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Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party has said they will not open a parliamentary probe into claims by former TBC head Mamuka Khazaradze that the interior minister threatened him.
Khazaradze has claimed that Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia demanded he influence two TV channels’ coverage of the 2018 presidential elections, and to make a public statement against the opposition on the eve of the presidential run-off.
The European Georgia Party, the largest opposition group in parliament, has submitted an initiative to parliament to set up a parliamentary investigative committee to look into the alleged abuse of power.
Since mid-February, Khazaradze, the former chair of London-based TBC Bank Group, which owns its namesake bank in Georgia, has levelled a number of accusations against the government and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Khazaradze was forced to resign as chair of TBC’s board in February after the National Bank ordered he and his deputy be removed from the board. This followed an announcement by the Prosecutor’s Office that they had opened an investigation into the two for money laundering.
On 4 March, Khazaradze claimed that after the first round of last year’s presidential elections, Gakharia threatened him via a letter sent through an intermediary. According to him, the letter demanded he put pressure on TV Priveli and Artarea to give more favourable coverage of the ruling party.
In an interview on 11 March with Kviris Palitra, Khazaradze said that it ‘did not even cross his mind to intervene’ in the editorial policy of any TV station.
While Artarea is owned by TBC, Khazaradze denied he had any connection with TV Pirveli.
TV Pirveli owner Vakhtang Tsereteli has confirmed several times that Khazaradze was his friend. Tsereteli was also mentioned within the Prosecutor’s Offices’s money laundering investigation.
The day after the parliamentary hearings, Khazaradze gave testimony to the Prosecutor’s Office in front of a judge at Tbilisi City Court.
Leaving the court building, Khazaradze told journalists that he had given a copy of the letter to the Prosecutor’s Office while sending the original to London for ‘expert analysis’.
The Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the copy on the spot, saying that it was a printed paper that ‘anyone could have produced’.
On 11 March, a number of Georgian Dream MPs insisted there was no need for a parliamentary committee. The head of the Legal Affairs Committee, Anri Okhanashvili, told journalists that a parliamentary probe would ‘get even more political’ and that an investigation of the allegation should be something investigators do, not lawmakers.
Irma Inashvili, vice speaker of parliament and leader of the opposition Alliance of Patriots Party, repeated the same point, saying that the MPs ‘are not prosecutors nor investigators’.
European Georgia MP Zurab Tchiaberashvili told OC Media that the probe would have to look into a number of issues related to Khazaradze, including the investigation into TBC bank, Gakharia’s letter to the banker after the first round of presidential elections, as well as the government’s dealing of the Anaklia Port project.
Tchiaberashvili said that the state has not fulfilled its obligations to the Anaklia Development Consortium, and that this was obvious from the 2018 budget.
He said that other opposition groupings, the UNM Party and a group of MPs who recently left Georgian Dream, had expressed support for the committee.
Tchiaberashvili said that there were other lawmakers within the parliamentary majority that were ‘concerned’ with the latest developments around Khazaradze.
‘We’ll have to wait and see if they dare to openly express their support in favour of [the investigatory committee] so that there are eventually 50 votes — enough to pass it’, Tchiaberashvili added.
Deep-Sea Anaklia Port project
In his 14 February resignation post on Facebook, Khazaradze pointed out that a ‘speedy ruling and deliberate campaign against’ them coincided with his bank’s bid to build a deep-sea port in Anaklia. He reiterated this point during a parliamentary hearing on 4 March.
According to Khazaradze, he had sought to keep the investigation looking into his financial activities from the public in order ‘to avoid scaring off investors’. Khazaradze complained that instead, the authorities applied more pressure against him.
The Anaklia Development Consortium, co-owned by Khazaradze and the US-based Conti Group LLC, won the bid for the project in 2015, when Giorgi Kvirikashvili was the Minister for Economy.
Kvirikashvili later became Prime Minister but resigned in June 2018, citing a disagreement with the former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili over ‘economic policies’.
A month after Kvirikashvili’s departure, the Georgian billionaire Ivanishvili publicly reprimanded TBC for having ‘eaten up the whole country’, and also lambasted Kvirikashvili for lobbying for the banks.
