Taking a cue from Orson Welles infamous radio prank “War of The Worlds”, a 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ story in which Martians invade the United States, the Georgian government-endorsed television station, Imedi, broadcast a mock news bulletin Saturday night with footage showing Russian tanks booming into the capital city of Tbilisi and reports that President Mikael Saakashvili was dead and former Speaker of Parliament Nino Burganadze was now interim leader.
Although the once privately owned station now run by Saakashvili’s former chief of staff flashed a “simulation” warning at the top of the broadcast, innocent Georgians watching the broadcast panicked. Raids on grocery stores and ATM machines followed, and several emergency calls to hospitals reported heart attacks. Cell phones were jammed, with no service. Citizens, upon learning it was a cruelly deceptive joke, were outraged.
More seriously, the government’s favorite outlet aired phony news footage of President Barack Obama on the lawn of The White House, condemning the attack.
While this was playing out, Saakashvili and his inner circle initially denied involvement. Then the leader admitted that the video had a positive result, since it reminded Georgians what could happen if tensions with Russia continued to increase. He endorsed the prank as a teachable moment. (The Internet now has a phone conversation with Imedi producers showing that the idea was Saakashvili’s himself.)
This reckless and life endangering prank ramps up the President’s reputation as an irresponsible, erratic dictator who once again thinks so little of his countrymen that he would trick them into believing they were being invaded.
It is difficult to imagine a more embarrassing misstep, even for Saakashvili who is known for his severe lack of maturity and judgment. This also comes at a time when he is paying another Washington lobbying firm (he’s had three so far) a large sum of money to insure an invitation to The White House in the coming weeks. Saakashvili signed a $300,000 contract with The Podesta Group in January. The lobbying firm is run by Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta who headed up Obama’s transition team and was a member of the Clinton administration.
No doubt, if the Podestas fail to deliver Obama, Saakashvili’s television station will simply PhotoShop the meeting , with Imedi-2 conveniently leaving out the “simulation” crawl.
But Saakashvili may be a tough client.
At a time when Washington and Moscow are making progress, when Obama and the young President Medvedev are enjoying an international bromance of sorts, when the two countries are on the eve of signing an anti-missile treaty, hosting the Joker of Georgia might not be such a smart idea.
Saakashvili recently lashed out at lawyer and popular opposition leader Nino Burganadze (once a supporter of the President) for traveling to Moscow to meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. So antagonized that a diplomat would seek out a meeting at the Kremlin, Saakashvili condemned the former Speaker of the House for her outreach efforts. At the same time, opposition members to Saakashvili’s government are beginning the measure the drapes in the new lavish presidential palace, built at taxpayer’s expense. Those same taxpayers he so routinely insults with his continued provocations. The same taxpayers now receiving $5 billion in US aid, while the poverty and unemployment level in the country remains the highest in former Soviet republics.
Another aspect of the Russian-Georgian conflict is the fact that Saakashvili is protecting Jihad terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous region bordering Chechnya. Long a training ground for suicide bombers (and reported center of the manufacturing of the deadly toxin Ricin) the Russian government wants Saakashvili to clean out the area. So far, he has turned his back.
Despite the fact that an international committee put the blame for the August 2008 war in South Ossetia firmly on Saakashvili’s shoulders, saying he violated international law by firing on the capitol of Tskhinvali, leaving scores dead and wounded, churches and schools burned to the ground, he continues to display the kind of leadership which can only be described as bizarre.
No doubt the Kremlin is hoping these stunts will continue. Russian television commentators were scratching their heads over the mock “invasion” report and the phony news footage. This was no innocent prank, especially in Washington at The State Department which is losing patience with the leader of The Rose Revolution.
In a televised appearance, U.S. Ambassador John Bass called the report “irresponsible,” adding that it does nothing “to help Georgia address real problems and threats to security it faces.”
If the relations between Georgia and Russia continue to deteriorate, the Georgian people will be the ones to suffer. In his misguided attempt to teach his citizens a lesson, Saakashvili has proven himself even more unstable than before.
The news bulletins may have been phony, but the panic in the streets was not.
Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of Parliament from Georgia.