Burnishing a Tarnished Image Georgia Mounts American PR Campaign

George W. Bush once celebrated Mikhail Saakasvili, but President Barack Obama has given him the cold shoulder. Now the Georgian president is seeking to polish his image in the United States through an expensive Washington PR firm and by promoting the development of a Hollywood film starring Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer.
A screen shot of Georgian television station Imedia broadcasting fake footage of Russia preparing to invade Georgia.

A screen shot of Georgian television station Imedia broadcasting fake footage of Russia preparing to invade Georgia.

Foto: HO/ AFP

The sense of irritation in John Bass's response was palpable. The US ambassador to Tbilisi said the decision by Georgian television station Imedi to broadcast a faux news report of the Russians on their way to invade the country had been "irresponsible."

Imedia isn't just any TV station. It is controlled by the government, and station manager Georgy Arveladze, the country's former economics minister, is also a longtime friend of President Mikhail Saakashvili. On Saturday, the station broadcast video purporting to show Russian tank units preparing to invade. Imedi also broadcast images of a concerned US President Barack Obama and a war-hungry Dmitry Medvedev, with a phony translation of the Russian president claiming: "Saakashvili is a terrorist, and we must liberate Georgia from him."

Breaking news that Saakashvili was dead followed the clip.


The next day, the Georgian president appeared before the press and television cameras to state that "what we have seen was unpleasant." But, he added, it was also a realistic simulation of what could actually happen in the coming months. The Imedi report, he claimed, "was very close to what Georgia's enemies were up to."

It was an odd explanation for a grotesque war scenario that had sent no small number of Georgians into a state of panic over the weekend.

Indeed, the incident does little to contribute to the country's recent efforts to burnish its image in the West, especially in the United States, Georgia's most important ally. The PR effort is necessary, too: Saakashvili, once fawned over by former US President George W. Bush, has been pushed into the political margins by Barack Obama.

In an effort to secure a visit to Washington and a meeting with the president, Saakashvili's National Security Council has secured the services of the respected Podesta Group PR agency. The firm is run by Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who was also the head of Obama's transition team. According to US Justice Department documents, the PR professionals will provide "strategic counsel to the principal on communicating priority issues in the United States-Georgia bilateral relationship to relevant US audiences, including the US Congress, administration, media and policy community."

$1.7 Million for Lobby Work in the US

The country has also paid $436,800 to the lobbying firm owned by former Democratic Party majority leader Dick Gephardt for its services. During the summer of 2008 alone, officials in Tbilisi spent around $1.7 million on lobbying work in the United States.

A spokeswoman for satellite news broadcaster CNN confirmed to SPIEGEL ONLINE that Georgia has also intensified its US television exposure. Since mid-February, the country has been running regular ads on CNN, which is available in around 100 million American households. For some time now, Georgia has also been placing large, targeted ads in English-language magazines and newspapers.

Saakashvili, who was the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution in Tbilisi, was once celebrated by the Western media as the "Kennedy of the Caucasus," but now finds himself increasingly isolated abroad.

The Georgian president didn't even get an invitation to Obama's presidential inauguration. Instead, his country was represented by Irakli Alasania, the former permanent representative of Georgia at the United Nations who, by the time of Obama's election, had become one of the leaders of the opposition in Tbilisi.

A investigative report by the European Union into the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia attributed the situation not only to provocations originating from both sides, but also concluded that Saakashvili's statement that Moscow started the five-day war was a lie.  In addition, relations between the United States and Russia have improved under Obama, and NATO membership for Georgia is no longer a priority in Washington.

A PR Push Via Hollywood

Georgia is also active in Hollywood at the moment. Saakashvili recently launched a film project in the hope of propagating his country's version of the Caucasus conflict in the Anglo-Saxon world. The Georgians hired stars including Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer for the motion picture "Georgia 2008," which also features music by Katie Melua, a British pop singer with Georgian roots.

The film's director, Renny Harlin, is best known for the mediocrity of his work. He's the creator of films like "Die Hard 2" and "Deep Blue Sea" and is the five-time recipient of the Golden Raspberry award for the worst films of the year. "I have waited a long time for something with substance and reality," Harlin has said, while adding that he wanted to direct an anti-war film and that this project is in no way directed against Russia.

But it is easy to be suspicious about the director's objectivity. Harlin, who hails from Finland, made his debut in 1986 with "Born American," a trash film about three Americans who accidentally cross the border to the Soviet Union and are then hunted and tortured by blood-thirsty Russians.

Officially, Harlin's "Georgia 2008" is an American project, but at least part of the financing came from Georgia -- as well as the script. Papuna Davitaia, at the time a member of the Georgian parliament close to the president, worked on the script as a co-author in 2009.

Davitaia, who has since been promoted to the ministerial level in Sakaashvili's government, had earlier gained experience in the film industry in Germany, where he worked as an animator on the children's film "The Little Polar Bear."

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