Activities of the "Conservative Movement/Alt Info" in the regions of Georgia
The political union of citizens – The Conservative Movement - was founded as a result of the gathering held on November 20, 2021. The party was registered by the National Public Registry Agency on December 7 of the same year. On April 11, 2022, the name of the party was changed to "Conservative Movement/Alt Info". The founders of the political union are representatives of the ultra-conservative, pro-Russian group - "Alt-Info", who were active on social media at first and later created a television channel. On July 5, 2021, a violent, homophobic rally was organized by aforementioned group, in which physical violence against media representatives caused the death of Alexander Lashkarava, a TV Pirveli cameraman.
"Alt-Info" has a close relationship with the Kremlin-connected Alexander Dugin, who is a representative of Russian ultra-nationalist neo-Eurasianism movement. More than once, he has been a guest of the mentioned television. It is worth noting that in the social network Dugin responded positively to the establishment of a political party by Alt-Info representatives.
According to the statute, the Conservative Movement aims to establish an independent, social state based on national values, with a Christian-democratic and conservative ideology. Among the goals declared by the party in its charter is also the determination of the special status of Christianity and the Orthodox Church in the Georgian legislation; "Prohibition of external interference" in the field of media and education and legal control of the activities of structures financed from abroad. In addition, it is significant that the views of the party representatives are more radical than the goals declared in the statute.
Conservative Movement started forming a regional network shortly after its creation. The party managed to open district offices in a short period. Unlike most of the Georgian political parties, which are unable to operate with a wide network of offices in the regions during the non-election period, the rapid activation of the "conservative movement" has raised questions in the public about financial income. According to ISFED, the regional expenses of the political union included the rent of offices, expenses incurred for inventory and equipment, and compensation payments.
The Department of Political Finance Monitoring of the State Audit Service revealed several violations of Georgian legislation by the Conservative Movement/Alt Info. In particular, the party hid part of the expenses and donations and did not declare them to the State Audit Service. In order to respond to this, on May 17 of this year, the audit service applied to the Administrative Affairs Board of the Tbilisi City Court. On June 3, the court fined the political union with 217,482 GEL.
It is significant to mention that on July 2, 2022 a rally was organized by the Conservative Movement/Alt-Info, which aimed to violently disrupt the closed festival organized by Tbilisi Pride. Party representatives requested financial assistance from supporters for organizing the rally. In particular, on June 22 and 23, a message was spread on the party's Facebook pages to collect finances for the purpose of transporting supporters from regions. The message included bank account numbers, the recipient of which is Zurab Kobakhidze. It is worth mentioning that Zurab Kobakhidze is a big donor to the Conservative Movement party.
1.Heads of local offices of the Conservative Movement.
1.1. Political experience
Most of the heads of the local organizations of the Conservative Movement do not have experience in party politics. However, some of them have been members of other political parties in the past or have participated in the elections independently. Among them are:
- The head of the Lanchkhuti district organization of the Conservative Movement, Gia Gotua, was a member of the National Democratic Party in the 1990s.
- The head of the Akhalkalaki office, Ararat Kamalani, was the representative of the Akhalkalaki Gamgebeli until 2012. He is also a former member of Nino Burjanadze’s party. Since 2014, Kamalani has not appeared in public service or political parties until recently.
- The co-head of the party office in Tianeti municipality, Adomel Arabuli, participated in the municipal elections on October 2, 2021 with the Third Force-Strategy Agmashenebeli party list.
- In the last municipal elections, the leader of the local organization of Tetritskaro, Tamaz Bekauri, also ran as an independent candidate. He was previously the head of cleaning services and supported the Georgian Dream.
- The head of the Ozurgeti office, Mamuka Andghuladze, also participated in the municipal elections. He ran for the local 14th majoritarian district on behalf of the initiative group, but his candidacy was withdrawn in favor of one of the local leaders of Georgian Dream, Marika Chkhikvishvili.
Some of the local leaders of the Conservative Movement have been associated with a number of different parties in the past. Among them are:
- The head of the Ambrolauri office, Gocha Khutsidze, represented the National Democratic Party, Union of Georgian Citizens, United National Movement and Georgian Dream at various times before the Conservative Movement. He was elected to the self-governing city council of Ambrolauri from one of the local majoritarian constituencies by the nomination of the ruling party. Previously, he was elected to the Sakrebulo [City Council] of the self-governing city of Ambrolauri in 2014 from one of the local single-mandate constituencies. He was nominated by the ruling party.
- Giorgi (Gogi) Latsabidze, the head of the Kharagauli office, previously headed the offices of Democratic Movement - United Georgia and Strategy Agmashenebeli in the municipality.
Some of the local leaders of the Conservative Movement joined the party from other ultra-right, conservative/pro-Russian parties. Among them is Vakhtang Barbakadze, the chairman of Lagodekhi district organization, who is a former member of the Georgian March. Giorgi Khatiashvili, the head of Tsnori's office, previously represented the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia.
