What surprised everybody was the quality of the recording.
Links sent as messages by anonymous Facebook accounts on Friday March 11 to members of the Georgian media opened up a video of a former government minister, recognisable to everyone, having extra-marital sex in high definition.
Despite an apparent effort by the authorities to block YouTube, the damage was done. The file had been replicated, and the footage went viral.
Soon it was followed by another video the following Monday of an apparently unidentified personality (though many Georgians have their suspicions), engaged in a sexual activity. This one was accompanied by a threat:
“There are many more of these videos of politicians and the elite who sold out their homeland. We call on you to leave your current positions, otherwise everyone will know about your sexual immoralities, orientations and drug-addictions.”
Serving ministers, a party leader, and a well known journalist were named and warned: “You have until March 31 to leave politics or we will upload new films in order to clear you out of the political arena.”
Most media outlets in Georgia chose not to name those featured in the videos, but the implicated journalist, a political talkshow host, tried to level with the blackmailers live on daytime TV:
“I am Inga Grigolia – woman, daughter, mother and friend. I have a wonderful boyfriend and I have sex,” she said.
“I promise you who are threatening me with making public my private life and demanding me to leave the country, that I will sacrifice myself to defend my rights and the rights of others and I will do everything to send those who have filmed and released these videos to jail for many years.”
Eka Gigauri, head of the civil rights and policy advocacy group, Transparency International Georgia, says the blackmailing scandal had been anticipated.
“Everybody expected it would happen – that these types of videos would be released before the elections and would be about the private lives of active individuals, political party members, especially from the opposition,” Gigauri said.
Georgia’s political leadership has been quick to condemn the leaks.
“Sex and having a sex life are nothing to be ashamed of,” President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a statement.
“I address those dark forces, who intend to blackmail our population and our society: we will find each of you and you will not be able to frighten and terrorise people.”
Five people have subsequently been arrested in connection with possessing, or intending to share sex tapes.
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has promised that those responsible will be “punished in an exemplary manner”, and the interior ministry and intelligence services will help investigate the case.
But Gigauri says the government has failed to investigate the very same intelligence services who, under the previous government, secretly filmed well known personalities and politicians.
“In 2012, the Ministry of Interior informed the public they had actually found an archive in the ministry which consisted of 24,000 videos, hundreds of hours of material,” Gigauri said.
‘Do you still have cameras there?’
As a civil society leader, Gigauri was invited to join a special commission established to oversee the destruction of around 100 hours of the most intimate material while retaining part of the archive as evidence.
“One expectation that the public had was for this commission to talk about the scope of the surveillance, the method the previous government used, the people standing behind it, and the targets,” she said.
“The commission decided not to do this, because if they would talk about the whole system, then they should condemn it and not use it in the future. But apparently they felt it was a very powerful mechanism in their hands.”
“In hotels there were deluxe rooms, suites where they had cameras and when important people went there the hotel administration would put them in these rooms and they were recorded there. So my question was: ‘Do you still have cameras there? You should take them out!'”
Mikhail Saaskashvili, who led Georgia after the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003, is well known for having eliminated petty corruption in Georgia’s police force, a first for a post-Soviet country.
But he also strengthened the secret services, who under his leadership carried out systematic and comprehensive secret surveillance of politicians and other well-known figures.
Saakashvili’s government was defeated in elections in 2012 by a coalition of parties led by the former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and since then the intelligence services in Georgia may have become even more powerful.
In 2015, the State Security Agency separated from the Ministry of Interior. The then-interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, a former bodyguard of Ivanishvili, transferred to head the agency.
Before this month’s sex tape scandal, several prominent figures had already complained about being threatened with the release of compromising videos.
A group of NGOs including Transparency International started a campaign in 2014 called “This Affects You – They are Still Listening”, calling for an end to unchecked surveillance by law enforcement agencies in Georgia, including access to all Georgian telephone and email communications.
But the government has so far resisted curbing the powers of the intelligence services. And until more arrests are made, or details emerge about those who record and leak sex tapes in Georgia, the link between the security services and the current blackmailing of Georgian politicians and journalists will remain a mystery.
The first parliamentary elections in four years are expected this October, and the release of more scandalous videos is anticipated.
They have already proved to be a very effective weapon in Georgian politics.
Secretly filmed abuse of prisoners in Georgia’s penal system ultimately toppled Saakashvili’s ruling UNM party in 2012.
Gigauri believes that the sex videos may be a dangerous attempt to channel the election campaign towards a discourse on morality.
“Somebody tries to kidnap the fair and free elections in this country because they want to evaluate people according to their private lives and not according to their decisions or activities in the political arena,” she said.
“I don’t think it is in the interest of the government, but it is the responsibility of the government. So we should really point fingers at them, because this was their obligation – to defend the public from this kind of thing. And they never did this.”