A number of leaders in the ruling Georgian Dream Party have lashed out at the country’s non-governmental sector over their criticism of the government’s handling of the Omega tapes scandal. Fifteen prominent NGOs have joined together to demand action over the secret recordings, labelling them a ‘clear sign of grand corruption and informal clan rule in Georgia’.
The Open Society Georgia Foundation, Transparency International — Georgia, GYLA, ISFED and others put out a joint statement on 1 October accusing the government of attempting to ‘avoid responsibility’ over the scandal. The groups said the government’s initial response suggested they were ‘not planning to respond to the case’.
‘In the past few years, there have been a number of cases pointing to the fact that certain individuals stand above the law and are untouchable. The parallel existence of formal and informal governance undermines the system of democratic accountability, strips formal decision-makers of their responsibilities, and alienates citizens from the political system’, the statement read.
Georgian Dream leaders including parliamentary chair Irakli Kobakhidze, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze have dismissed allegations of pressuring Iberia TV and extorting money from private businesses.
Georgia’s Public Defender Nino Lomjaria spoke out against the government’s response to the criticism.
‘No campaign against NGOs has ended well for any government […] The problems this sector speaks out loudly and boldly against won’t disappear by criticising them’, Lomjaria told Rustavi 2 on Tuesday.
A series of audio recordings of conversations between businessman Zaza Okuashvili and former sports minister Levan Kipiani have potentially implicated a number of former and current senior officials, including former prime minister and Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili, in extortion.
Okuashvili, whose Omega Group owns a tobacco company, a car dealership, and TV station Iberia TV, has filed a lawsuit at the London Court of International Arbitration claiming officials extorted money and cars from him in exchange for writing off the company’s tax debts.
[Read more about Omega Tapes scandal on OC Media: Former minister says extortion tapes staged for ‘foreign investors’]
The first prominent Georgian Dream party member to speak out against Georgia’s NGOs over the affair was speaker of parliament Irakli Kobakhidze.
In an Interview with Rustavi 2’s ‘Archevani’ (choice) programme on 2 October, Kobakhidze called the groups criticising the government ‘13 politically biased men and women’ who would ‘fail to garner 1% of votes if they participated in elections’.
On 7 October, Kobakhidze berated the groups for failing to condemn what he called a ‘fascist’ statement by Rustavi 2 director Nika Gvaramia.
Two days earlier Gvaramia called on his Facebook followers to ‘harass’ supporters of presidential contender Salome Zurabishvili.
‘Those who defend fascism, participate in fascism’, stated Kobakhidze, identifying ISFED chair Mikheil Benidze as one of the ‘defenders’ of Gvaramia’s statement.
Benidze stated on 5 October that Gvaramia’s call to ‘harass and purge’ supporters of ‘traitor’ Salome Zurabishvili ‘from public life’ fell within the limits of free speech and did not violate the electoral code.
ISFED, the International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy, is a major independent election watchdog in Georgia.
In the same statement, Kobakhidze labelled the groups ‘shameless’ and likened them to the opposition United National Movement party for supposedly claiming ‘there was a better situation in courts before 2012’.
The groups’ 1 October statement identified ‘clan-based governance in the judicial system’, as preventing the judiciary from ‘upholding the rule of law and in some cases even serving the interests of the ruling party’.
It did not mention the situation before 2012, the year Georgian Dream came to power.
Several other party leaders have followed suit in criticising the group of NGOs.
On 3 October, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani offered to help the groups, which she characterised as ‘prone to hysterical screams’, to register as political organisations since they were ‘in fact, political parties’.
Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze called the groups’ ‘refusal’ to criticise Gvaramia’s statement ‘unsurprising’, because, according to Kaladze, they ‘were formed by the [United] National Movement’.
He added that as they were ‘formally’ non-governmental organisations and not ‘political parties’, they should wait for the official investigation to conclude.
On Monday, ISFED included the government’s fallout with NGOs in their second interim report on the pre-election environment, calling it a ‘coordinated attack’ on civil society that must stop.
The same day, rights groups EMC, GYLA and five other NGOs joined ISFED in another joint statement, calling the ‘aggressive rhetoric against the non-governmental sector’ an attempt to ‘distract’ the public from the Omega tapes scandal and other problems.
Developments in the Omega tapes scandal
On 5 October, the Prosecutor’s Office said the Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau had concluded that the Omega Tapes recordings had been ‘doctored’, but said the investigation continues.
Omega Group have challenged the forensics exam, claiming the authorities analysed recordings retrieved from TV broadcasts instead of the original tapes.
The company said analyses they had commissioned with private British digital forensics firm Cyfor confirmed the authenticity of two of the recordings.
Neither men heard speaking in the tapes, Omega group’s Zaza Okuashvili, who recorded them, and former sports minister Levan Kipiani, who may have been implicated in them, have challenged that the conversations took place.
Kipiani instead claimed he had agreed to stage the conversations in order to deceive Omega Group’s foreign partners.
[Read on OC Media: Omega Tapes: former minister says extortion tapes staged for ‘foreign investors’]
What do the tapes say
A series of apparently secret and potentially incriminating recordings have aired throughout September on Iberia TV and Rustavi 2.
In the first, Kipiani is heard delivering demands ‘from Bidzina Ivanishvili’ of $2 million and ownership of Iberia TV in exchange for cancelling Okuashvili’s debts.
Omega Group owes around ₾50 million ($19 million) to the government in unpaid taxes.
In the next tape to air, the former sports minister asks for three cars for cabinet ministers.
The third recording, which aired on 30 September on Rustavi 2, was accompanied by an interview with Okuashvili in which he directly accused Ivanishvili of demanding ‘four million’ from him during a meeting in which Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia was present.
Ivanishvili confirmed the meeting took place, but claimed Okuashvili was seeking business advice.
In the same show, Okuashvili said that at one point, Kipiani had been kidnapped, beaten, and threatened to have his ‘honour violated’ by the former Chief Prosecutor Otar Partskhaladze, for going to then–Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili to ask if his orders really came from Ivanishvili.
Kipiani denied that any such events took place, however, in one of the recordings, several references are made to the kidnapping and he does not challenge that it took place.