Georgia’s sex-tapes politics returns

An explicit video of a prominent lawmaker has hit the internet amid a rift in the ruling party. Georgians are asking why this keeps happening.

One spring day in 2016 Giorgi Margvelashvili, then the president of Georgia, felt compelled to inform the Georgian public that he had “a very rich sex life” and intended to keep it that way. “There is nothing shameful about sex,” he added helpfully.

This curious public service announcement was Margvelashvili’s way of speaking out in support of politicians who had gotten caught up in that year’s sex tape scandals.

Publishing secretly videotaped episodes from prominent figures’ sex lives has become a disturbing weapon in Georgia’s political arsenal in recent years. And it happened again last week when Eka Beselia, a veteran member of the governing Georgian Dream party, became the latest victim of the practice. After she fell out with some in the upper ranks of her party, a secretly recorded video of her and her partner in an intimate situation appeared online.

Amid the ensuing furor, another of the nation’s former presidents, Mikhail Saakashvili, weighed in from his exile abroad. He accused Georgian Dream’s billionaire chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili – the man who unseated him – of ushering in an era of sex tape politics. “Ivanishvili could not give you bread, so he gave your circuses,” Saakashvili said in a video address, spreading cheese on a bagel to illustrate his point.    

The ex-presidents’ inputs only add a ludicrous element to the serious debate surrounding the troubling method of political score-settling in Georgia. Hopes for ending the practice, and punishing the people behind it, remain dim.   

Beselia said that the video was recorded before 2012, during Saakashvili’s rule, but she is not sure who leaked it now. She described the leak as “moral terror” and demanded an investigation.

Police have arrested over a dozen of individuals who forwarded the videos via social networks and mobile phones, but Beselia says that the original source of the leak remains to be found. Vladimer Botsvadze, a senior police official, warned the public to stop disseminating the tapes. “I’d like to remind the public that obtaining and spreading recordings of private lives is a criminal offense under Georgian law….and is punishable by a four-to-eight-year prison term,” he said.   

Georgian Dream critics see a pattern: The boudoir videos have mostly targeted women of power who have criticized the ruling party in one way or another.  

In December, Beselia stepped down from her position as chairwoman of the parliament’s Legal Committee in protest of proposed supreme court appointments. Her demarche led to an acrimonious exchange with some of the fellow members of the ruling party and Ivanishvili criticized her in a statement, saying that she lacked “team spirit.”

Back in 2016, when then Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze resigned and split ways with the Georgian Dream, a similar video of her surfaced online. It was then that President Margvelashvili came up with his too-much-information statement.

Other prominent figures were also targeted in similar leaks that year, including then-Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, though she said that the tape aimed at her was a poorly staged forgery. Khidasheli also quit the Georgian Dream alliance and emerged as a government critic. Today she puts the blame for the leak squarely at the feet of the Georgian Dream.    

Human rights groups blame the Georgian Dream government for, at very least, failing to protect citizens’ right to privacy. “It is fairly obvious that the circulation of the illegal recordings served not only to suppress specific individuals, but to send a message that anyone critical of the government could be a potential target,” said a coalition of the nation’s leading human rights and anti-corruption watchdogs.

Although some men have been targeted too, the thinking behind the video attacks appears to be that Georgia’s largely socially conservative society will judge women more harshly. “[T]his type of blackmail has largely been used against politically active women and is thus a warning to all women that they could be targeted next,” the watchdog coalition said.

The provenance of all these tapes is another question. In 2012, when the Georgian Dream took over as the ruling force from the United National Movement (UNM) party, an alleged stash of secretly recorded videos was found. The Georgian Dream claimed then that secret police were making these tapes on the UNM’s orders to have blackmail material against opponents and defectors.

The Georgian Dream publicly destroyed the collection, but tapes keep reappearing whenever in-house turf wars get out of hand. Some suggest that the Georgian Dream kept copies of the UNM stash tapes to use them for the same goal for which they were originally created: to silence detractors. Through the clamor of the blame game it is hardly possible to get a definitive idea of who is behind the scheme. What is clear is that something is very wrong with Georgian politics.

Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada TalesSign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.