Georgia: an era of seizures, impoundments and fines
The State Audit Office of Georgia (formerly the Chamber of Control), continue a series of questionable seizures. On July 25, the Tbilisi City Court ruled to freeze the Georgian Development Research Institute (GDRI) account in the Tbilisi-based Progress Bank. The GDRI is a Tbilisi-based think-tank founded nine-months ago by two Georgian Dream Coalition members Gia Khukhashvili and Vakhtang Khmaladze, along with independent expert Zaza Shatirishvili. The institution was mainly funded by Bidzina Ivanishvili.
In its explanation letter, Tbilisi City Court emphasized that GDRI is not legally eligible to receive information about the ongoing investigation into the case, because GDRI does not represent a party into the case. As a result, GDRI is not able to even appeal the ruling regarding the freezing of its bank account to a higher court.
It is not the first time when Tbilisi’s City Court delivered a verdict against an organization or an individual tied to the Georgian Dream Coalition– particularly with regard to Bidzina Ivanishvili. The long list of seizures, impoundments and fines compels one to believe that the government has launched a ‘seizures era’ in Georgia against the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili and all organizations, institutions or individuals somehow connected with the main Georgian oppositional force.
Everything began with the transformation of the Chamber of Control into the State Audit Office of Georgia. It is now an independent public institution, which conducts audits on the state budget, public finances and activities of the public administration. Presently, this body is actively involved in auditing the activities of political parties during this pre-election period.
Global TV, the Georgian cable operator and satellite TV provider which was forcefully closed by the State Audit Office of Georgia was one the first links in the chain. In June of this year, the State Audit Office sent documents to the public prosecutor’s office accusing Global TV of vote buying. Consequently, the organization is co-owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s brother Alexander and soon after, they had their satellite dishes seized. Global TV was the only cable operator broadcasting so-called opposition TV channels in the Georgian regions such as Channel 9.
Soon after, an ongoing investigation was launched on the oppositional channel Maestro which decided to continue supplying Georgian regions with satellite dishes so information could spill into the regions where the lack of an alternative point of view has been mentioned as a major pre-election dilemma by some Georgian NGOs and international organizations. Consequently, on June 20, the company’s satellite dishes were seized as part of an investigation launched by the chief prosecutor’s office.
According to officials, Maestro TV imported thousands of satellite dish antennas upon instructions given by Elita Burji, a company affiliated with Bidzina Ivanishvili. The main purpose of such transaction was to “bribe voters under the scheme once already used by Global Contact Consulting.”
Still one of the most notorious cases involves imposing a fine of GEL 74million on Bidzina Ivanishvili. Earlier this month, the State Audit Office concluded an investigation which resulted in Bidzina Ivanishvili being charged with the violation of party funding rules. The Georgian Dream Coalition leader refused to pay. On June 26 however, the National Bureau of Enforcement at the Ministry of Justice impounded Bidzina Ivanishvili’ shares in Cartu Bank, 21.7% shares in Progress Bank and 100% shares in JSC Cartu Group. As a result, the control over Cartu Bank and JSC Cartu Group once founded and owned by Bidzina Ivanishvili, was taken by the government.
The last famous case has to do with Kakha Kaladze, the prominent Georgian football player who was nominated for a majoritarian seat in parliament as a candidate of the Bidzina Ivanishvili-led Georgian Dream coalition. Kaladze’s bank accounts were also frozen. It was similar to the case of the Georgian Development Research Institution, where Tbilisi City Court issued a decision without providing the right to appeal. The chief prosecutor’s office said that the move was part of an ongoing investigation into an “alleged legalization of illegal income i.e. money laundering”.
It seems that the so-called ‘ongoing investigation’ frequently used by State Audit Office (SAOG) and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office is heavily used to oppress opposition forces and particularly, the Georgian Dream Coalition and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. The ongoing activities of SAOG have been assessed by some Georgian NGOs and international institutions. In all cases, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, Transparency International, Amnesty International and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, have drawn the same conclusions: investigations conducted by SAOG are questionable, the government is trying to use law for its own purpose.
The doubts and criticism of the SAOG is strengthened due to the fact that the well-known State Audit Office of Georgia was hardly known before Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream Coalition stepped into the political battle.
All in all, the tendency with regard to the SAOG’s activities forces us to assume that a series of seizures, impoundments and fines will continue until the parliamentary elections set for October 1 are finished.
By Archil Sikharulidze