visit to Israel

“Misha from Kutaisi”

Dimitri Avaliani
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The Georgian Prime Minister’s Host in Israel

W hen meeting Georgian diaspora or businessmen abroad, the Georgian government sometimes demonstrates its closeness with persons well known in Russia that have controversial and quite specific reputations.

That is what happened in January when the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili paid a visit to Israel. Whilst there, Garibashvili held a meeting with local businessmen. The official Facebook page of the prime minister indicated that this meeting was attended by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel and that Israeli businessmen expressed their desire to visit Georgia in early March.

One of attendees of this meeting, who served in the capacity of host, was Georgian-born businessman Mikhail Mirilashvili. According to photos displayed on the Facebook wall of the prime minister, Mirilashvili accompanied the prime minister and the Georgian delegation to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Georgian-born Mikhail Mirilashvili moved to St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as the city was then called, in 1977. In the early 1990s, he became one of the most influential businessmen and "authority figures" in the city and Russian media outlets, including the Kommersant newspaper, took to referring to him as "Misha Kutaisski" i.e. Misha from Kutaisi.

Mirilashvili was also known by another nickname – MMM (the initials of his first name, patronymic and surname). As the Russian internet edition Gazeta.ru noted, he was regarded as one of the prime authority figures in St. Petersburg, along with Konstantin Yakovlev (nicknamed Kostya Mogila, i.e. Kostya the Grave), who was killed in 2013, and Vladimir Barsukov (referred to as a St. Petersburg crime boss by The Moscow Times), who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for fraud and money laundering.

As the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported based on information received from "ill-wishers" of Mirilashvili, he became a professional card player in the early 1980s; then he was engaged in taking antiques and jewelry out of the country. According to the newspaper's sources, Mirilashvili was close to the influential crime bosses Vladimir Feoktistov ("Feka") and Vyacheslav Ivankov ("Yaponchik"). Back then Mirilashvili was also on friendly terms with the late Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of St. Petersburg in 1991-1996, whose clique also included Vladimir Putin.

By 2003, in St. Petersburg Mikhail Mirilashvili already owned a large gambling holding, the Conti Group, the large St Gostiniy Dvor shopping mall, as well as the Petromir holding and the Russian Video company. The scope of the activities of these various companies was quite broad, including pharmaceuticals, industry, and the gambling business. The internet edition Gazeta.ru estimated his revenues to be worth 40 million USD. Since 1995, Mirilashvili has had dual Russian and Israeli citizenship.

In January 2001, Mikhail Mirilashvili was arrested on charges of abduction. This arrest happened when he returned from Israel as part of a delegation headed by Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

The criminal charges leveled against him concerned an alleged retaliation for the abduction of Mirilashvili's father, also named Mikhail. Mikhail Mirilashvili Sr. had been kidnapped by people wearing militia uniforms, but was soon returned. As Kommersant wrote back then, law enforcement sources suggested that Mirilashvili had paid five million USD in ransom. However, the family themselves denied paying any such ransom, declaring that the abductors released Mirilashvili's father on their own will without receiving any payment.

In September 2000, however, a Georgian crime boss, Gocha Tsagareishvili, together with his girlfriend and driver, was killed near the Astoria hotel in St. Petersburg. According to Kommersant, Tsagareishvili was heading to meet with Mirilashvili at the Astoria. The investigators of these murders had the theory that Tsagareishvili was an organizer of the abduction of Mirilashvili's father and that it was "Misha from Kutaisi" who had retaliated. However, the investigation eventually failed to prove this theory.

Mirilashvili and several other persons were accused of organizing the abduction of two ethnic Georgians – Dvali and Kakushadze, who disappeared after the abduction of Mirilashvili Sr. Later, both of them were found to have been murdered. As Kommersant reported, the investigation established that Dvali and Kakushadze had been abducted by members of Mirilashvili's security staff who then took the abductees to the Petromir office and tortured them to death.

However, Mirilashvili was not found guilty of those murders either. At the end of the day, in 2003, the court of the Leningrad military district sentenced Mikhail Mirilashvili to 12 years in prison for the abduction of two persons. The Supreme Court decreased this sentence to eight years.

Mirilashvili served his sentence in full and left prison in 2009. As he told Forbes in an interview in 2011, his businesses, which continued to be run by his partners and family members, did not sustain any damage during his imprisonment. In 2005, Mirilashvili's brother Gabriel ("Konstantine") Mirilashvili, who was also charged with the same accusation, left Russia and the criminal prosecution was officially terminated.

In 2007, Mikhail Mirilashvili's son Vyacheslav (Itskhak) Mirilashvili became the owner of 60 percent of the shares of one of the most popular social networks in Russia, Vkontakte.ru.

Shortly after his release from prison, Mikhail Mirilashvili was again elected as chairman of the St. Petersburg organization of the Russian branch of the World Jewish Congress – a position he had held before his arrest. He was also awarded the 2009 "Man of the Year" prize from the Russian branch of the World Jewish Congress.

Since his release from prison, Mirilashvili spends most of his time in Israel and rarely interacts with the media. In 2011, Forbes estimated his wealth at 750 million USD. In 2013, the same edition estimated the wealth of his son Vyacheslav (Itskhak) at 950 million USD.

In his interview with Forbes in 2011, Mikhail Mirilashvili said that even though his gambling business, which comprised a significant portion of his revenues, was banned in Russia, he has not sold any of his assets and is constantly expanding his business in that country. According to Mirilashvili, he runs development, construction, hotel, pharmaceutical, communications and IT businesses. The businessman did not specify his activity in Israel. He just said that he tries to orientate a major part of his business in Russia.

Mikhail Mirilashvili's brother, Gabriel Mirilashvili, is now head of the Georgian branch of the World Jewish Congress.

In one of his TV interviews in 2010, Mikhail Mirilashvili denied any links with organized crime. He accused the late Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky of spreading such rumors about him. According to Mirilashvili, by so doing the oligarch was taking revenge because Mirilashvili had refused to sell him his television channel. To a question as to whether he knew Vladimir Putin, the businessman answered that he did not know the then Prime Minister and current President of Russia personally, but he and Putin shared a common enemy – Boris Berezovsky.

Thumbnail photo: პრემიერმინისტრის facebook-ის ოფიციალური გვერდი

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