TBILISI, Georgia — In most of the world, when politicians and public figures are caught with their pants down, that’s a figure of speech. In the nation of Georgia on the shores of the Black Sea, it’s starting to look like the literal truth.
Or maybe not. What’s clear is that a major part of the political elite is being blackmailed in public by the threatened releases of a large cache of sex tapes unless they resign from public life. The deadline was yesterday, March 31. No resignations came, and now the world of Georgian politics waits to see what happens next. Georgia’s prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, has called this a direct “blow to the state” and “the blackmail not only of one person, but of the entire society.”
The individuals, entity or agency behind the mass extortion remains unknown. But there are signs that exposing intimate footage as means of ruining public figures has backfired.
Outside the state chancellery, a major government office, hundreds of protestors on waved banners on March19 with messages like, “GET OUT OF MY BEDROOM!” Inside, the speaker of parliament with representatives from the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced, after what was (ironically) a private closed-door meeting, that the punishment for the violation of privacy would be toughened. They might as well have been waving a banner that said, “We are too late.”
The mass blackmailing by sex tape of an indeterminate number of politicians (the subtext is that they know who they are) would appear to be unprecedented in this or any other country.
It began when two women were exposed by the first leaks. Tapes were released on March 11 and then March 14 of married politicians from the majority and opposition having sex with men who were not their husbands. The Daily Beast is not naming them so as not to play the extortionist’s game. The Georgian press, with one or two exceptions (followed by apologies), has not named them either.
Much of the country rallied in support of the two, but Nino Burjanadze, the woman who leads the pugnaciously pro-Russian party, took a different position. Burjanadze, who raised quite a controversy when she met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010, seemed either to blame the victims of the blackmail or to agree with the anonymous message that preceded the most recent sex tape, when she said, “Those politicians against whom compromising materials exist should quit.”
Burjanadze joined the chorus of the famously divisive and homophobic senior parliamentarian Tamaz Mechiauri, from the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. Mechiauri infuriated human-rights groups last week when he agreed with the message of the extortion videos, stating that those being blackmailed should resign.
There’s a history here. For three governments now—Eduard Shevardnadze’s post-Soviet regime in the 1990s; the rule of U.S.-educated Mikheil Saakashvili, brought to power by “the Rose Revolution” of 2003, and the coalition dominated by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party that succeeded Saakashvili in late 2013—the private lives of Georgian citizens have been exploited for political power.
In May 2013, the first deputy interior minister, Gela Khvedelidze, was found guilty of leaking a tape of a journalist having sex with another man. The journalist had been accusing the deputy minister of corruption. Khvedelidze was charged with breach of privacy.
Despite vows in 2014 from then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, the sex-tape leaking deputy minister Khvedelidze never spent time prison. He got a one-year suspended sentence.
“He was released on parole,” notes Tamara Chergoleishvili, director of Tabula Media. “Clearly nobody wanted him to speak about accomplices and this deal was the price for his silence. When a crime like that goes unpunished it greenlights the next one.”
Lack of proper checks and balances in law enforcement was one of the reasons that the Saakashvili’s UNM party lost the elections in 2012. But the Georgian Dream coalition not only did not resolve the issue by revealing and punishing perpetrators, says Chergoleishvili, “They struck deals with them and took the dirty fight against opponents to another level.”
As for the origin of the footage from the most recent scandal sources close to the investigation have pointed to the previous government’s highly controversial Constitutional Security Department, known as “Kudi.” Under Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure from 2004 to 2013, particularly in the later years, the spectral domestic intelligence service began to resemble the KGB. (Interestingly, Saakashvili is now the mayor of Odessa, in Ukraine, and is talked about as a possible prime minister there.)
By the time UNM was ousted, Kudi had collected a vast library of intimate encounters via illegal surveillance from 2007 to 2012. Like Eduard Shevardnadze’s corrupt and dysfunctional government in the 1990s, and the oppressive Soviet one before that, UNM’s domestic intelligence agency made the use of compromising material a standard practice to solidify power. Ironically, it was these obscenely cruel videos that ultimately brought about the fall of Saakashvili’s UNM party.
Just before Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections, graphic videos of prisoners being sexually abused by guards with broomsticks—in a systematic practice of violence and humiliation—shook the country to its core. Mass protests against the ruling party quickly translated into support for the newly formed opposition party called Georgian Dream, a coalition, which the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili had formed to oust Saakashvili and his UNM party. The fact that just a few years prior Ivanishvili had been a key financial backer of Saakashvili’s modernization efforts was something neither Saakashvili nor Ivanishvili would readily admit—as if the two political nemeses had an unspoken agreement.
When Georgian Dream took control and disbanded Kudi, it announced that it had recovered, “Up to 110 CDs containing a total of 144 files with over 181 hours of secret video recordings of private lives of citizens.” In September 2013, the Interior Ministry claimed that these videos were destroyed.
