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On Thursday, the two founders of TBC Bank Group, who the prosecutor’s office charged with laundering almost $17 million in July, announced that they are establishing a political organisation, which they plan to turn into a political party in time for Georgia’s 2020 parliamentary elections.
Former chair of the TBC board Mamuka Khazaradze, and former deputy chair, Badri Japaridze hosted a presentation of the ‘political movement’, titled ‘Lelo’, in Anaklia. As Khazaradze put it, ‘the closest spot to Europe’.
Later in the evening, Khazaradze disclosed details of a meeting with the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who he alleged pressured him to back down in a dispute with a businessperson who had been suing TBC Bank.
‘The practice of leaving the [political] process to only one man has come to an end’, Khazaradze said in a speech on 12 September. He said that Lelo would soon transform into a political party and would participate in the 2020 elections without entering into a coalition agreement with any other political parties.
Khazaradze added that the organisation was born of ‘the unity of successful professionals from different sectors’, who came together because ‘today Georgia needs the unity of people who made their own success stories in different fields’.
The professionals Khazaradze and Japaridze gathered included two former officials from the administration of ex-president Giorgi Margvelashvili: his former press-speaker Ana Natsvlishvili, and Kakha Kozhoridze, a former adviser.
‘We have to establish a new wave, where people unite around mutual goals, not against someone’, Japaridze said.
Under investigation after claims of government pressure
In January, the National Bank of Georgia fined TBC ₾1 million ($380,000) for violating conflicts of interest rules and ordered that Khazaradze and Japaridze resign from their posts.
Khazaradze claimed in February that the regulator was not independent in their decision and that he could not afford to remain in the post while TBC Bank’s shareholders suffered losses due to the dispute.
Addressing Parliament in early March, Khazaradze accused Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who was the Interior Minister at the time, of sending him a threatening letter in November 2018 demanding he pressure TV channels Pirveli and Artarea, the latter of which is owned by TBC, into covering presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili favourably.
In January 2019, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office revealed that they had been investigating Khazaradze and Japaridze for eight months, looking into a series of loans given by TBC in 2007 and 2008 to Samgori M and Samgori Trade.
The Prosecutor’s Office alleged that after TBC issued the loans to the two companies, Kharadze and Japaridze took out personal loans of the exact same amount from these same companies, following which, the loans were written off.
Charges were pressed against Khazaradze and Japaridze in July. If found guilty of money laundering, the two would face 9–12 years in prison.
The indictment on 24 July came two weeks after Khazaradze announced he would launch Lelo — at the time he simply referred to it as a ‘public movement’ — in September, citing a need to consolidate ‘progressive and pro-Western’ forces in Georgia.
Khazaradze insisted that the indictment was an attempt by the government to ‘damage’ not just him but ‘Georgia's financial interests, shareholders, and the Anaklia Project’.
Since January, opposition groups have accused the government and Georgian Dream Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili of applying legal pressure to Khazaradze after the Anaklia Development Consortium won a bid to build the Anaklia Deep Sea Port on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Figures from major opposition parties, including the United National Movement (UNM) and European Georgia, have suggested that ruling party officials might be interested in either cancelling or taking over the project. They have also alleged that it was in the interests of Russia for the Anaklia project to be cancelled.
The consortium, co-owned by Khazaradze and the US-based Conti Group LLC, won the bid for the project in 2015.
‘Meeting with Ivanishvili’
On the evening of 12 September, in an interview with TV Pirveli, Khazaradze described a 2018 phone call in which, he alleged, Bidzina Ivanishvili tried to pressure him to drop a legal appeal in a lawsuit against TBC Bank.
Khazaradze alleged that the suit was brought against TBC by Vano Chkhartishvili, a Georgian businessman and former politician, who was suing the bank for $30 million. Khazaradze did not detail the reason for the lawsuit.
He said he had appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare legislation that would have allowed a court to freeze TBC’s assets if they ruled in Chkhartishvili’s favour before a chance to submit an appeal, unconstitutional.
Khazaradze says that Ivanishvili pressured him to withdraw the appeal and suggested that he negotiate with Chkhartishvili instead.
‘It was very hard for me to call foreign partners and tell them that we should get rid of our only legal leverage and withdraw the appeal’, Khazaradze said. ‘I convinced the supervisory board members after I met Ivanishvili.’
Following the phone call, an alleged meeting between Khazaradze and Chkhartishvili took place. In addition to the two men, Khazaradze said it was also attended by Badri Japaridze, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and then-Chief Prosecutor of Georgia, Irakli Shotadze.
He said the meeting was held in 2018, before Georgia’s presidential elections.
‘It was a small trial in which Ivanishvili was everything — the judge and the chairman of constitutional and the supreme court’, Khazaradze said. ‘Shotadze was quiet the whole time. During the discussion, when we suggested clarifying what was happening, after an hour and a half, he mumbled and dared to say that there was “nothing fishy” in the [lawsuit].’
At the beginning of 2019, Ivanishvili said he had been involved in negotiations between TBC bank and Chkhartishvili. He added that Khazaradze had not even thanked him for helping him.
On Friday, TV Pirveli aired Vano Chkhartishvili’s response to Khazaradze’s allegations, in which he calling them ‘lies’ and ‘gossip’. However, Chkhartishvili did confirm that Bidzina Ivanishvili intervened in his suit against TBC.
He said that he launched the suit because, in the 2000s, the United National Movement government had confiscated his businesses with the help of Khazaradze’s bank.
He said that Ivanishvili became involved in the lawsuit because, ‘it concerned relationships with foreign investors and state affairs, such as trust towards institutions, which determine the country’s financial stability’.
Chkhartishvili added that he had already withdrawn his suit, as pursuing it would ‘harm the Georgian business environment’.
He also added that the amount he was suing for was not $30 million, but rather, $18 million.
After Khazaradze’s remarks, Georgian Dream officials offered a sharp rebuke to the allegations. Vice-Prime Minister Maia Tskitishvili said that ‘she didn’t want to comment’ on ‘Khazaradze’s gossip, which we have heard many times from him’.
Another Georgian Dream official, Gia Volski, said he had the impression that Khazaradze’s remarks were ‘worthless’.
Khazaradze was also criticised by former President and UNM founder Mikheil Saakashvili, who said that it was Khazaradze who helped Ivanishvili come to power in the first place, and that had it not been for his party, the Anaklia port would have already been built.
UNM MP Nika Melia criticised Khazaradze’s political plans for being unfocused.
‘The only solution is for [the opposition] to unite against Ivanishvili. I didn’t hear this from him’, Melia said.
Meanwhile, European Georgia leader Gigi Ugulava criticised Saakashvili for his remarks, calling them ‘incorrect and untimely’. Ugulava described Khazaradze as a ‘western-oriented political [figure] with conservative views’.