Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili is facing fresh calls to resign after recordings emerged in which he appears to agree to send police officers to intimidate critics of Bera Ivanishvili.
Opposition-leaning channel TV Pirveli aired the recordings of Bera Ivanishvili, a rapper and the son of Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili on 6 March. In them, he appears to instruct Gharibashvili and other officials to punish people who had insulted him on Facebook.
The ruling party has not disputed that the recordings are real but have insisted the story was ‘fabricated’ using misleading editing.
The release comes amidst a political crisis in Georgia over the conduct and results of October’s parliamentary elections. The fallout risks derailing negotiations between the opposition and the government, which were renewed following a visit by the President of the European Union Council, Charles Michel, to Tbilisi.
Minutes after the audiotapes were aired, the opposition Lelo party demanded the immediate resignations of Gharibashvili and Anzor Chubinidze, the head of the Special State Protection Service (SSPS), who is also implicated in the recordings. The party argued this was necessary to avoid pressure on an investigation they insisted should also start immediately.
Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of the opposition European Georgia party also demanded Gharibashvili’s resignation.
Soon after the tapes aired, several dozen activists from the anti-government group For Freedom broke the anti-coronavirus curfew to protest ‘Ivanishvili’s mafioso family’ outside the Georgian Dream offices. The group later moved to the government offices, calling Bera a ‘TikToking thug’.
Bera has been most visible in recent months on popular short-video social platform TikTok, sharing insights into his family life and his support of global charity campaigns. He came to prominence on the eve of the 2012 parliamentary elections with several songs directed against the then-ruling United National Movement party (UNM).
Another protest is planned outside the State Chancellery on Sunday evening.
The Georgian Interior Ministry and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office so far have remained silent on the scandal.
What’s in the tapes?
In one of the leaked tapes aired on TV Pirveli’s Nodar Meladze’s Saturday programme, Bera Ivanishvili is heard apparently instructing Anzor Chubinidze, the head of SSPS since late 2014, to retaliate against a 23-year-old called ‘Lado’, who he said had offended him and his family in a comments section on Facebook.
‘Let's decide first if we want or don’t want him to apologise to us on Facebook’, Anzor Chubinidze asks Bera in one conversation.
‘We want him to apologise’, Bera Ivanishvili replies.
Chubinidze then unenthusiastically commits to visiting his family.
In other recordings, Anzor Chubinidze attempts to check with Gharibashvili that they are not going to intimidate the wrong person. Both men seem not fully convinced that Lado really offended Bera, but agree that Bera was motivated enough to fulfil his wish.
‘So you’ve been tasked to carry out a trial operation… another trial operation’, Gharibashvili remarks while laughing.
Anzor Chubinidze later confirms to Bera that he and his men visited Lado’s family.
The other recordings include Bera Ivanishvili eagerly discussing the revenge he already had on his supposed ‘offender’ with Gharibashvili and Chubinidze discussing what kind of apology texts they should demand from others who had offended Ivanishvili’s family.
In one instance, Bera Ivanishvili remarks that his father Bidzina Ivanishvili approved of pressuring some to apologise.
Pirveli also aired a conversation where Gharibashvili cheerfully pleases Bera by saying that one of his two targeted offenders was ‘pale’ and ‘was shaking’ from fear after being visited by men.
In another clip, Bera and Gharibashvili discuss the punishment of another person who had offended Bera — who Pirveli identified as a minor living in Tbilisi’s Gldani District — in front of his neighbours.
When were the tapes recorded?
Georgian Dream’s parliamentary leaders, who convened the party political council after Pirveli aired a teaser to the recordings, have not claimed that the people in the tapes were misidentified but insisted the leaked recordings were still ‘fabricated’ due to editing.
When the tapes were recorded have also become a key point of contention.
Gharibashvili has served in several positions since Georgian Dream came to power in October 2012. Until November 2013, he was Interior Minister. He was then appointed Prime Minister, where he served until December 2015.
After this, he spent several years with no official position, before returning as Political Secretary of Georgian Dream in March 2019 and again being appointed Prime Minister in February 2021.
TV Pirveli has said the leaker did not inform them when the four audio recordings they aired were made but speculated it took place ‘approximately’ in 2016, as a woman they identified as Lado’s mother said his son was now 27.
Georgian Dream’s parliamentary leader, Mamuka Mdinaradze, called the tapes an act of ‘information terror on society’ and insisted that the tapes were a compilation of several dozens of soundbites recorded in 2010 ‘when [Georgian] Dream was not even in politics’.
Before the party leaders convened on 6 March, parliamentary Vice-Speaker Gia Volski said the tapes were made in 2011, before Georgian Dream came to power.
In 2010, Gharibashvili worked for Bidzina Ivanishvili in his Cartu bank while Anzor Chubinidze served at Georgia’s Interior Ministry’s Security Police Department.
In one of the leaked recordings, Bera Ivanishvili says his offender was visited by men in ‘security cars with police sirens’.
On 6 March, another opposition-leaning TV channel, Mtavari, identified Zaza Nozadze as one of the possible victims of pressure from Bera Ivanishvili. In 2018, Nozadze, a Georgian musician, published a video in which he apologised to Bera for criticising him earlier.
Nozadze denied ever becoming a victim of revenge from Bera Ivanishvili.
A conversation unearthed on popular online discussion board Tbilisis Porumi also suggests the recordings could be from 2011.
In a post from 15 October 2011, one commenter identified Anzor Chubinidze from a Georgian Dream campaign video as a man who had visited and threatened him a month earlier after ‘trolling’ Bera Ivanishvili on Facebook.
Bidzina Ivanishvili announced his intention to go into politics and oust Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM from power on 7 October 2011.
Since the recordings, several people have come forward and claimed to have been threatened and harassed after criticising Bera Ivanishvili online.
On 6 March, government critic Dato Abzianidze identified a man named ‘Amiko’ referred to in one of the clips, as Amiko Janelidze.
According to Abzianidze, Janelidze publicly threatened to ‘rip his tongue out’ after he ridiculed Bera Ivanishvili on Facebook in June 2019.
In conversation with TV channel Formula, a former waiter, Tato Tsetskhladze, claimed he was personally threatened ‘with serious problems’ by Bera Ivanishvili in the summer of 2016 after criticising him on Facebook for not leaving a tip in the restaurant where he worked.
According to Tsetskhladze, he was also harassed by the Georgian security services.
On 7 March, musician Sandro Sulakvelidze claimed Bera Ivanishvili sent men to visit him over a Facebook update in 2013.