But maybe not …
Georgian parliamentary elections are more than six months away, and yet with no clear frontrunner things are already getting murky. This most recent scandal began several weeks ago, on March 11, with a video explicitly depicting the sexual encounter of a prominent female opposition figure allegedly engaging in an extramarital affair posted on YouTube. Then on March 14 a second video was posted anonymously on YouTube of a sexual encounter of a “current politician” prefaced by the demand that all who have been compromised and previously blackmailed by such tapes should resign by March 31. The sex footage was followed by the names of four more individuals who would be featured in the next batch of videos indicating that there were many more to come.
Among the individuals threatened were two politicians from the ruling party, journalist Ingra Grigolia, and Irakli Alasania, leader of the pro-Western opposition party the Free Democrats of which the initial March 11 victim was also a prominent member.
Irakli Alasania is seen my many in the international community as the up-and-coming leader who most embodies Georgia’s Western Euro-Atlantic future. As Georgia’s minister of defense from 2012 to 2014, he pushed for Georgia’s NATO membership harder than anyone in recent years. The young, handsome pro-NATO figure is often considered a darling of the West. Alasania continues to point out Georgia’s contributions to forces in Afghanistan, its status as NATO’s “forgotten ally.”
The March 14 video claimed that Georgian politicians and public figures already had been privately blackmailed by sex tapes preventing them from restoring justice and forcing them to “cover up the bloody regime of the ruling party.” It intended to publically and permanently blackmail them once again.
“So by revealing those videos somebody is showing to somebody what can happen if they don’t shut up,” Tamara Chergoleishvili told The Daily Beast. That same day, on March 14, the Georgian prosecutor’s office charged five individuals with “unlawful use and possession of a video of private lives.” According to the prosecutor, the charges were filed as part of a months-long investigation predating the March 11 and March 14 release of the sex tapes.
According to regional news and analysis site Eurasianet.org, “So far, five individuals have been arrested for alleged involvement in the scandal; one, Nikoloz Khachapuridze, is a Saakashvili-era employee of the interior ministry’s secret-police branch, the Constitutional Security Department. Another, Zurab Jamalashvili, is the father of a former employee of that same service, Vitali Jamalashvili, who came to prominence after supposedly hacking into Ivanishvili’s personal computer during the 2012 parliamentary campaign.”
These arrests, which happened the same day as the March 14 sextape release, were met with skepticism for a number of reasons. First, three of these five individuals were already in custody on previous charges, and second, the government seemed to be pegging the leaks on individuals connected with the former ruling UNM party. The only problem was that whoever was behind the leaks seemed to have access to government infrastructure, and the government claimed it was appealing to the FBI to solve the case. Overall, this seemed to indicate that the real culprits were still at large.
Over the past few days The Daily Beast has heard every possible theory behind the release of the tapes, ranging from Russian intelligence attempting to incite civil unrest, destabilize the country and thwart Georgia’s European Union and NATO aspirations, to triple-think tactics by the two main political parties in an attempt to destroy the other as Georgia approaches key parliamentary elections. Both parties have dismal ratings.
The sex tape scandal has brought out some of the worst and some of the best of Georgian society. Even after the very first video was released, Georgian media immediately shared an almost universal understanding not to name or identify the individuals in the videos. Even after the sister of one of the victims publicly blamed Bidzina Ivanishvili for the leak, the Georgian media still do not name the victim. In like manner, The Daily Beast is naming only those who have already named themselves.
The scandal also has created a healthy and much-needed public discourse on sexuality, victimization, and government surveillance.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s statement to society: “Sex and sex life is not a shame. I have sex, I’ve had a very rich sex life and will have it in future, too, and be sure that I will always protect you [those being blackmailed] and I will always try to make this topic free from senseless black stigma.”
Since both of the public figures exposed by the tapes were women, a national conversation began about the prevailing double standard in Georgian society in which women are condemned for their sexuality while men are applauded for it.
One of those named in the video as a target for the next batch of tapes to be released was the well-known journalist and TV personality Ingra Grigolia. Several hours after the video emerged, Grigolia announced the following on her television show:
“A video was released today in which, among others, I am also threatened with releasing videotapes depicting my private life if I don’t leave the country. Of course I am not naming any of the politicians who were also threatened in this video, but I am naming myself… I am Ingra Grigolia—woman, daughter, mother and friend, I have a wonderful boyfriend and I have sex,” the journalist said on March 14 after being named a target in the tape released that morning.
By embracing whatever content may be on the coming tapes, she has essentially disempowered and defused the tape as a political weapon. As one source close to several of the women targeted told The Daily Beast, “The more tapes they release the less effective they become. Eventually such sex tapes will mean nothing to Georgians, once the public realizes that politicians have sex just like everyone else.”
This week Georgia’s justice minister, Tea Tsulukiani, told The Guardian that her government had officially reached out to the FBI for assistance in tracking down the source of the videos. For many Georgians this was an empty statement met with weary cynicism, as the government (like the opposition parties) had immediately jumped at the chance to blame political rivals before it even had any evidence.
Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International Georgia, told The Daily Beast, “It seems there might be dozens of people who could have those copies and all of them have a reason to publicize it now before the elections. The only precise thing here is that the tapes are out [before] the elections. For sure [those who released the videos] act against the interests of Georgia and do not want to have a Euro-Atlantic future for our country.”
When asked if she thinks the government is genuinely trying to solve the case, Gigauri was skeptical: “The government knew that there were tapes in somebody's hands, but they never investigated it to prevent all of this.”
To follow up on whether the government had indeed requested FBI assistance, we reached out to the United States Embassy in Tbilisi. A spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “We can confirm that the United States government has offered its assistance to the Georgian government on this matter, but we cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.”
On March 17, Georgia’s current prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili announced, “The prosecutor’s office is working very actively on this case and there is a certain progress in the investigation,” hinting at some sort of potential resolution. Now, more than two weeks later, the Georgian public is generally unconvinced. Many doubt that those actually behind the release of the videos will be the ones punished accordingly. As usual the two largest parties in the country are at a loss for hard evidence and swiftly blamed each other.
As it is wont to do, the current government blamed the scandal on its rival, Saakashvili’s UNM party, whose domestic intelligence agency, as noted, had quite the movie collection. But this does not mean that UNM was behind the recent leak of footage nor would it make much political sense for the party to do so: The last thing it would want to do is remind voters of the domestic spying and the images of sodomized prisoners which cost the party the 2012 election.
UNM of course blamed the ruling Georgian Dream government for the scandal, arguing that whether the GD leadership orchestrated the scandal or not, someone had access to the videos that were not, in fact, destroyed, and the ability to upload them anonymously on two separate occasions without being stopped.
Former Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania, who, at 42, leads a small but rising party called the Free Democrats that broke away from Georgian Dream, told eurasianet.org, “The blame belongs to the old government, which began making such tapes, and also to the new government, which failed to protect the public from the spreading of these tapes, and itself also is engaged in doing the same.”
Yet the pro-Western opposition leader believes that what he calls “certain circles” in the government are directly behind and responsible for the release of the videos.
“I can certainly say that in the government, including in law enforcement agencies, there is a group that is not controlled by the prime minister and informally controlled by others,” Alasania told interpressnews.ge. “I think that this attack comes from a specific branch of the current government.”
Alasania is not alone in his conviction that a rogue faction within the current government is at work here. As journalist and columnist Tim Ogden recently wrote in Georgia Today, “Georgian Dream is riddled with rivalries.” The sudden dismissal of former Prime Minister Garibashvili in December gave credence to the claim that Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire former prime minister who founded Georgian Dream, still pulls the strings. “With this in mind,” Ogden wrote, “it is not hard to believe that even if GD was responsible for the release of the videos, it is possible that neither the prime minister nor the president even knew about it.”
When Ivanishvili’s party took power in parliament in 2012, he was prime minister. He retired the following year, but by many accounts he continues to run the country. Meanwhile the personal animosity between Ivanishvili and his erstwhile defense minister, Alasania, went public.
In 2013, then Prime Minister Ivanishvili made a bizarre, almost Putinesque statement.
Prefacing his words with, “I don’t pry into personal matters,” the eccentric billionaire then alleged in a nationally televised press conference that Irakli Alasania, a member of his own cabinet, had recently cheated on his wife in a trip abroad with the wife of a key UNM rival. The prime minister famously concluded this allegation with, “Many of my Georgian friends cheat on their wives… I don’t want to comment on rumors.”
As one can imagine, the eccentric billionaire Ivanishvili and the handsome pro-Western icon Alasania continued a very public and bitter rivalry, which ultimately caused Alasania’s party to break away from the government and go into opposition.
Considering that both the ruling party and Saakashvili’s UNM are doing very poorly in the polls, Alasania’s Free Democrats are seen as a major threat to the current ruling party, especially if they were to team up with other opposition groupings.
Alasania has good cause to believe that his party is under attack. The first video to be released in the current scandal featured a very prominent figure in his small opposition party. Another well-known journalist and political ally, Eka Mishveladze, recently stated she has also been threatened over the years with the release of material that would expose her private life.
Even more dramatically, her husband, Alexi Petriashvili, who is also a prominent leader of Alasania’s Free Democrat party and the former state minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, recently suffered a brazen physical attack. On Feb. 26, while visiting the grave of a friend in the middle of Tbilisi, the opposition leader was brutally beaten and then shot three times in broad daylight.
Petriashvili survived the attack, and neither Petriashvili nor Alasania have tried to politicize the incident. They don’t really have to. A shooting and now the blackmail of party leadership raises serious national security concerns in the run-up to the October parliamentary elections.
Whoever or whatever was behind the release of these tapes, it seems the intent was further division, hatred, and instability. Instead these events may have brought Georgian society together as many Georgians have risen above politics to condemn the surveillance and the attempted blackmail.
We will see how April Fools’ Day passes, although this clearly is no joke. If the extortion continues, as Eka Gigauri put it, “We will not have real democratic elections in Georgia.” Or perhaps Georgians will reject, at last, the sordid politics of extortion.