“You have to feel sorry for our Western friends,” a prime-time host on Russia's First Channel said with evident irony. “Just think about it: You are friends with this nice Georgian guy; you call him Batono Mishiko; you drink wine together… and then it turns out that he is a murderer,” the host, Kiril Kleimyonov, said on the October 18 edition of the show Vremya.
Batono Mishiko refers, of course, to former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. And Kleimyonov's crocodile tears were for fresh accusations against Saakashvili, recently implicated in his home country for an alleged conspiracy to murder his one-time rival, the late Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili.
“You feel sick to your stomach,” Kleimyonov continued with a gesture. “But every hard-drinking or hard-eating man knows how to overcome this feeling – you drink even more.”
The accusations against Saakashvili came as a part of an ongoing war of leaked secret recordings in Georgia. With the country's presidential race entering the homestretch, political rivals are unearthing scandalous leaks against one another, a tactic that has become a tradition in Georgian electoral politics. And Russians are lapping it up.
Patarkatsishvili, who was active in Russian politics and media in the 1990s and then in Georgia in the 2000s, died at the age of 52 in England in 2008.
Noted for his trademark silver hair and moustache, Patarkatshvili ran afoul of the then newly chosen Russian President Vladimir Putin almost two decades ago and moved to Georgia, where he then crossed swords with Saakashvili.
The Georgian Prosecutor’s Office on October 17 released tapes allegedly describing a 2007 plot to assassinate Patarkatsishvili. In the tapes, a former Georgian security official tries to convince the oligarch’s bodyguard to facilitate the assassination. The official mentions a deadly substance that “can be smeared on a door handle.”
The alleged assassination plot never materialized, Georgian prosecutors say. British police stand by the initially reported cause of death – a cardiac arrest. Saakashvili, who was president at the time, emerged to push back against the allegations and to paint them as an act of vengeance on the part of another hostile Georgian oligarch: Bidzina Ivanishvili, the current man-behind-the-scenes of Georgian politics. But Moscow wasted no time in using the tapes as a counter attack against British accusations of Russian-orchestrated spy poisonings in the UK.
“The words ‘smear on the door handle’ sound like a message from the future,” Vremya reported, drawing parallels to the notorious recent poisonings of Aleksei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, in which British investigators found high concentrations of a deadly nerve agent on the handle of the Skripals’ front door. London accuses Moscow of ordering the attack on Aleksei Skripal, a Russian double agent for the UK intelligence services.
Russian media alleged that the Skripal poisoning and Patarkatsishvili death bear certain similarities and that British intelligence likely had a hand in both. “This is the style of British special services,” a Russian expert on chemical weapons, Igor Nikulin, told Vremya. “I would like to remind you that as far back as the 16th century Tsar Ivan the Terrible was poisoned by British doctors.”
Another connection to poisonings in the UK is Alexey Lugovoy, an ex-KGB agent wanted in Britain for the 2006 poisoning of Alexey Litvinenko, a former Russian security officer. Lugovoy worked for Patarkatsishvili for over a decade and is now a member of the Russian parliament. He alleged in an interview with First Channel that London covered up the true cause of Patarkatsishvili’s death as a favor to Saakashvili, who was then a darling of the West.
While Russia is using the Patarkatishvili case to pass the buck to the UK on the Skripal poisonings, in Georgia the recordings are very much a matter of the domestic political struggles between billionaire Ivanishvili and Saakashvili and their respective political groups.
In this struggle, secret recordings have been a key instrument in both sides’ political toolkit.
Ivanishvili, who became Georgia's richest man following Patarkatsishvili’s death, leaned on secretly recorded, incriminating audio and video files to end Saakashvili's rule in 2012. Saakashvili, for his part, also appeared to use leaked phone conversations to slow Ivanishvili’s ascent to power. Now both men are fielding their preferred candidates for the October 28 presidential vote. And, as has been the case with every recent election in Georgia, scandalous tapes have been pouring in.
Before the Patarkatsishvili tapes, the pro-Saakashvili news network Rustavi2 published a set of secretly recorded conversations that implicate Ivanishvili's party, Georgian Dream, in questionable tactics against its political rivals.
In the conversations, imprisoned former Prosecutor’s Office official Mirza Subeliani says that he went to prison as part of a deal with the authorities meant to defuse a crisis related to a murder of teenagers in 2017. Subeliani also says that he was involved in torture of prisoners and even offered to assassinate Saakashvili.
Following these revelations, the Prosecutor’s Office published the Patarkatsishvili tapes. Many questioned the timing, as the prosecutors have had the tapes for at least two years. “Why have they waited for so long?” law analyst Lia Mukhashavria asked Rezonansi newspaper. “I have an impression that they [the Georgian Dream] pull this out…to divert attention from their own problems.”
The forces vying for power in Georgia are likely to keep throwing tapes at each other, making it harder for local audiences to figure out who wanted to poison whom, and to tell facts from fiction. To Russia, however, everything seems clear as day.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.