On the meetings in the residence of the oligarch, surrounded by alligator skins
Georgian businessman and founder of the Omega Group, Zaza Okuashvili, has given a shocking interview on the Rustavi 2 television channel. Okuashvili, who is currently in London, spoke about how the former PM of Georgia Bidzina Ivanishvili extorted four million lari ($ 1,800,000) from him.
Okuashvili also asserts that former prosecutor Otar Partskhaladze locked the former minister of sport Levan Kipiani in a basement and physically threatened him on Ivanishvili’s command.
Okuashvili presented Rustavi 2 with a hidden camera recording, in which Kipiani himself talks about the incident in the basement. The credibility of the recording has not yet been confirmed.
In the interview, Okuashvili reveals the details of the two meetings in Bidzina Ivanishvili’s residence, which included the participation of the former minister of internal affairs and… alligator skins.
The first meeting with Ivanishvili
Okuashvili first met with Ivanishvili sometime in 2015 or the beginning of 2016, he says.
The Omega Group was founded in 1991. The company is engaged in a number of business sectors, including Omega Motors, OGT (cigarette manufacturing in partnership with Philip Morris), Rothmans, RJ Reynolds and Omega Teg (a printing house in partnership with Heidelberg).
The Omega Group also owns TV channel Iberia, which broadcasts in Tbilisi.
During Saakashvili’s reign, Okuashvili encountered business problems which forced him to leave Georgia in 2004.
Okuashvili returned to Georgia after Ivanishvili came to power. His family openly supported the Georgian Dream party who stood against Saakashvili.
Okuashvili’s spouse, Nato Chkheidze, became a Georgian MP for the Alliance of Patriots opposition party, which supports the ruling party.
Information that the Omega Group had come up against difficulties was released in September 2016. This past September, news broke that the government intended to put Omega Group up for auction.
On 28 September, the revenue service announced at a special briefing a court decision which says that the Omega Group has a debt of 50 million GEL [about $20.4 million] and that in order to cover it, Omega Group’s assets must be put to auction.
Okuashvili says that he came to meet with Ivanishvili in order to ‘restore justice’. That is, he requested damage compensation for his businesses that suffered under Saakashvili [ed. One of Ivanishvili’s campaign promises was that he would study cases of businessmen who have had conflicts with the authorities and will restore justice].
The meeting, which took place in Ivanishvili’s glass palace, took place with the former minister of sport Levan Kipiani in attendance, who was called upon to be the official mediator between the government and the businessman, for which, Okuashvili says, he received a substantial fee.
Okuashvili says that the first meeting with Ivanishvili took place in a calm and businesslike atmosphere, and that the former prime minister promised to help solve his issues.
Okuashvili was soon contacted by the head prosecutor Otar Partskhaladze, a member of Ivanishvili’s close circle.
Partskhaladze called him in for a meeting and said that, in exchange for solving his problem, he must pay four million lari, which Partskhaladze called a ‘contribution’.
Okuashvili says that at the meeting, Partskhaladze was surrounded by members of the military, the majority of whom were supposedly under the influence of narcotic substances, including Partskhaladze himself.
The ex-minister locked in the basement
After his conversation with Partskhaladze, Okuashvili appealed for help from Levan Kipiani. In order to get to the bottom of the issue, Kipiani spoke with then PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili. The PM was unaware of the event and, in order to clarify the details, got in touch with Ivanishvili himself. In the Rustavi 2 interview, Okuashvili says that Kvirikashvili’s involvement in the affair highly irritated Ivanishvili.
Okuashvili asserts that Kipiani was harshly punished for “ratting to Kvirikashvili” – the former minister of sports was placed in the basement, undressed, beaten and threatened with rape. In Okuashvili’s version of events, Kipiani returned home only the next day and even attempted suicide.
In one of the recordings, Kipiani does mention the incident in the basement. He calls the incident an ‘emergency situation’ (probably afraid of speaking openly on the telephone).
