TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Thursday asked all political parties to help resolve the row around the country's most popular television channel because he fears civil disturbances.
The legal proceedings around Rustavi 2 show the signs of the first major political crisis in Georgia since President Giorgi Margvelashvili took power in 2013.
Management of Rustavi 2 said earlier this month that their work has been paralyzed by a court decision to freeze the accounts of the station's majority shareholder. Kibara Khalvashi, who owned the channel for less than two years a decade ago, claims he was forced to sell the company and is now suing the current owners for $7.8 million in compensation.
Government critics say the lawsuit against the TV station aims to silence a critical voice ahead of next year's parliamentary election. The government has accused Rustavi 2 of being the mouthpiece of its opponents.
Hundreds of activists from the opposition National Movement picket court hearings considering the Rustavi 2 case almost daily to protest what they describe as a crackdown on the privately owned TV channel.
Khalvashi denies that he seeks to shut down the television channel but he has recently claimed that Rustavi 2 is under the influence of former President Mikhail Saakashvili's party National Movement and "carries out political orders."
President Margvelashvili warned on Thursday that the case could lead to civil disturbances by the opposition and called on the court "not to take a hasty decision."
"In the light of the present situation I'm launching consultations with political parties, NGOs and diplomats in order to preserve the civil stability, peace and constitutional order in our country," he said.
Margvelashvili won the 2013 election as an ally of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili but has since sought to carve out an independent role.
Ivanishvili's party won the 2012 parliamentary vote by a landslide but is trailing in opinion polls behind the National Movement ahead of the 2016 vote.
Georgian journalists say the lawsuit against Rustavi 2 aims to silence the government's critics at a time when Ivanishvili's party is becoming unpopular.
"The court decision to satisfy Kibara Kalvashi's claim and freeze the assets of the TV company which has been critical of Ivanishvili shows that he would like to see the station to stop its development and get besieged with financial problems," said Tamar Chergoleishvili, director general of the Tabula TV station.