Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tycoon Gives Saakashvili's Foes a Hand

APBadri Patarkatsishvili speaking during an opposition gathering outside the parliament building in Tbilisi on Nov. 2.
He is said to be Georgia's wealthiest businessman. He has owned the country's most storied football club, headed its Olympic committee and created its most popular television station.

Badri Patarkatsishvili is now involved in arguably his most audacious project to date -- forcing embattled President Mikheil Saakashvili from office.

Patarkatsishvili said Saturday that he would run in the presidential election Saakashvili has called for on Jan. 5.

"I will do everything and give all my strength and all my resources to free Georgia from this fascist regime," he said in a radio interview Thursday. "I do not think this government will remain for long."

Georgia's government has accused Patarkatsishvili of being a driving force behind the recent opposition protests -- accusations that Patarkatsishvili has done little to play down.

He has worked for years to undermine Saakashvili.

Patarkatsishvili shrewdly built up the Georgian television station Imedia, which has broadcast highly critical reports of Saakashvili's administration, into the country's most popular channel.

Earlier this year, Patarkatsishvili handed over his controlling stake in the station to one of the world's largest media conglomerates -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- saying he wanted to focus on supporting opposition parties.

The television station was broadcasting live Wednesday when riot police violently broke up opposition protests in the center of the Georgian capital, Tblisi. That evening, masked police raided Imedia's headquarters, assaulting journalists, smashing equipment and pulling the station off the air.

Under a state of emergency imposed by Saakashvili late Wednesday, all news broadcasts were banned except on state-controlled television.

Murdoch deplored the attack and said it would take three months to return to the air. He said that in the week or so since News Corp. took control of the station, management had been working to make the reporting less partisan, and that Patarkatsishvili now had no editorial oversight. "We have instructed, we have monitored to make sure that every news broadcast is absolutely fair and balanced and down the middle," he said. "But apparently, [the authorities] weren't watching. We invited them to come on the air and put their case and instead 200 goons turned up and smashed the place up. And the people."

Saakashvili accused Russia of fomenting the protests and referred to Patarkatsishvili as a "Russian oligarch."

When Saakashvili moved to defuse tensions Thursday by calling an early presidential election in January and offering minor concessions to the opposition, Patarkatsishvili was quick to dismiss the move as window dressing.

"Nobody should have any illusions that the authorities had heard the voice of the people," he said in a statement. "Mr. Saakashvili is once again deceiving the people, starting the campaign while the state of emergency is in force, thus creating advantages for himself."

Patarkatsishvili predicted that Saakashvili's government would seek to force opposition contenders out of the race under formal pretexts or allegations of their links to Russia. He urged the opposition to consolidate and name a single candidate.

After he said he would run, he might have had himself in mind.

Patarkatsishvili, wanted in Russia on fraud charges, dismissed the allegations of links to Russia. "One can hardly accuse me of being on the side of the Russian authorities," he said in the interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, speaking from Israel.

Patarkatsishvili is a close associate of exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, the Kremlin's favorite bogeyman. The Kremlin claims to see the hand of Berezovsky in crimes that have cast suspicion on President Vladimir Putin's administration.

Patarkatsishvili briefly owned Georgia's best-known football club, Dinamo Tbilisi, and was the longtime head of the country's Olympic committee, until he was forced out last month.

Patarkatsishvili's ouster was preceded by an event that catalyzed the political opposition and riveted the country -- former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili's accusations that Saakashvili was involved in corruption and a plot to murder a prominent businessman. The businessman, according to Okruashvili, was Patarkatsishvili. Saakashvili's supporters vehemently denied the allegations.