Georgian sex video scandal shows KGB's dirty habits are hard to break

Georgian sex video scandal shows KGB's dirty habits are hard to break
Secretly obtained footage is a dirty business that Georgians have perfected from the KGB-style practices of its Soviet past.
By Monica Ellena in Tbilisi March 17, 2016

Knowing whether or not their president has a fulfilling sex life may not be top of Georgians’ priorities, but when Giorgi Marghvelashvili revealed that he has “had and will have a rich sex life” many citizens sighed in relief. The televised remark made by the usually restrained head of state showed solidarity towards politicians targeted by a sex video scandal that has rocked Georgia ahead of general elections later this year.

Two secretly recorded videos posted online on March 11 and 14 apparently showed two female politicians in romantic encounters – one with someone who was not their spouse – and were accompanied by threats to expose other politicians and a prominent journalist. Access to YouTube was blocked for a few hours from inside Georgia on March 14, reportedly to halt further dissemination of the footage.

The footage is believed to be part of a vast stockpile police and secret services have maintained over the years, across governments.

“Sex and sex life are not shameful, […] I will always try to make this topic free from senseless black stigma,” said 46-year old Marghvelashvili.

In conservative Georgia sex, specifically for women, is something of a taboo topic, but the public outrage following the leak has been directed against the media and the authorities, which have failed to protect the identity of the targeted individuals and to prevent the practice of tarring political opponents through illegal filming.

On March 11 a small impromptu rally gathered angry citizens outside the government’s building, chanting “Get out of my bedroom”, while Georgians inundated social media with the slogan “Sex is not a crime”.

The red-light scandal has added spice and anger to an already heated political environment. Violent attacks on the offices of the former ruling party United National Movement (UNM) in November, and an attack on a leader of the opposition Free Democrats in February have prompted fears that 2016 could be a year of ruthless electoral campaigning.

The Free Democrats have accused “circles of the current [Georgian Dream] government” of being behind the “attack on politicians”, while the UNM stated that “releasing videos of private lives has become the main weapon against opponents under the government of [ex-PM] Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream”.

Condemning the sex tapes as a “blow to the state” and “blackmail of the entire society, new Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has called for all hands on deck at state institutions. On March 15 the Chief Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest of five individuals and charged them with “unlawful use and possession of videos of private lives”. Many believe, however, this is just the top of the iceberg.

For rights’ groups, the failure to properly tackle similar cases in the past as well as the way authorities ignored reported threats to release secretly filmed videos, exacerbate concerns over rights to privacy.

Blackmail

“These videos are a blackmail for the entire society as they put everyone under a strong psychological pressure, and in an election year they create an unhealthy political environment,” Erekle Urushadze, in charge of the anti-corruption programs at Transparency International Georgia, told bne IntellinNews. “The whole situation is a blow to the rule of law and human rights.”

Gia Nodia, professor of politics at the Tbilisi-based Ilia State University, agrees. “People wonder ‘Who will be next?’ They are a clear tool of intimidation, instilling fear and suspicion,” he says.

Someone who is not giving in to fear is journalist Inga Grigolia, who was threatened with exposure in a message on the second tape. The popular outspoken TV talk show host scoffed at the threat of a video of herself being released to public shame.  “I have a wonderful lover, I have sex and plan to continue to live like I live,” she said on television.

Secretly obtained footage is a dirty business that Georgians have perfected from the KGB-style practices of its Soviet past. Covertly recorded videos have regularly rocked national politics, and both present and past governments share the blame.

The leak of videos portraying abuse and rape of inmates contributed to the defeat of Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 parliamentary ballot. In early 2013, prosecutors revealed that there were tens of thousands of cases of secret footage and recordings, in a scandal featuring corrupt policemen, complacent courts, gay videos and blackmail.

Regulating the issue was one of the main pre-election promises of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, which created a commission to make an inventory of “the dirty archive” of videos pointing into the bedroom of politicians, officials, journalists, and diplomats and then destroy it.

But making a secret disappear is not that simple.

“No-one can rule out that there are various copies out there, which is why the situation is serious, you can point the finger pretty much against anyone,” an independent journalist explained to bne IntelliNews on condition of anonymity. “Investigations have revealed illegal surveillance on a large scale, which meant setting up a whole ad-hoc infrastructure. You don’t get rid of such a system overnight and many people in the security services were not removed when the government changed,” the source maintains.

A crucial detail yet to be defined is the time of the footage in the two videos; without that, political speculation can spread.

“We have reasons to assume that the practice has not stopped with the change of government because there are no strong legal safeguards to prevent this practice, which is what we advocate for,” maintains Urushadze, adding that the few changes introduced by parliament are not enough to prevent such practices from happening again.

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