Russian cellular annexation in Georgia
07 November, 2013
Russian cellular annexation in Georgia
Russian communication companies continue illegal operations within the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since 2008 Georgia has regarded Russia’s activity there as economic annexation, and reported it both to the Russian government and responsible international organizations, but to no avail.
Now the new Georgian authorities plan to initiate legal proceedings against MTS, the biggest mobile operator in Russia in terms of subscriber base, as of 2012; its signal has recently been picked up in Georgian territory, just 200
meters from the de-facto border between Georgia and its breakaway republic of South Ossetia. This Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili reported during a meeting with Georgian media on 28 October 2013. According to the Prime Minister, Polish journalists caught the MTS signal “Welcome to Russia” near the de-facto border, and reported it to Georgian authorities promptly.
“This is outrageous and I would take a chance and appeal to Russian authority to refrain from this kind of misunderstanding,” Ivanishvili stated indignantly. “I do not know whether or not this is agreed with by the [Russian] authority but this is a Russian company, we have taken photos and interviews from Polish journalists, will also hold further tests and will have a strong reaction on it by all means. We will demand responsibility for this, I mean from authorities too, that this is not Russian but Georgian territory and those wires are just some sort of misunderstanding.”
MTS denied the allegation, saying the company has no base station in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, thus implying it cannot perform the illegal service. But as the Georgian National Communication Commission (GNCC), a communication regulatory body, informed Georgian Journal, they already had done monitoring near the occupied territory of South Ossetia, and an illegal cell signal was discovered, though the Commission still cannot say whether or not it belongs to MTS. “Therefore we continue working to get undisputable evidence, and will start due administration procedures only afterwards,” GNCC elaborated.
Georgian authorities meanwhile assigned Justice and Foreign ministries to address the illegal operation of Russian companies in Georgian occupied territories and discuss the problem from the point of view of international law. But how effective that will be remains to be seen. The MTS case is just another in a long soap-opera of Russian communication companies operating in Georgian territory without licenses. For more than 8 years there have been multiple breaches: first of all, the Russian companies violate Georgian law prohibiting any kind of economic activity there without special permission of Georgian authority; secondly, they violate Georgian communication as well as competition law banning unlicensed activity.
As a result, they inflict significant financial losses on legally operating cell companies in Georgia that paid tens of millions (USD 20-26 million approximately) for licenses covering the entire territory of Georgia, including the conflict zones where in fact they cannot operate, whereas those who paid nothing to the Georgian state budget make profits within the conflict zones.
In 2008-2010 GNCC took action against Russian cell and TV companies operating illegally in Georgian conflict zones, but without success. For example, in 2008-2009 GNCC imposed five fines on MegaFon that accrued to GEL 1 million ultimately; also GEL 50 thousand and GEL 500 thousand fines were imposed on Russian broadcasting companies including Public Broadcast Company of Russian Federation, Rossia, NTV, NTV+ and TV-Center; and the Commission sent the due paper-work to the Prosecutors’ Office of Georgia, to the Russian communication ministry, as well as the International Telecommunication Union and GSM Association, seeking to curb the illegal activity of Russian companies in Georgia, but all without effect. Most probably, all the violator companies still continue their illegal business in Georgian territory, GNCC presumes, but cannot say for sure until the tests now underway are completed.

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