1.2. Business activity
Some of the local leaders of the conservative movement are also engaged in business activities. Among them are:
- The head of the Rustavi office, Merab Gigani, founded Gigani-707 LLC. Gigani also owns a share in Technometal LLC. Gigani owned a 25% share In the Victoria + LLC, his business partner was Alexander Kardava, who is the brother of the General Secretary of the Conservative Movement, Giorgi Kardava. Victoria+ LLC has won one tender in 2014.
- The head of the Batumi office, Gogi Kadidze, is the director of Metamorphosa LLC, which is registered at the same address as the Batumi office of the Conservative Movement. According to the National Public Registry Agency, Kadidze is also an individual entrepreneur. He is engaged in network marketing.
- The head of Lanchkhuti office, Gia Gotua, started his business activities in Russia. He founded his own LLC - Iveria 7 in Georgia, in which he is currently engaged in, the LLC also participates in many tenders. The head of the Akhalkalaki office, Ararat Kamalani, owns a small business (a grocery store) along with several real estates.
1.3. Public Activity
Some leaders of the local organizations of the Conservative Movement are unknown to the local population; they've also not been distinguished by public activities in the past. However, some of them actively expressed conservative, homophobic, anti-Western and pro-Russian messages through social media. Some of the heads of local offices actively participated in the violent rally of July 5, 2021. Among them is the head of the Rustavi office, Merab Gigani, who was spreading messages inciting violence. The head of the Tsalka office, Girshel Butskhrikidze, was also actively involved in the previously-mentioned rally.
2. Activities of the Conservative Movement and expenses incurred in the regions
2.1. Establishing offices in municipalities
The conservative movement started actively opening offices in regions since January 2022. The party opened district offices both in the centers and other settlements of the municipalities. Among them are offices that were opened in Darcheli and Khaishi, villages of the Zugdidi and Mestia municipalities respectively. Offices were closed at the initiative of the landlords after the local population opposed their opening in two Adjara municipalities, Khulo and Shuakhevi. At the moment, 65 offices of the party have been opened throughout Georgia.
The offices of the Conservative Movement in the municipalities of Khulo and Shuakhevi were soon closed as a result of the opposition of the local population. Dato Solomonidze, the owner of one of the offices in Khulo, refused to rent his property to the mentioned party. While speaking to ISFED, he stated that he didn’t know the principle and direction of the Conservative Movement and therefore agreed to cooperate by having a verbal agreement, with the prospect of continuing the agreement with a contract in the future. The Shuakhevi municipality office of the Conservative Movement was open for only two days, but it could not continue its operation due to public protest and the owner's decision. The owner of the space, Davit Davitadze, told ISFED that he thought the mentioned political association was Zviad Dzidziguri's party and that he stopped the partnership as soon as he found out otherwise. He also noted that he did not like their views on Islam.
The tenant of the Conservative Movement office in Zugdidi municipality canceled the lease agreement with the party before the deadline. However, according to ISFED, in accordance with the terms of the contract, he gave the party two months to vacate the office. The party’s representatives continue their work in the office until the expiration of the mentioned term.
2.2. Retaliatory actions of the local population
In parallel with the growing pace of new Conservative Movement offices, protest spirit were stirred up among the population in the municipalities where the party offices are still functioning. Locals clearly emphasized their negative attitude towards a political force that, in their view, is harmful to national interests. Islamophobic attitudes of the party representatives were also named as the reason for the protest in Adjara.
A few days after the opening of the Batumi office, on February 28, anti-Putin paintings and inscriptions appeared on the office building and banners ("Putin is the enemy", "Russia is an occupier", etc.). There were sharp reactions towards the Poti and Chokhatauri representatives of the Conservative Movement. Residents placed pro-Ukraine messages on the party’s banners.
There was a serious confrontation in Zugdidi as well. On March 18, unknown individuals painted the walls of the Conservative Movement office in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. When the Mtavari TV operator and journalist came to the location to film the incident they were physically assaulted by 15 people, including the head of the office, Gia Gulua.
Residents and representatives of opposition parties met the Kobuleti office opening with a noisy rally, which later turned into a verbal confrontation.
The Gurjaani and Ozurgeti office openings were protested peacefully.
2.3. Terms of the lease agreement
ISFED obtained the lease agreement from one of the individuals with whom the Conservative Movement signed the agreement. The contract, which was signed for a period of 11 months (the parties were given the right to terminate the lease contract early if they gave the other party two months notice), puts the lessee in very favorable conditions. According to the agreement, the lessee (Conservative Movement) was granted the authority, upon receiving the prior consent of the lessor, to carry out repair works in the space and to place the inventory necessary for the operation of the facility. In addition, the lessor declared and gave a guarantee that he would not have any claim for the amount spent on repairs. According to the agreement, this amount would not be deducted from the rent and would not become the basis of the lessor’s claim in the future. Also, items permanently attached to the premises, which would be replaced or renewed by the lessor, in case of expiration or early termination of the contract, should remain in the property of the lessee without payment of compensation to the lessor.
2.4. Office Expenses
The amount of rental expenses incurred by the Conservative Movement on local offices varies by municipality and depends on the type of settlement, as well as the location of the office, the size and condition of the space. The amount of monthly rent reaches its maximum in big cities. Among them, the lease amount of the office rented by the party in the city of Rustavi is 1500 GEL. The rental amount for the offices rented by the party in townships and small cities is relatively low, which, for example, in Kharagauli, Tetritskaro, Ninotsminda and Sagarejo, is equal to 400-500 GEL.
