Mistrust and confusion surround the police investigation into the apparent suicide of a high-profile Georgian former media magnate and diplomat.
Erosi Kitsmarishvili, founder of the Rustavi-2 television channel and the country’s last ambassador to Russia, was found dead with a single bullet hole to his temple on July 15.
Kitsmarishvili was found sitting, seatbelt fastened, in the driver’s seat of his car, parked in the garage of his Tbilisi apartment block. A pistol that he had apparently registered earlier that day was found nearby.
Prosecutors said immediately that they were treating it as suicide, but his friends, colleagues and relatives say it is out of the question that Kitsmarishvili would have killed himself.
There is little public faith in the Georgian police, and observers say this case will be a major test of the force’s ability to conduct such an investigation.
Kitsmarishvili founded Rustavi-2 in 1994, and it went on to become the country’s main private television channel. It played a key role in the Rose Revolution of 2003, when Mikhail Saakashvili came to power. Kitsmarishvili owned the company until 2004, and then ran President Saakashvili’s campaign for re-election in 2008.
After that, he moved to Moscow as ambassador, but his posting was a short one as diplomatic ties were severed when the two countries went to war in August 2008 over South Ossetia.
Kitsmarishvili’s relationship with Saakashvili and his United National Movement party (UNM) then deteriorated, particularly when he accused the government of failing to prevent the war, and he moved into opposition, although without much success.
Kitsmarishvili stood for mayor of Rustavi this year, coming third. In the subsequent run-off, he supported the UNM candidate rather than the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
After his sudden death, Kitsmarishvili’s relatives said they suspected he was murdered.
“I think it is strange that there were no traces of blood on the weapon found at the scene. I told this to the experts and the investigator. There are other details which also strengthen our view,” Kitsmarishvili’s brother Zurab told journalists, pointing out that the garage’s CCTV camera had been turned away from the car.
Friends and colleagues said Kitsmarishvili was full of plans for the future, including establishing a cable television business.
Journalist Giorgi Popkhadze wrote on Facebook, “Two days ago he phoned me and said he intended to move into cable television, and asked if I would join him. I agreed. I don’t know what happened, but no one can make me believe that Erosi killed himself.”
In his initial reaction, President Giorgi Margvelashvili spoke of “murder” and promised a full investigation, but he was then criticised by colleagues from Georgian Dream, which replaced the UNM as the party of power in a 2012 election.
“Personally, I cannot understand Giorgi’s statement,” said Kakha Kaladze, deputy prime minister and energy minister. “An investigation is ongoing and it will be established whether it was murder or suicide. So we are waiting for the results.”
Chief prosecutor Konstantin Katsitadze also said it was too early to jump to conclusions.
“Investigators are working hard to establish the circumstances of Erosi Kitsmarishvili’s death. The various explanations are being explored,” he told journalists on July 16. “We have already investigated many things including… the location where it happened. We took the weapon, the used cartridge and the shells in the magazine. We have examined the evidence and questioned a lot of witnesses.
Katsitadze said that at the request of the dead man’s relatives, an independent expert would be involved in the autopsy.
Aleko Tskitishvili, director of the Human Rights Centre, said Georgians had little faith in the police’s ability to satisfactorily conclude such an investigation.
“In the last 20 years, there have been many murders of significant political and public figures, about which society is still asking questions,” he told IWPR. “For example, the death of Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was called suicide, but parliament recently set up a special commission to investigate it, because people had so many questions. Then there are the death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, the murder of former member of parliament Guram Sharadze and others.”
Tskitishvili said police and investigators appear to have made some of the same mistakes in investigating Kitsmarishvili’s death as they had made in previous cases.
“I remember how, directly after the death of Zurab Zhvania [in 2005], they announced he had been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, even though the investigation had only just begun,” he said. “Sadly, in this case they said on the first day it was suicide, which raises many questions. The police need to change this approach, since it creates mistrust.”
Tinatin Jvania is a freelance journalist from Tbilisi.