TBILISI, DFWatch–The Georgian prime minister on Monday downplayed criticism of three NGO leaders by businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili last week.

The billionaire who created the coalition now in power said in a TV interview that an organization he runs is working on a report about three leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The NGO leaders were stunned by the statement and one said it was a form of pressure against them.

Many in Georgia believe that Ivanishvili in fact is in charge of the government while pretending to stay out of politics.

On Monday, PM Garibashvili insisted that since Ivanishvili withdrew from politics a year ago and formed his own NGO, ‘Citizen’, his comments must be regarded as internal debate among NGOs.

“If one NGO criticizes another, or just expresses an opinion, why should this cause such surprise?” he said, according to Interpressnews.

“Whether I like it or not, when the media or the NGOs make statements about the government we will do everything to ensure that freedom of expression is protected. Those days are gone when there didn’t exist guarantees in that area,” Garibashivli said.

Ex-PM Ivanishvili said in an interview on Imedi TV that it is taboo to criticize the NGOs Transparency International Georgia, ISFED and GYLA but that his own NGO, Citizen, is preparing a ‘very interesting’ report about three of the top people there.

Defending the NGOs, U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland wrote in a statement that the embassy has had excellent relationships with them.

A joint statement signed by 46 groups warned against increasing ‘pressure’ against NGOs  and claimed that Ivanishvili’s statement was not just a person’s views, but the views of ‘the informal ruler of the state.’