Intrigue as ex-Georgian defence minister arrested over anti-government protests

Intrigue as ex-Georgian defence minister arrested over anti-government protests
Rustavi 2 itself has been much in the news on the TV station's news programmes lately.
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest July 26, 2019

Irakli Okruashvili, who served as Georgian defence minister from 2004 to 2006 under then president Mikheil Saakashvili, was arrested on July 25 on charges of “organising, leading and participating” in mass violence during the unrest seen in Tbilisi on the night of 20-21 June when protesters attempted to storm the parliament but where beaten back by riot police.

Okruashvili, presently engaged in a legal battle over the ownership of the country’s main TV station Rustavi 2, has alleged his arrest is part of an attempt by the billionaire head of Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to control independent media ahead of what are expected to be tight parliamentary elections next year.

The arrest came a day after influential Georgian banker and businessman Mamuka Khazaradze, founder and—until he resigned on July 25—board chairman of Georgia’s FTSE 250-listed TBC Bank Group, was arrested on controversial money laundering accusations related to activities that took place as long ago as 2007-2008. Just like Okruashvili, Khazaradze also pointed the finger at Ivanishvili, who, he claimed was looking to take control of the country’s flagship infrastructure investment project, which aims to build a deep sea port at Anaklia on the Black Sea coast.

Battle for Rustavi 2
Okruashvili’s lawyer, Mamuka Chabashvili, stated that his client was arrested on Ivanishvili’s orders as part of the battle for control of the Rustavi 2 TV station, which has been run as a pro-West media platform expressing firm criticism directed at Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream government.

Separately, Okruashvili, no longer linked to the self-exiled Saakashvili, who dismissed him in 2006, has returned to politics in June by setting up an opposition political vehicle, Victorious Georgia, ahead of next year’s elections. This must be a concern to the ruling regime that saw its preferred candidate only just scrape through to win the presidency late last year.

Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream is currently losing support in the opinion polls. According to a poll conducted in May-June, if the parliamentary elections were held around now it would be defeated by the two main opposition parties.

Chabashvili claimed Ivanishvili was taken by surprise by claims of Rustavi 2 ownership expressed by his client on July 19, one day after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favour of another businessman as regards the ownership. The ruling was clearly in favour of Ivanishvili, who it is thought expects the TV station to help his party ahead of the general election next year. The new owner has already replaced the head manager of the TV station, although the editorial team is still in place. Okruashvili was in fact arrested immediately after he gave an interview to Rustavi 2 during which he reiterated his claim that he legally owns the station.

Formal charges relate to protests
Formally, he was arrested on charges related to the anti-government protests that broke out after word spread of a Russian MP set to address lawmakers in parliament from the speaker’s chair.

Acting head of the Georgian Interior Ministry’s criminal police department, Mamuka Chelidze, said police investigations showed that Okruashvili “with accompanying persons was both inciting others and trying himself to force entry into the parliament”, wrote. The police released a video to help document the charges. Riot police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets, leading to a handful of people losing eyes, in pushing back demonstrators attempting to surge into the parliament.

Chelidze explained that not only Okruashvili but 17 people have been charged with group violence, including MP , whose freedom of movement has already been restricted with electronic tagging.

The ECHR ruling made Kibar Khalvashi the lawful owner of Rustavi 2. Okruashvili claims he lent $7mn to Khalvashi to buy the station, but on the condition that no management change at the TV station would be made. However, immediately after the European court decision and the transfer of Rustavi 2 shares to Khalvashi, the manager of the TV station was indeed changed. 

Okruashvili on July 19 filed a lawsuit against Khalvashi, claiming he is the actual 100% owner of the station as per a contract signed in 2010. A court has dismissed the claim.  

While widely criticised for favouring the opposition and a style that is often vitriolic and muckraking, Rustavi 2 has effectively acted as a powerful check on Ivanishvili and his party’s otherwise dominant hold over the nation, stated, commenting on recent developments around the TV station.

In recent years, Rustavi 2 has essentially been at war with Ivanishvili, sometimes seen as the de facto leader of Georgia. Nika Gvaramia, general director of the station until last week, is known for delivering fiery speeches at anti-government rallies. He has used airtime to broadcast crude epithets in relation to Ivanishvili.