Soap Operas Replace Opposition on Imedi

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A huge portrait of the moustachioed tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili still hangs from the tower of the Wedding Palace, the imposing Soviet building that was his home in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, before his unexpected death this year. Patarkatsishvili was an oligarch with large political ambitions. But the bewildering tangle of conspiracies and subterfuge that characterized his later life has not unravelled since he died. Indeed, it has become even more complex and, at times, downright bizarre.

Patarkatsishvili made his fortune in Russia in the post-Soviet years, alongside his friend Boris Berezovsky. After returning to Georgia to escape criminal charges, he tried to carve out an image as a kind philanthropist. Within a few years, however, he had become public enemy No. 1, after falling out with the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and announcing that he would use all his wealth to oust what he called a "fascist regime."

He turned one of his major assets, the popular television station Imedi, into an opposition cheerleader. But after riot police broke up anti-government protests in Tbilisi in November, security forces stormed Imedi studios and took it off the air. Tbilisi accused the station of inciting revolution on Patarkatsishvili's orders.

Imedi was back within weeks, but not for long. After the authorities released covert recordings apparently documenting Patarkatsishvili's attempts to bribe an Interior Ministry official to help him stage a coup, journalists at the station rebelled and shut it down again themselves. The oligarch's bid for the presidency in January then ended in failure when he didn't return from self-imposed exile to campaign, saying he feared arrest.

When he died from an apparent heart attack shortly afterward, his family expected to inherit his billions. Then a mysterious "cousin" appeared, named Ioseb Kakalashvili but calling himself Joseph Kay, claiming that he had the legal right to dispose of the oligarch's assets. Patarkatsishvili's wife said Kay was a government stooge who was given the task of seizing his assets and turning Imedi into a loyalist media outlet.

The dispute has become even more labyrinthine with the arrest of Kay's lawyer on drug-smuggling charges and an announcement that Kay would assign one-quarter of the inheritance to a woman he called Olga, who may or may not have also been married to the oligarch.

Amid the confusion, only one picture has become clear. Imedi, now on air again, is broadcasting soap operas and pop videos but no news programs. It is hard not to see the emasculated channel as an appropriate memorial to the insurrectionary dreams of its founder.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.