Zaza Okuashvili sparked a public outcry by accusing former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili of extortion. (Interpressnews.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–The owner of the Georgian opposition-leaning TV channel Iberia blames the billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of extorting him for four million dollars.

Zaza Okuashvili, who owns one of Georgia’s largest tobacco manufacturing and importing companies, told opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 that the extortion took place at a private meeting in 2016. In the interview, he claimed that  Ivanishvili asked him to pay USD 4 million by making a gesture with four fingers for ‘my guys’.

Giorgi Gakharia, then business ombudsman and current minister of interior affairs, whom Okuashvili refers to as Ivanishvili’s ‘personal cashier’, was also present at the meeting, he said.

Ex-minister of sports Levan Kipiani and former prosecutor general Irakli Partskhaladze were also involved in the extortion, Okuashvili insists.

He understood the four million dollars to be advance payment for favors from the government. Eventually Okuashvili had to pay the sum.

Zaza Okuashvili, who currently resides in London, also insists that the incident he described is not unique, and that the government is using similar mechanisms to racketeer other businesses as well.

In the scandalous interview, which has caused a massive public reaction in Georgia, Okuashvili also said that his particular experience with Mr Ivanishvili and other high ranking officials made it clear to him that the latter wields great power in Georgian politics and that Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who was a prime minister during at the time of the extortion, was a “third tier” person.

Rustavi 2 also aired an audio recording in which Okuashvili allegedly is heard talking with ex-minister Levan Kipiani discussing the payment. During the last weeks, Rustavi 2 has aired several similar recordings. Their authenticity has yet to be verified.

Government officials and members of the ruling party have flatly denied the accusations.

Zaza Okuashvili’s company, Omega Group, runs the opposition leaning TV channel Iberia. During the last months, Omega Group and Iberia have repeatedly complained of being financially harassed by authorities, which could have led to the closure of the channel.

The government said in a statement that the Omega owner is merely speculating in order to evade paying GEL 51 million that the company owes in taxes.

Okuashvili’s interview was aired by Rustavi 2’s weekly political talkshow Akcentebi. It was caused a major uproar both in the opposition camp and among the general public. Members of the government and the GD party leadership were bombarded with question about the Okuashvili scandal Monday morning at the GD office where the ruling party held a briefing.

Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said the accusations are ridiculous and were conceived in order to evade taxes. Giorgi Gvakharia, the minister of interior, said the same, but in addition warned the opponent that he would pay tax debts to the last lari.

Bidzina Ivanishvili was also present at the briefing but didn’t respond to questions.