Russian malign influence still defines the post-Soviet region’s most pressing political, economic and social challenges. While Russian hybrid strategies in the cyber war and information sphere have been much discussed and analysed, there is often a lack of up-to-date empirical evidence documenting Russian influences in different Georgian business sectors. The Kremlin has long been weaponizing corruption and money flows in both its foreign and domestic politics. Corrupt practices are being deliberately exported as a tool to weaken and destabilize democratic institutions, most especially in post-Soviet countries. Counter-disinformation efforts are increasingly moving beyond the narrow media lens and are recognizing money and business as vectors of malign influence and as key tools of nonlinear warfare.
It is important to identify these business connections and influences, since they often transcend the boundaries of business and have spill-over effects on the media, politics, civil society, and related domains. Hence, the business sector is generally related to socio-political actors and influences public perceptions and long-term attitudes. Closely investigating such links – between political, civil and media actors and business companies owned by Russian citizens – is essential to understand not only the degree of dependence on Russian capital in Georgian business and in strategic fields that might raise security concerns, but also for a more comprehensive understanding of the country’s information environment. Such an inquiry can provide a clearer picture of funding sources behind some malign political, media, and civil actors that actively spread disinformation in the country.
In 2015, the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) published the report “Russian Capital in Georgian Business”. This report detailed the work, resources, and connections of companies owned by Russiancitizens in the sectors of electricity, water resources, tourism, oil, gas, mining, mineral waters, communications,electric locomotive construction, banking, and big investments from other sectors operating in Georgia.
After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US and the EU imposed a range of sanctions on Russiancompa-nies, oligarchs, and individuals. The sanctions were seen as the central element of US policy to counter anddeter malign Russian activities. As of January 2022, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC) hadplaced major Russian companies and more than 275 of their subsidiaries and affiliates on the Sectoral SanctionsIdentifica-tions (SSI) List. According to the Congressional Research Service report, the list includes major stateownedcompa-nies in the financial, energy and defense sectors.
On 24 February 2022, in response to the Russian Federation launching large-scale military assault on Ukraine, the US Treasury Department announced a new package of sanctions against Russian financial institutions. In particular, the largest Russian banks Sberbank and VTB Bank were among the sanctioned. Sanctions will also apply to VTB Bank Georgia. According to the White House, any assets of VTB Bank that are in contact with the US financial system will be frozen. In addition, the sanctions impose restrictions on transactions in dollars, euros, pounds and other currencies for sanctioned banks, which will take effect on March 26.
The National Bank of Georgia (NBG) announced after the imposition of sanctions that "both VTB Bank Georgia and the NBG are fully prepared for the current situation. The bank is solvent, and the interests of its depositors are fully protected. JSC VTB Bank (Georgia) continues to operate under these restrictions. In case of need for additional liquidity, the NBG is ready to provide the bank with the appropriate financial resources,” - the NBG said in a statement on February 25. On March 3, the NBG has announced about the transfer of VTB Bank’s individual clients’ loans and deposit accounts to Basisbank JSC. It was also stated that a certain part of legal entities’ loans and deposit
accounts will be transferred to Liberty Bank JSC. These steps essentially cause the cease of VTB Bank operations indefinitely.
This report identified well-known Russian businessmen, such as Russian oligarch of Ukrainian origin Mikhail Fridman (LetterOne company) connections (ownership, shareholding) to the communications sector. His another corporation - Alfa Group owns Borjomi mineral water production in Georgia. Mikhail Fridman was included in the EU sanctions list due to his material and financial support to and benefits received from Russian individuals responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation in Ukraine.
The communications sector shows the influence of Fridon Injia and his family. Injia, who is a former member of Alliance of Patriots is notorious for his anti-western statements and appeals for closer ties with Russia. With Akhali Kselebi and CGC, Fridon Injia controls 24.19% share of the landline telephone market and 6.2% of the fixed internet connection market in Georgia. Injia owns Fopnet - Optic-fibre Telecommunication Network LTD. This company has a business-partnership with Vestelcom Russian company, which is a subsidiary of Russian Rostelecom communications corporation.
The requested data on the financial state of the broadcasters in Georgia has not been available by this stage of the study.
Only VTB Bank Georgia’s Russian ownership by VTB bank was identified in the banking sector. The bank’s beneficiary shareholder is Russian Federation with 59.34% share. Following the war in Ukraine, the National Bank of Georgia joined the international sanctions and VTB started to transfer its portfolio to other banks.
More than 120 companies and individuals were researched in the natural resources extraction and mineral waters sector, to identify Russian connections.Russian connections, ownership and controlling interests, as well as ties to the ruling party in the sector wereconfirmed for following companies: RMG Gold, Sairme Mineral Water LTD, Capital Group LTD, Mega Holding LTD,Gruzvinprom and Mixor LTD.
The above-mentioned companies hold mineral water, gold and coal extraction licenses. For example, Sairme Mineral Water LTD holds five different licenses for mineral water extraction. Company’s owner and one of the supervisory board members are Russian citizens. The mentioned member of the board, Gia Gvichia is a billionaire, well-known in Russia. His sister, Nana Gvichia is a chairperson for Saint-Petersburg Tourism Development Committee.
Mixor LTD extracts mineral waters. One of the company’s shareholders is Keystone Investments LTD, which, in its turn, is owned by Temur Anchabadze a Russian citizen. Keystone Investments is a part of Anchabadze’s business group and is mentioned on its own webpage as a part of South Stream project, designed to increase the supply of Russian natural gas to Europe and additional gas transportation to Central and Southern Russian regions.
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