A couple of weeks ago, Transparency International Georgia organized a presentation for my book, Who Owned Georgia. It’s basically a 100 page report about who owned some of the major enterprises between 2003 – 2012 and how some of these guys became the owners. It should be no surprise that many of them had close connections to the Saakashvili government. The idea was to sift through reports that had been written by TI Georgia, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Studio Monitor and several other watchdog groups and assemble an informative narrative that won’t put the reader to sleep in 10 minutes.
Before I could snatch a snack when I entered the room, two representatives from The Silk Road Group pounced on me to state their displeasure with some points in my story. The Silk Road Group is the leading transport country in the country and has its hands in real estate development, banking, telecommunications and other major holdings. The business began during the crazy 1990s, when fortunes were made smuggling drugs, weapons, people and other profitable contraband through Georgia. Because this is a respectable book, I don’t make the claim that the SRG was ever involved in criminal activity, nor do I mention that everybody in Tbilisi will tell you that’s exactly how the company started – that would be irresponsible. I do, however, say that some people in Tbilisi would unplug their TV sets if they were subscribers to Silknet TV, because they believed that Vano Merabishvili, who was the Interior Minister and later Prime Minister, could listen to their conversations. You see, people in Georgia prefer to believe in rumors, particularly since the country’s media are unreliable. Moreover, trying to figure out who actually owns Silknet is impossible as it is owned by a string of offshore registered companies. One of the shareholders is the SRG and we know who some of the principal owners are but not everybody, so I say Merabishvili could actually be an owner like so many people believe. But then so could Mickey Mouse. If the company was transparent, people wouldn’t make such assumptions. But the SRG sees this from another perspective. It was no problem to be connected to the Saakashvili administration when it was in power. Now it is being discredited by the new government and former officials are being investigated. The SRG want as much distance from their former friends as possible.
The SRG representatives asked me to remove what had already been printed, as if I have some magic wand. They said my words will prevent them from finding investors, but if their potential investors can’t read English or the Georgian translation to see I did not link Merabishvili to the SRG, it’s not my problem. I could have written how Silknet allowed the government to use its technology to spy on its clients, but I didn’t.
The first chapter of my book is about the television landscape and how the Saakashvili government turned television into the party PR machine. At the presentation, I mentioned how this had an adverse effect on the quality of journalism. The news broadcasts of the 3 major TV stations were essentially canned reports. Journalists received press releases from the government press office and basically used them for their scripts. Georgia is notorious for its lazy journalism. Even the “independent news service,” DF Watch, which covered the presentation invented a quote for me. For the record, I did not “decide to write the book like a novel.” If I had, the Silk Road Group and everybody else I wrote about would really have a reason to tar and feather me.