In addition to the costs incurred in renting the offices, the Conservative Movement has to pay other costs for their operation. According to the information received from the State Audit Service, 2,500 GEL was spent for the repair of the party's regional offices, and 66,411 GEL for branding. The political union submitted the information about the mentioned expenses only after the request of the State Audit Service, based on the study of their activities. According to the information provided by the party's representatives to the audit service, these expenses were incurred by various individuals and legal entities supporting the party. In addition, it should be noted that, according to the information of ISFED, furniture and technical equipment were purchased at their own expense for some offices of the political union, including the one in Lagodekhi.
Based on the study of ISFED, it was determined that the Conservative Movement also provides labor compensation in municipalities. In addition, as it turns out from the information obtained by the representative of the organization in some municipalities, the party pays both the head of the office and the staff working there. For example, according to the information obtained in April of this year, the monthly salary of the head of the Lanchkhuti office was about 1500 GEL. In addition, 1 employee was working as technical staff in the office, whose remuneration is unknown. In the Lagodekhi office of the Conservative Movement, 5 employees were allegedly employed: a chairperson, a co-chairperson, a person responsible for public relations and two office managers. Based on the available information, the remuneration of the chairperson was 1000 GEL, and the rest of the employees were 500 GEL. At the time of receiving the information, there were probably 4 people employed in the office of the party in Kharagauli, whose salary ranged from 800 to 1000 GEL.
3. Conservative Movement donations
3.1. Declared financial donations (February-June, 2022)
In February-June 2022, "Conservative Movement" received 277,959 GEL of funding in the form of donations. According to the data of the audit service, the money was donated to the party for the first time on February 16 of this year. On this day, 36 individuals donated money to the political union simultaneously. The next similar large-scale donations to the party were recorded on March 16, April 15, May 16 and June 15, when 35 to 44 people transferred money to the union. The similar nature of large donations on the party account indicates that this process is organized at the central level.
Date and amount of funds transferred by donors of "Conservative Movement" (February-June, 2022)
* Note: The most frequently donated amount
3.2. Official party donors
85 individuals donated money to the Conservative Movement in February-June of this year. 43 (50.6%) of them are heads of the office of the party's local organization. In the given period, one individual donated money to the party seven times, two donated six, 20 - five, 18 - four, 15 - three, 8 - twice and 21 - once. Zurab Kobakhidze and Goga Tukhareli donated the most money to the "Conservative Movement" in the form of a one-time donation. They are followed by heads of various local organizations and businessman Zezva Chankseliani. Some of the party's donors own LLCs or are registered as individual entrepreneurs. In addition, according to the study of the district representatives of ISFED, the financial capabilities of some of the donors raises doubts.
In June of this year, ISFED revealed cases of collecting money to finance action against Pride Week through the personal bank account of the largest donor of the Conservative Movement, Zurab Kobakhidze, on various Facebook profiles. The published posts are identical and are accompanied by a video address of one of the leaders of the party, Zurab Makharadze.
(Photo - “We are collecting money to transport people from the regions to protest the gay festival, our account details: JSC TBC BANK - Bank code: TBCBGE22; Name of recipient: ZURAB KOBAKHIDZE; Account number: GE02TB7534945064300031; BANK OF GEORGIA - Bank code: BAGAGE22; Name of recipient: KOBAKHIDZE ZURAB; Account number: GE76BG0000000528156488)
3.3. Illegal donations
The State Audit Service revealed cases of illegal donations received by the Conservative Movement/Alt Info, on the basis of which the party was fined with 218 thousand GEL. The total amount of illegal donations was 72,494 GEL. Among them are costs incurred by various people to repair regional offices costing 2,500 GEL, branding the offices - which took 66,411 GEL, as well as the cost of exemption from paying rent by the lessee - 3,583 GEL.
The Conservative Movement hid information about financial turnover in 2021 from the State Audit Office. As it turns out from the information provided by the Office to the ISFED, on January 31, 2022, the party submitted a statement about the absence of financial turnover in 2021. However, as a result of the study of the political finance monitoring department of the State Audit Service, it was established that in December 2021, the party representatives conducted political activities that were related to financial expenses. In particular, in the photo and video materials depicting the opening of offices in the regions, advertising-agitation banners, emblems of the party and branded clothes appeared.
According to the materials of the State Audit Office, in the presented Financial Declaration, the party also provided the information related to the lease of offices with significant violations. According to the additional information which was provided after the request from the SAO, it was found out that the supporters of the party carried out the renovation of the Zugdidi and Khobi offices. As a result of the information presented in several stages, it was also determined that 66,411 GEL was spent on branding 59 offices of the party.
The Conservative Movement opened offices in Zugdidi, Khobi, Dmanisi and Rustavi before signing the lease agreement. The term of the agreement was calculated from the date of its signing. The cost of disposal without lease obligations amounted to 3 583 GEL in total, which was not declared to the State Audit Service, and thus, it represents an illegal donation.