A former Georgian minister caught on tape allegedly extorting money and cars from a businessman on behalf of former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili has claimed the recordings were staged for the benefit of foreign investors.
Opposition-leaning TV station Rustavi 2 has aired several audio recordings taken in 2016 suggesting the government was pressuring Omega Group.
Levan Kipiani, who previously served as the country’s Minister of Sports, confirmed to journalists on Wednesday that the recordings were genuine.
He said he was approached by Zaza Okuashvili, the founder of Omega Group and that Okuashvili suggested they create the ‘compromising recordings’ to convince Omega Group’s foreign business partners that the company was unable to repay its debts because it was facing pressure from the Georgian Government.
‘That’s why he decided to create a compromising recording for foreign partners. He promised it was intended only for internal use and would be sent to abroad. He would convince them that the Georgian Government was pressuring him, and his partners would delay his obligations’, said Kipiani, not specifying who the foreign partners in question were.
Okuashvili responded the same day that Omega Group did not have any debts with its partners.
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.
On Thursday Kipiani also denied that he was kidnapped, beaten, and threatened with having his ‘honour violated’ by former chief prosecutor Otar Partskhaladze, a claim made by Okuashvili in an interview with Rustavi 2 that aired on Sunday.
‘This is a lie. It is insulting to talk about this. Such a thing did not happen’, said Kipiani, adding that he knows Partskhaladze and has a good relationship with him.
In an audio recording aired by Rustavi 2 on Sunday, Okuashvili makes several clear references to Kipiani’s kidnapping, and Kipiani does not challenge that it took place.
Kipiani, who was questioned by investigators in Tbilisi City Court on Wednesday, also told journalists Okuashvili owed him money
‘Pressure from Ivanishvili’
In his interview with Rustavi 2, Okuashvili said pressure from the government began after he asked Georgian Dream party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili to help solve his business problems.
The businessman alleged Ivanishvili used his company’s vulnerable position and tried to extort money from him by ‘delegating’ the issue to the former Chief Prosecutor. He said he was later called to meet Partskhaladze, who was accompanied by armed men and ‘probably under the influence of drugs’. Okuashvili claimed Partskhaladze demanded he pay ₾4 million ($1.8 million) to Ivanishvili to make the problem go away.
He said he refused to pay anything at that time, and tried to find out if the demand had really come from Ivanishvili, requesting that Kipiani find out for him. According to Okuashvili, Kipiani contacted then–Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who in turn enquired with Ivanishvili.
Okuashvili said Partskhaladze was unhappy with Kipiani for contacting the Prime Minister, and this was the reason for threatening him. He said Kipani was unreachable for the entire night, and ‘wanted to kill himself’ after the ordeal.
In the interview, Okuashvili claimed the meeting with Ivanishvili eventually took place in April 2016, and that Kipiani and then–Business Ombudsman Giorgi Gakharia (currently the Interior Minister), were present.
According to Okuashvili, Ivanishvili held up four fingers during the meeting, later verbally confirming he wanted the businessman to give up ₾4 million ($1.8 million). Okuashvili said Ivanishvili asked him to finance the Alliance of Patriots party.
‘We got debts and obligations only after I started meeting Business ombudsman and Bidzina Ivanishvili’, said Okuashvili.
‘Pressure’ on TBC Bank
His interview with Rustavi 2, Okuashvili said he eventually gave up ₾4 million to ‘Ivanishvili and his people’. The businessman said he put the money on an account belonging to Olympus — an offshore company he registered the day before.
According to Okuashvili, TBC Bank was personally pressured by now–Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia to cash the money from Olympus’s account despite limits on withdrawals for new companies and companies registered abroad. He said the CEO of TBC Bank, Vakhtang Butskhrikidze was personally involved in making sure the withdrawal happened. TBC Bank denied Okuashvili’s story and threatened to sue him for slander.
Kipiani confirmed on Wednesday that the money was withdrawn from TBC Bank, but said he did not know what happened to it afterwards.
‘I was present in bank, the money was withdrawn, but it is unknown to me where the money went’, Kipiani said.
On Monday, Rustavi 2 aired pictures allegedly showing Olympus Director Aleksandre Khachishvili accompanied by Levan Kipiani in the hall of TBC Bank’s main branch, and then also outside the building ‘handing over the money to armed men’.
According to receipts obtained by Netgazeti, the withdrawal happened outside the bank’s working hours on 21–22 April 2016.
In the interview, Okuashvili claimed handing over the money was a ‘trap’ for the racketeers — something he could later use to substantiate his claims.
Georgian Dream denies accusations
Rejecting allegations of extortion by the government, parliamentary chair Irakli Kobakhidze said on Tuesday that: ‘if you put money in front of any of our team leaders, they wouldn’t touch it’.
At a party meeting on Monday, Georgian Dream leaders dismissed Okuashvili’s allegations. Bidzina Ivanishvili and Giorgi Gakharia confirmed they met with Okuashvili, but said it was about helping a businessman who had unpaid tax problems.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze also rebuffed Okuashvili’s claims and said that ‘a tobacco company risking the operation of the media by not paying taxes’ was ‘unacceptable’. But Bakhtadze also added that there no one was ‘untouchable’ in Georgia and that the Prosecutor’s Office was investigating the allegations.
On Monday, the Prosecutor’s Office told Georgian news agency InterPressNews that all allegations circulating in the media would be investigated.
Also on Monday, 13 local non-governmental organisations put out a joint statement saying that the scandal ‘suggests the country's democracy is in deep crisis’, and suffers from ‘elite corruption’ and ‘informal, clan-based rule’.
Sunday’s airing of a conversation between Kipiani and Okuashvili was the third in a series of potentially incriminating recordings aired by Rustavi 2.
In the first recording, released on 10 September, Kipiani is heard delivering demands from Bidzina Ivanishvili for Okuashvili to hand over $2 million, as well as to give up Iberia TV in exchange for writing off the company’s tax debts.
On 21 September, Rustavi 2 aired a second recording between the two men in which Kipiani tells Okuashvili to give him three cars for Dimitri Kumsishvili and Nodar Khaduri, both former Finance Ministers of Georgia.