The second meeting with Ivanishvili – alligator skins, an embarrassed minister of internal affairs and four fingers
Okuashvili further claims that the second meeting with Ivanishvili took place towards the end of 2016 and was much more dramatic.
At this meeting, the current Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakharia (who was then the business ombudsman) and Levan Kipiani were present.
Okuashvili says that since Partskhaladze was unable to get money from him, Ivanishvili himself got involved in the process and personally demanded the four million lari.
“At first I didn’t understand, so he showed me four fingers. Then he voiced that the four million had to get to the ‘guys who had worked so hard’,” says Okuashvili.
During the meeting, Ivanishvili allegedly screamed and was radically different from the person that society knows from the [television] screen.
“There were the skins of about ten alligators on the couch. While we sat there, on the crocodile skins, Gakharia was in a very bad way. Ivanishvili was screaming at him and was very aggressive … Gakharia was absolutely red in the face,” Okuashvili says.
Why should Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who has several billion lari, want to extort just four million from Okuashvili?
In response to this question, Okuashvili said that Ivanishvili mentioned he had to spend his own money on “the guys”, by which he supposedly meant party members and other people that are loyal to Ivanishvili, whom the billionaire supposedly finances but on whom he does not want to spend his own money.
Okuashvili further added that Ivanishvili had examined the weak spots in his business and instead of help, he tried to use them to his own advantage.
Ivanishvili stated that, as a whole, Ivanishvili’s style of rule is such: he tries to find people’s weak spots and then manipulates them. Okuashvili says that he even boasts about this:
“At the meetings, he said that he has such influence on Kezerashvili [ed. a businessman and the minister of defence of Georgia under Saakashvili]. He supposedly has Kezerashvili where he wants him and can force him to do whatever.”
Okuashvili says that Ivanishvili has a similar relationship with the Bank of Georgia.
The shady transfer of the four million
One of the most scandalous parts of the interview was Okuashvili’s statement concerning the relations between the authorities and private commercial banks.
Okuashvili in the end had to pay the four million lari to Ivanishvili.
“They had to see the four million, as mice do cheese, in order to calm down a bit,” Okuashvili said and described the process of the transfer.
The money was transferred to a firm registered offshore. The firm had been set up one day before the money transfer and the four million lari was withdrawn in cash on the same day from TBC Bank.
The bank does not have the right to allow for withdrawals from accounts registered just 24 hours before, but Okuashvili says that the leadership was unable to withstand the pressure from above.
It was the then business-ombudsman and current Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakharia who personally spoke to bank representatives on Ivanishvili’s command.
“This happened in TBC bank. They summoned the directors; the director of the bank, Butskhrikidze, and the president of the oversight committee, Khazaradze, were under pressure. They were called by Gakharia. Partskhaladze called the bank as well, as did Levan Kipiani. The bank was supposed to block the withdrawal as this was a complete violation of the procedure. But they were unable to do so. I sympathise with them. Not everybody is capable of withstanding such pressure, especially as they were subjected to it by Ivanishvili and Gakharia,” Okuashvili said.
Ivanishvili has already commented on Okuashvili’s interview. He said that he did indeed meet with Okuashvili, but only to help his sinking company which was not paying taxes.
Ivanishvili said that, given that Okuashvili recorded everything on a tape recorder, he should publish the recording of their conversation.
Other officials have said that this is just a smear campaign, behind which one can see the hand of Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement.
Ministers and MPs from the ruling party believe that Okuashvili simply does not want to pay the taxes that his companies owe.
The opposition and many other independent observers say that much of what Okuashvili has said was already known, especially his comments about Bidzina Ivanishvili being the shadow ruler of the country.
Georgian banks have also issued statements about the controversy.
In its statement, the Bank of Georgia says that Okuashvili has not made good on dues for a while and that he has borrowed some 30 million lari [about $12.2 million].
TBC Bank stated that the situation described by Okuashvili did not take place and that the bank did not allow for the cash withdrawal of four million lari from the accounts of a company registered offshore.