Tbilisi City Court has frozen 60% of the shares of TV station Rustavi 2 after an appeal by the channel’s founders, Davit Dvali and Jarji Akimidze. The two have claimed for years that the government forced them to sell their shares in 2004 and have demanded they be given back ownership.
Rustavi 2 is currently owned by Kibar Khalvashi, who previously owned the channel in 2004–2006.
Ownership was returned to him following a 2017 ruling by Georgia’s Supreme Court stating that he was forced to sell his shares by the government. The transfer was blocked by the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) while they considered an appeal, however in July 2019 they ruled that the transfer could legally go ahead.
Rustavi 2’s previous director, Nika Gvaramia, had warned that Khalvashi would alter the channel’s editorial policy in favour of the government. Under Gvaramia, who held several positions in the government of the formerly ruling United National Movement Party (UNM), Rustavi 2 was the main opposition TV channel in Georgia.
After Khalvashi regained ownership, a number of prominent journalists were fired from or resigned from Rustavi 2, with many joining a new platform founded by Gvaramia called Mtavari Arkhi (‘main channel’).
[Read more on OC Media: Rustavi 2 fires head of news and says more journalists to be let go]
A third claiment
After filing the suit on Monday, Dvali said ‘The main battle starts now, we will fight till the end.’
‘I’m sure we will make it through every step of the way. Whether it’s us or our opponents who wins, the decision will be appealed.’
He added that they had asked only that the company’s shares be frozen in order to avoid accusations that they were attempting to cause financial problems for Rustavi 2’s management.
‘The assets and accounts are free. Only the shares that we claim as our own have been blocked. Therefore, Rustavi 2 can’t accuse us of causing financial problems’, said Dvali.
Their lawyer, Kakha Kozhoridze said that they made this move in order to prevent these shares from being sold.
Paata Salia, the current director of Rustavi 2, said on Monday that freezing the shares would not be damaging for the channel as long as it was only shares that were frozen, not the company’s property.
He said Kibar Khalvashi continued to invest in the channel and added that they would decide how to respond to the appeal once they received documents from the court.
Less then a month after the ECHR allowed Kibar Khalvashi to take ownership of the channel, he announced that he intended to sell it. In August, he said that the company was on the edge of bankruptcy and that he was unable to save it from financial ruin. He announced an auction, but it failed as no one made a move to buy it.
After Khalvashi’s announcement that he would sell Rustavi 2, Dvali and Akimidze’s lawyer warned potential buyers that they may not be considered ‘innocent buyers’.
Another person contesting the ownership of the channel was Ia Kitsmarishvili, the wife of another of its founders. On 12 July, she appealed to the court demanding that 30% of the company’s shares be transferred to her.
[Read more about Khalvashi wanting to sell Rustavi 2 on OC Media: Kibar Khalvashi to sell Rustavi 2]
‘Such an absurdity’
Several days after Khalvashi was returned ownership of Rustavi 2, Irakli Okruashvili, a former Defence Minister and former ally of Mikheil Saakashvili, claimed he was the legitimate owner of Rustavi 2. According to him, the government under Saakashvili’s UNM used Khalvashi in 2004 as a formal middle-man.
On 21 July, Dvali shared with the media what he said was testimony from Okruashvili given during the 2014 Prosecutor’s Office investigation into the ‘misappropriation’ of Rustavi 2’s shares.
In it, Okruashvili identified the founder of the United National Movement party (UNM) and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004–2013), and his close allies, Zurab Adeishvili and Ivane Merabishvili, of conspiring to pressure Akimidze and Dvali to give up their shares in the channel.
Dvali and Akimidze’s lawyer has said he intends to use Khalvashi’s own words against him.
‘Khalvashi said that he learned from Merabishvili, Adeishvili, and Okruashvili that Rustavi 2 was for sale for $7 million. [He said that he gave] $1.2 million to Irakli Okruashvili and $4 Million to Adeishvili’, said Kozhoridze.
He said that this was proof that no court could turn a blind eye to.
‘If a person says that he is an innocent buyer who bought a private company, but payed the money to the Interior Minister, this is such an absurdity that not only a Georgian court but even a court in the most struggling country democracy-wise, cannot recognise this kind of arrangement as legal’, Kozhoridze told Mtavari Arkhi.