Khazaradze told Kviris Palitra that he knew Ivanishvili was unhappy about him winning the tender, but also said that he met with Ivanishvili and Kvirikashvili ‘three weeks before Kvirikashvili’s resignation’. According to him, Ivanishvili thanked Kvirikashvili for his work on the Anaklia Port.
Since January, cabinet members and the parliamentary majority, as well as the National Bank of Georgia, have stressed TBC Bank’s important role in the country’s economy and insisted the bank had nothing to worry about.
The Georgian Dream leadership, including their Political Secretary and a former PM Irakli Gharibashvili, also insisted the government was committed to the Anaklia Port project.
‘One thing is the statements they make, another is what they are actually doing’, European Georgia’s Tchiaberashvili told OC Media.
Khazaradze told Kviris Palitra that a tender announced by the government to construct a railway and motorway as part of the planned Anaklia Port’s infrastructure failed ‘three or four times’. He also criticised the authorities for prioritising a port in Poti over the Anaklia project.
He said that he had no intention of leaving the Anaklia Development Consortium, where he is the chair of the supervisory board.
‘Government is to blame, not banks’
Speaking to the Finance and Budget Committee on 4 March, Khazaradze insisted that the ‘threatening’ letter from the interior minister included ‘some demands’ that he did not comply with, and had no intention of doing so.
It was not clear the letter concerned possible pressure on the media until the Prosecutor’s Office unveiled the copy Khazaradze handed them the next day.
Khazaradze confirmed to Kviris Palitra that it was due to government pressure that he came out against the opposition United National Movement Party and their ‘revanchism’ before the presidential run-off in November last year.
One of the ‘demands’ included in the copy of the letter released by the Prosecutor’s Office was to denounce the UNM and their possible return to power.
Nevertheless, Khazaradze said he agreed to the sentiment that pressure on businesses and the financial sector was a problem during the rule of the UNM.
Khazaradze also complained that while Ivanishvili accused TBC of ‘eating up the people’, Mikheil Saakashvili ‘threatened’ them ‘with dekulakisation’.
‘Replacing one thug with another cannot be our mission. Our aim is to get rid of thugs and free business and society from snatchers and racketeers’, Saakashvili fired back on his Facebook page after the interview. The former Georgian president was also quick to reprimand Khazaradze and TBC bank after the banker put out a statement against his party in November.
Speaking to OC Media, Tchiaberashvili questioned Saakashvili’s rhetoric.
According to him, Georgians might be angry at the banks, as a lot of them have had difficulties paying their bank loans. However, Tchiaberashvili said that slow economic growth, the dire social and economic situation, and ‘total collapse of the judicial system’ under Georgian Dream’s watch was to blame.
‘On this background, to redirect aggression at the banks and financial sector is wrong and unjustified from whoever it is coming from, as Georgia’s economy stands on them […] It would only make the crisis bigger’, Tchiaberashvili told OC Media.
During the 4 March parliamentary hearing, Khazaradze told MPs that he mentioned the letter to three prosecutors questioning him about the money laundering investigation on 26 December, but said they did not follow up with questions about his claim.
He accused the government of targeting TBC with ‘politically motivated’ fines and a number of probes since last year.
According to him, the National Bank fined TBC first ₾10,000 ($3,700) and then ₾1 million ($375,000) for violating regulations related to conflicts of interest. Speaking to the National Bank president Koba Gvenetadze, he said it became ‘apparent’ to him that the head of the financial regulator was not independent in his deliberations.
The ‘unprecedented’ pressure against him and TBC, according to him, coincided with a cyber attack against the bank in June 2018, that he said was never investigated.
Khazaradze also claimed in Parliament that a ‘smear campaign’ against him by anonymous accounts on Facebook began as soon as authorities made public (in early January this year) that they were investigating him over transactions made in 2007-2008.
Following the Prosecutor’s Office’s announcement of their probe into the transactions, the National Bank ordered TBC Bank Group’s shareholders to remove their Chair, Khazaradze, and Deputy Chair, Badri Japaridze, from their board.
Both resigned the following week.