’s rule.

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