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Omega Group Owner Speaks of Extortion, Racketeering involving Bidzina Ivanishvili

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Zaza Okuashvili, one of the founders of the Omega Group, a Georgian business conglomerate, and owner of a Tbilisi-based Iberia TV, accuses the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) leadership of extortion, racketeering and money laundering.

Okuashvili, who is a member of the Supreme Council of the Adjara Autonomous Republic from the Alliance of Patriots party, made the statement on September 30 in an 80-minute live interview with Rustavi 2 TV, an opposition-leaning television channel.

The statement comes after a number of secretly-recorded audio tapes were aired by Rustavi 2, featuring what appears to be conversations of Zaza Okuashvili with several GDDG-affiliated businessmen and a former minister for sports and youth affairs, involving allegations of corruption, side payments to officials, and sham funding scheme for the ruling party.

The audio recordings were first leaked after employees and owners of Iberia TV accused the authorities of pressure and artificially creating financial problems to the Omega Group’s cigarette production company – Omega Group Tobacco (OGT). Omega Group is the owner and the main funding source of Iberia TV.

Okuashvili, who is currently in London, said he had “a lot to say” on GDDG’s attempts to seize “the free business and the free word.” “I am ready to speak for our people, for the future of our country, for our freedom, for freedom of speech and freedom of business,” he noted.

The businessmen then described his meeting with former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom he reportedly approached in early 2016 for deliberating on problems in the tobacco industry, including on intentional dumping against the OGT in recent years, as well as on returning the GEL 25 million financial damage that was accrued by the company in 2004-2005.

In the words of Okuashvili, Ivanishvili met him together with the then business ombudsman and the current interior minister, Giorgi Gakharia, and Levan Kipiani, the sports and youth affairs minister in 2012-2015, whom Okuashvili had hired for government relations.

Okuashvili claimed Ivanishvili abused his company’s financial “weaknesses,” and tried to extort money. According to the OG owner, Ivanishvili delegated the matter to Otar Partskhaladze, former chief prosecutor in the GDDG government, who is reportedly in charge of the former prime minister’s sham dealings involving the Prosecutor’s Office.

Okuashvili said he was invited for a meeting by Partskhaladze shortly after his talks with Ivanishvili. In his words, Partskhaladze, accompanied by “a group of armed men who seemed to be under the influence of drugs,” requested a four million payment for settling the dumping problems facing his company and returning the 25 million damage.

Okuashvili said he wanted to arrange the matter directly with Bidzina Ivanishvili and communicated that to Otar Partskhaladze, but later, Levan Kipiani started warning the OG owner that “things would have ended badly” unless he paid the requested amount on time.

Okuashvili added that, following his refusal, Kipiani approached then Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, but the latter was unable to settle the issue. Later, according to Okuashvili, the former sports minister was punished for sidestepping the Partskhaladze group; Kipiani was reportedly incarcerated in a basement overnight and was threatened to be raped.

According to the audio tape, released by Rustavi 2 on September 30, shortly before Okuashvili’s interview, and featuring parts of his conversation with Levan Kipiani, the latter confirms that the incident took place, but provides no further details.

Okuashvili said pressure on the OG employees intensified after the incident. In a meeting that followed the incident later in 2016, according to Okuashvili, Bidzina Ivanishvili repeated Otar Partskhaladze’s demands in person and requested 4 million payment.

Okuashvili said he was eventually forced to transfer four million GEL to a company that was established in the offshore a day before. The money was reportedly withdrawn from TBC Bank in cash. Okuashvili claims the TBC owners were under pressure from Otar Partskhaladze and Giorgi Gakharia, and gave out the money outside working hours.*

In his interview, Okuashvili spoke on his ties with the Alliance of Patriots party, a radical right-wing outfit, saying he was asked by Bidzina Ivanishvili to fund the party ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2016. The Alliance of Patriots cleared the 5% threshold and entered the legislature with 6 lawmakers. Okuashvili touched upon the upcoming polls as well, voicing support to Grigol Vashadze of the UNM-led coalition, “the only real opposition” to Ivanishvili.

* In a statement released on October 1, TBC Bank denied Zaza Okuashvili’s claims, saying it is “an attempt for propagating a false information.” “On the statements of Mr. Okuashvili, the Bank would like to clarify that all of our transactions take place in working hours, in [full] observance of account opening and processing procedures,” reads the bank statement.

Iberia TV, established in 2000, was closed down in 2004 three months after the Omega Group-owned businesses, including Iberia TV, were raided by special task forces in what the authorities at the time said was part of a tax evasion probe. The television station resumed operations in 2015, two years after it restored its broadcasting license.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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