"Protest TV" tries to bring down Georgian leader

TBILISI Thu Feb 5, 2009 9:41am EST

1 of 3. Georgy Gachechiladze, a Georgian celebrity, speaks with Reuters, as he sits in an improvised prison cell during a live TV-show in Tbilisi February 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

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TBILISI (Reuters) - It's been dubbed "Protest TV". A man in an improvised prison cell under the 24-hour gaze of television cameras, promising to stay put until Georgia's president quits.

"Cell No. 5" on Maestro Television has become the talk of Tbilisi's cafes and bars since airing on January 20.

It represents the extreme face of an opposition push to unseat President Mikheil Saakashvili that has gained momentum since war with Russia last year.

Confined to a converted floor of Maestro's studios, poet, rapper and political satirist Georgy Gachechiladze says he will only come out if Saakashvili resigns.

Four cameras and a microphone on the ceiling capture his every shuffling move and political rant. An edited version is broadcast in the evening, before Gachechiladze goes live all night, often with guests. He usually sleeps in the morning.

"I'd call it a talkshow in real time," said studio boss Mamuka Glonti. "Above all, it's a protest, not a business."

Saakashvili has four years left of his mandate and says he has no reason to quit. Analysts question whether his popularity has really waned as much as expected after Georgia's crushing defeat by Russian forces in their five-day war in August.

But Gachechiladze's gripe is personal.

His brother Levan challenged Saakashvili for the presidency in January 2008. Saakashvili won with 52 percent. The opposition cried foul. But Western monitors said despite some violations, the result was a true expression of the will of the people.

"My brother ... won the election. But they cheated him," Gachechiladze said.

"UNKNOWN"

Gachechiladze -- known to his fans as "Unknown" -- believes his ordeal will end earlier than 2013, when Saakashvili's term is due to expire.

"I'm not preparing to spend four years in this cell, because I'm absolutely confident that it will end much sooner and Saakashvili will resign," the 42-year-old told Reuters.

"This government is lying, and that's why I could not live freely." The walls around him are covered with his scribbled thoughts and those of his guests.

Saakashvili came to power on the back of the 2003 "Rose Revolution" on a promise to stabilize and reform the former Soviet republic.

His young pro-Western government won credit for opening the economy to foreign investors. But the president's critics accuse him of an authoritarian streak that has stifled the media and concentrated power on a handpicked inner circle at the expense of parliament.

The opposition now charges he walked into a war Georgia could not possibly win, by attacking the breakaway region of South Ossetia and drawing a powerful counter-strike from Russia.

Observers say Saakashvili has fallen short of the "beacon-of-liberty" tag bestowed on him by former U.S. President Georgia W. Bush. But they question whether he is really as bad as his detractors claim.

"I don't think a project like that would have any chance in many other ex-Soviet countries," said David Darchiashvili, a member of Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement.

"It's interesting that people who compare Georgia and its leadership to certain dictatorial regimes are able to say it live on TV," he told Reuters.

Maestro's signal does not reach much beyond the capital but it is reveling in its newfound stardom.

With no television or phone, Gachechiladze admits to boredom and to missing his family. But his celebrity is on the rise. "Whatever happens, whether dead or alive, I'll emerge from here a winner."

(Editing by Katie Nguyen)

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