A secret audio recording released on Friday suggests that former Georgian sports minister Levan Kipiani attempted to extort expensive cars for other ministers from Omega Group, a business group that owns local TV channel Iberia TV. The authenticity of the recording has not yet been verified, but this is the second secret audio recording released in recent weeks suggesting the government is applying pressure on Omega Group.
In the first recording, released on 10 September, a person alleged to be Kipiani is heard delivering demands of $2 million from Georgia’s former Prime Minister and the head of the Georgian Dream Party Bidzina Ivanishvili to Omega Group’s owner Zaza Okuashvili as well as giving up Iberia TV in exchange for writing off the company’s tax debts. The Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the tape.
On Friday, Rustavi 2 published a second recording allegedly between the same two men, in which Kipiani, who is also one of the founders of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, appears to tell Okuashvili to give him three cars for Dimitri Kumsishvili and Nodar Khaduri, both former Finance Ministers of Georgia.
Kumsishvili and Khaduri have denied that they knew anything about such a conversation.
Khaduri said that neither during his time in office nor after that had he engaged in any unofficial business relations.
‘I obey the law and within this law I protect business interests. I don’t know anything about the cars’, said Khaduri.
Dimitri Kumsishvili was more outspoken in his defence, claiming his name was being used for extortion. He called on the prosecution to investigate the recordings and pledged to sue Okuashvili and Kipiani for defamation and fraud respectively.
Okuashvili’s wife Nato Chkheidze, an MP from the opposition Alliance of Patriots Party and a co-founder of Iberia TV, appeared to suggest the recordings were authentic. She said there had ‘been requests’ and that she knew about them.
‘I think they will not investigate Levan Kipiani as they should, they will treat him softly as we’ve already seen before’, Chkheidze told Rustavi 2.
What is Omega Group’s complaint
On 20 February, the head of Iberia TV’s newsroom, Vakho Khuzmiashvili, accused the government of putting financial pressure on Omega Group.
He said Omega had fallen victim to price dumping, causing serious financial problems for Iberia TV. He said the channel’s staff believed the government was putting financial pressure on the Omega Group to influence their editorial policy.
Apart from Iberia TV, Omega Group owns Omega Motors, the official dealer of a number of large car brands in Georgia including BMW and Land Rover. It also owns Omega Group Tobacco, a cigarette producer.
In February, Levan Aghdgomelashvili, manager of Omega Group Tobacco, said they had suffered a $100 million loss after multinational company British American Tobacco ‘violated the laws on competition and tobacco control’. He said that while Tbilisi City Court fully upheld their claim, the Court of Appeals did not recognise a connection between their losses and the sale of products on the market at below cost. He said the loss had endangered all Omega Group companies, including Iberia TV.
According to the Finance Ministry, Omega Group owes more than ₾51 million to the government in taxes. In a statement on 7 September, the ministry said most of the debt came from not paying excise taxes.
‘Because of the non-payment, compulsory measures have been taken against the company — collection of payments and sequestration’, the Ministry’s statement said, elaborating that the company asked them twice to create a payment plan to repay the debt but then failed to meet deadlines despite their requests being met.
Investigation of the secret recordings
The Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into the possible illegal acquisition of a large sum of money over the first recording. The $2 million heard being demanded in it was according to the tape destined for Ucha Mamatsashvili, the cousin of Georgia’s former Prime Minister and the head of the Georgian Dream Party Bidzina Ivanishvili.
On 11 September, the day after the tape was released, Mamatsashvili issued a statement denying the accusations and claiming that somebody was trying to use his name in an illegal campaign ‘which obviously has a political context’. He demanded the prosecution investigate the case.
On 12 September Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze held a press briefing in which he said developments around Omega Group had nothing to do with media freedom and were solely the outcome of its tax debts.
‘Cigarette products have excise taxes which everybody is required to pay. There is an independent media, and media pluralism is Georgian Dream’s biggest attainment’, said Bakhtadze.
After second secret recording was published on 21 September, a number of MPs and ministers commented on the developments.
Infrastructure Minister Maia Tskitishvili said ‘we do not have elite corruption’.
Giorgi Volski, Deputy Chairman of the Parliament stressed that it was important to discover the truth of what was happening around Omega Group.
‘The more recordings or information that comes to light regarding these hidden and conspiratorial activities inside and around Omega Group, the better it is’, said Volski.