Questions are mounting in Georgia about the political influence of a London-based ex-official after a BBC investigation identified him as the lynchpin of a global scam network.
The BBC Eye report published on April 12 - and accompanying documentary aired the next day - explored former Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili's role at the heart of a shadowy network that has allegedly defrauded many, including elderly people, out of a total of a billion dollars by pushing scam stock and cryptocurrency investments on them.
The report delivered another blow to the reputation of Kezerashvili, who has already been under scrutiny for his alleged meddling in Georgia's opposition party politics.
The BBC cited multiple pieces of evidence linking Kezerashvili to groups of businessmen and companies involved in the network, including what is known to police as the "Milton group" and a group predating it.
"Kezerashvili has frequently promoted the scam trading platforms on his personal social media accounts," the BBC said. "Behind the scenes, Kezerashvili appeared to be at the center of that network."
It is not the first time that the former official's name came up in the context of journalistic investigations into alleged call center fraud. He was mentioned in a 2020 OCCRP report on a Ukrainian call center that also involved the Milton Group.
Call centers, legitimate and otherwise, have been proliferating in Georgia in recent years, attracting the country's young foreign language speakers with relatively well-paid jobs. Some of them allegedly assign workers a task popularly referred to as "robbing European pensioners." Georgian law enforcers recently started cracking down on the networks and raiding their offices, apparently following a push from European authorities.
Nor is it the first time that Kezerashvili faces allegations of being the man behind the scenes.
Kezerashvili has already faced scrutiny for allegedly pulling the strings in opposition politics, particularly amid the recent leadership challenge in the United National Movement (UNM), the former ruling party. A group of top party members claimed Kezerashvili's meddling was behind the ousting of now-former chairman Nika Melia.
After the BBC report made the rounds in Georgian media, Melia wrote on Facebook that he had "advised Davit Kezerashvili that staying away from politics would be good both for him and for the future of the country."
Other opposition groups have also tried to distance themselves from Kezerashvili and the party in which he allegedly calls the shots.
Kezerashvili himself denied the fraud allegations in the BBC report and pledged to use "all legal levers" to prove his innocence.
Little is known about the scale of his current wealth (except the "£18m London mansion" the BBC mentions), but his quick and successful transitioning from government into big business has for years raised suspicions.
Kezerashvili, 44, was an early supporter of former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM). He assumed the role of head of the Financial Police shortly after the party came to power in 2004. In 2006, at the age of 28, he became Georgia's defense minister, a post he held during Georgia's defeat in the August 2008 war with Russia. He quit that post in late 2008 and moved to the business world, with various reports associating his name with oil and transportation businesses, among others. With the change of government in 2012, the ex-minister left the country before being charged with corruption. France and Great Britain have denied Georgia's requests to extradite him.
In 2021, Georgia's Supreme Court found him guilty of embezzling 5 million euros from the state during his term as defense minister, overturning a 2017 acquittal ruling and sentencing him in absentia to 10 years in jail (which was halved to five years through amnesty).
The ruling was followed by a subsequent claim from the Defense Ministry that demanded the embezzled money back. Should the ministry win (the court of appeals already ruled in its favor in March), the enforcement may lead to the seizure of his only official asset in Georgia -- the pro-opposition Formula TV channel that Kezerashvili co-founded in 2019.
Some government critics, and Kezerashvili himself, have described that prosecution as an attempt to crack down on government-critical media. The case was listed in the EU Parliament's June 9, 2022, critical resolution on violations of media freedom in Georgia.
"I think that for the MEPs who initiated and supported this resolution, the BBC investigation truly is a scandal," Shalva Papuashvili, Georgian parliament chairman, told the Georgian public broadcaster on April 12.
The same resolution called on the EU to consider sanctioning Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is widely seen as the country's informal ruler. But while the resolution identified Ivanishvili as the "sole oligarch" in Georgia, ruling party members claimed it was Kezerashvili who best matched the oligarch criteria. The debate flared as the country deliberated EU-requested "de-oligarchization" reforms last year.
Kezerashvili has denied playing any direct role in Georgian politics though he has broadly acknowledged supporting opposition and pro-Western causes in the country (without specifying the type or amount of assistance).
"Today I am here as a former defense minister who is in exile, a businessman, and one of the founders of Formula [TV], but, of course, in no way as a politician," he said as he introduced himself in a recent interview with his own channel.
The BBC's investigation has been seized on by the ruling party, which has long painted Kezerashvili as a major villain and used his name to smear its critics (at times without evidence).
But while the government actively uses the scandal to its advantage, the initially unhindered proliferation of such scam call centers has raised suspicion as to whether the business also enjoyed some government protection -- at least before the pressure came from abroad.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.