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The chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has rejected accusations of involvement in a state racket against businesses, saying he met Omega Group director Zaza Okuashvili as a businessman. In an interview on Tuesday evening with three TV journalists, Ivanishvili said Okuashvili started blackmailing the government because he didn’t want to pay his tax debts.
Ivanishvili offered a televised interview to three TV channels, including opposition-leaning Rustavi 2.
On Tuesday, Ivanishvili hosted the discussion with the three journalists himself, frequently interrupting them.
He chastised the media, especially Rustavi 2, accusing them of spreading false information.
He answered a number of questions regarding recent accusations against him and the ruling party of running a business racket
Ivanishvili blames Omega management
In the Omega tapes, the first of which aired on 10 September, senior government officials, including Ivanishvili, stand accused of extorting money and cars from the head of Georgian conglomerate Omega Group, as well as trying to seize control of Omega-owned TV station Iberia TV.
In several apparently secretly recorded conversations between Omega head Zaza Okuashvili and former sports minister Levan Kipiani, Kipiani delivers these demands apparently believing they come ‘from Ivanishvili’.
Okuashvili has said that when Kipiani tried to verify that the demands really came from Ivanishvili, Kipiani was kidnapped and threatened with rape, something Okuashvili alludes to unchallenged in the recordings. Okuashvili has said he eventually met with Ivanishvili, who demanded ₾4 million ($1.5 million) from him.
In the interview, Ivanishvili said he met Okuashvili as a businessman.
‘I still continue meeting with businessmen. I’m doing my best to support business, as it’s the basis for new jobs and wealth in Georgia’, said Ivanishvili.
He said Okuashvili ‘started the scandal’ because he didn’t want to pay the tax debts Omega Group owes the state, and created the impression the government was closing down Iberia TV.
Omega Group’s holdings include Iberia TV as well as cigarette producer Omega Group Tobacco, car dealer Omega Motors, and others. The company owes around ₾50 million ($19 million) to the government in unpaid taxes.
‘I’ll leave it to the audience to decide how trustworthy a man who refuses to pay $50 million to the state is. Initially, he said I raised four fingers, telling him he must pay the money. But he couldn’t explain what he should have paid it for. He doesn’t pay to the budget, what would he pay for nothing?!’, said Ivanishvili.
He questioned the authenticity of the secret recording, reiterating that neither Okuashvili nor Rustavi 2 could explain what the $4 million was paid for.
He also said he did not believe the explanation Kipiani gave the authorities about the recordings.
Rustavi 2 has aired several audio recordings suggesting that former Sports Minister Levan Kipiani was extorting money and cars from Zaza Okuashvili on behalf of Ivanishvili.
Kipiani later claimed the recordings were staged for Omega Group’s foreign partners to whom the company owed money. He said the recordings were supposed to convince these partners the company was facing pressured from the government and therefore could not be expected to pay.
Okuashvili has denied Omega Group has any outstanding debts with foreign partners.
In an interview with Rustavi 2, Okuashvili alleged that Kipiani was kidnapped, beaten, and threatened to have his ‘honour violated’ over pressure being applied to Omega Group in 2016. Former Chief Prosecutor Otar Partskhaladze was accused of taking Kipiani to a basement ‘where he was stripped and threatened with rape’.
Is Ivanishvili involved in Kipiani-Partskhaladze brawl?
In the interview on Tuesday, Ivanishvili said the recordings said nothing about his supposed involvement in the confrontation between Partskhaladze and Kipiani.
‘Kipiani went there, he swore at him and Partskhaladze hit him — this is all that could be heard from the recording’, said Ivanishvili, avoiding answering whether he knew about the confrontation between the two.
On 22 October Rustavi 2 published another secret recording, this time in video format. The video showed Kipiani speaking with Omega Group managers about the confrontation with Partskhaladze.
In the video, Kipiani says he was taken to a basement, stripped naked, and beaten. He also says Partskhaladze told this to Ivanishvili, who later summoned Kipiani and asked him why he swore at Partskhaladze.
After for weeks questioning the authenticity of the audio recordings, leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream party changed their rhetoric following the video’s publication.
Parliamentary chair Irakli Kobakhidze said the plot of the conversation shown in the video was ‘comical’.
Officials summoned at the British Court
The London Court of International Arbitration is currently examining Omega Group founder Zaza Okuashvili’s claims officials attempted to extort money and cars from him in exchange for writing off the company’s tax debts, according to Rustavi 2.
Rustavi 2 said the court had summoned Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia and former vice PM Dimitri Kumsishvili to give evidence. They said they it was also expected that Ivanishvili and former Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri would be summoned in the future.
In secret audio recordings published on 21 September by Rustavi 2, Kipiani is allegedly heard telling Okuashvili to give him three cars for Dimitri Kumsishvili and Nodar Khaduri, both former finance ministers.
Kumsishvili and Khaduri have denied that they knew anything about such a conversation.
Khaduri said that neither during his time in office nor after that had he engaged in any unofficial business relations.
‘I obey the law and within this law I protect business interests. I don’t know anything about the cars’, said Khaduri.
Dimitri Kumsishvili was more outspoken in his defence, claiming his name was being used for extortion. He called on the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the recordings and pledged to sue Okuashvili and Kipiani for defamation and fraud respectively.