samedi 31 mai 2008

Oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili withdraws from Georgia

Article published in, 21/03/2007 Issue
By Nicolas LANDRU in Tbilisi, translated by Yvette CHIN

© Paata Vardanashvili

Badri Patarkatsishvili, one of the most famous Georgian oligarchs, has left Georgia. On March 5th, 2007, his departure was announced in London as the relocation of his activities of "Georgia in the West," underscoring the desire to leave the country definitively. The millionaire, who holds first-rank influence in both finances and the media, co-holds one of the most important Georgian media concerns, Imedi, which includes a radio station and a television station.

The oligarch's decision, although ambiguous and reversible, strikes a hard blow to the economy of the country, where Patarkatsishvili was one of the most dynamic organizers there: he has invested tens of millions of dollars in Georgia since 2001. Without any doubt, this is a bad sign for the political situation of the Caucasus’ leading country in terms of democracy and liberalization—a climate that, however, does not seem as favorable to business as the regime would like to portray.

After the arrival of Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin was eager to get rid of these oligarchs who had arrived on the scene during the dubious Yeltsin years. At that time in Russia, the lack of legislation, the brutal passage into a market economy, and the political weakness had allowed the lightning-fast accumulation of money. One of the most well-known of these "New Russians," Boris Berezovsky, had contributed to Putin's seizure of power. But Putin launched a great cleaning operation against those who had "sucked the blood of the nation," and in 2001 Berezovsky sought refuge in London.

Six years later, his friend and associate Georgian Badri Patarkatsishvili, with whom he built his fortune, exiled himself to the same city and would have it believed that the same kind of policy against businessmen is set up in Georgia. Victim of the same policy of the Kremlin, Patarkatsishvili is currently, like Berezovsky, sought by Russian justice. After years of seclusion in his native land, the new exile now has much to say.

The part played by Patarkatsishvili on the Georgian political scene in the last few years has been complex. Contrary to Ivanishvili, the "millionaire without a face" who is sheltered from the media, Patarkatsishvili has always sought to be in the foreground of the country’s public life. He holds key investments in the national economy, like the Kulevi oil terminal on the Black Sea and a significant part of the real estate market. He also founded the powerful lobbying group--the Federation of Georgian Businessmen (FGB); moreover, he has invested much in a number of "charity" companies, which include Imedi television. Indeed, he always justified the existence of Imedi in the name of freedom of expression and information as the only alternative to the government-controlled channels. Imedi represents the only real alternative to the pro-government channel Rustavi 2 and to the public channels 1 (Pirveli) and 2 (GBP).

In 2006, Patarkatsishvili spoke out on several occasions against the policy of the government. He has accused them of extorting the entrepreneurs while collecting funds for the "development of executive measures." He has expressed his fears in connection with the image the authorities have given of businessmen and of himself as enemies, thus making a direct allusion to Putin's anti-oligarch policies. This is not without reason, since the Georgian government immediately reacted to his criticism by denouncing the criminal activity of the oligarchs as directed by Moscow.

An ambiguous departure

The conflict between Patarkatsishvili and the National Movement government then developed around information about "the opposition" broadcasted by Imedi, which did not stop revealing events that compromised the government, described by the latter as slander. This escalation of charges has generated great speculation on Patarkatsishvili's ambitions, which according to some, are to carve out, above all, a place of political influence in Tbilisi.

A number of political analysts have defined the situation as combat between the government, who until recently controlled most companies, and the oligarchs, who have gradually taken on important political influence by investing in the media and in the parties of opposition. Within this framework, the possible departure of the millionaire had already been suggested. From the point of view of the control over key Georgian political and economic levers, this sudden exile could be an important step.

However, in recent events, nothing is clear. If among the political economists of Tbilisi rumors abound that Patarkatsishvili could have been molested by the men of the National Movement, the reasons that the oligarch gave for his departure were not confirmed by the authorities or by the analysts. He has accused the government of having the intention of extraditing him to Russia. The Prosecutor General of Georgia denies these claims.

The other argument proposed by Patarkatsishvili is directly political: the millionaire had expressed his refusal to be engaged in the political struggles between the government and the opposition or to see his name used by one side or the other. But this apparent withdrawal from politics is accompanied by ambiguity about the scope of this action, since he adds that he could be forced to enter into politics given the extreme circumstances.

Retreat or return to strength?

The Georgian political world reacted strongly to Patarkatsishvili's announcement. The leader of the Republican opposition party, David Usupashvili, exhorted the oligarch to clarify his position, while pointing out the latter represents danger for the authorities because of his social presence and media power. He has even expressed certainty that the authorities will continue their "hysterical attacks" on the opposition.

In light of the 2008 presidential elections, the departure of Patarkatsishvili, which could be a strategic retreat as well, is making waves in Tbilisi, with the opposition insisting on its possible entry into politics through an existing party or by the creation of a new one. The opposition parties are currently trying to establish alliances to counter the National Movement bloc.

Badri Patarkatsishvili had without any doubt anticipated his retreat: last year, he sold his principal investment in Georgia, the Kulevi oil terminal, to the national oil company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). His departure marks a turning point in the structure of the Georgian market, in which he was omnipresent, and sows doubt about the future composition of the internal political scene. This shows that business and politics are interwoven and personalized in this country, which, in spite of its pro-Western resolve, still has little stability to offer for economic investments.

Aucun commentaire: