Georgia's infamous former Prime Minister returns to politics

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, returns to politics after “quitting for good” in 2021. But did he ever leave the political scene? Pundits say Ivanishvili has been pulling the strings all along from behind the scenes and his appointment as the “honorary chair” of the ruling Georgian Dream party is just temporary, and that some cabin reshuffling is imminent.

Ivanishvili is a key figure in Georgian politics. He made his fortune in the pre-Putin era in Russia and founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012. After a brief stint as the country's Prime Minister from 2012–2013, Ivanishvili largely exercised his power and influence through his chairmanship of Georgian Dream. In 2021, Ivanishvili publicly announced his decision to leave politics, but that did not stop some from believing the man was still calling the shots behind the scenes from his glass mansion in the capital, Tbilisi. His involvement in domestic politics was also reflected in a European Parliament resolution adopted in June 2022, calling on Georgian officials to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.”

As such, the timing of Ivanishvili's decision to reenter the political arena has raised eyebrows as the billionaire's announcement came just ten months before the October 2024 parliamentary elections. This is also not the first time he has quit politics. He first announced his retirement in 2013. Five years later, in 2018, Ivanishvili assumed the party's chairman role only to quit again in 2021, citing his age (he was approaching 65).

Georgian domestic politics have had a turbulent few years since the previous parliamentary election in 2020. At the time, Georgia was engulfed in a political crisis, as opposition groups were contesting the results of parliamentary elections won by the ruling Georgian Dream Party. An agreement was eventually reached between the parties on April 19, 2021, with mediation from the United States and the European Union. The deal included a judicial and electoral reforms package. But months later, the Georgian Dream Party announced its decision to withdraw from the agreement.

Since then, the country has found itself in hot water with Western stakeholders, though that didn't stop the European Council from granting Georgia candidate status on November 8, 2023, paving the way for the bloc to begin the country’s accession process.

Georgia formally applied for European Union (EU) membership on March 3, 2022, with Prime Minister Irakli Garabishvili calling it “yet another milestone on the path of European integration of Georgia.”

The move represented a U-turn for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which up until recently insisted it would not accelerate its initial timeline of applying for membership in 2024.

The shift was largely driven by increasing pressure from the domestic opposition, as well as thousands of protesters who took to the streets as part of the “March for Europe,” organized by Georgia's liberal activists group, The Shame movement, and other pro-democracy groups in a bid to “demonstrate the commitment of Georgian people to its European choice and Western Values.”

In June 2022, Georgia's candidate status was denied, and Georgia received a list of 12 conditions the country had to fulfill before their application could be reexamined.

Critics say the government has failed to fulfill the 12 priority areas or conditions.

Among these conditions were reducing political polarization, reforming the judiciary, ensuring functioning state institutions, strengthening anti-corruption measures, including de-oligarchisation, and others. While the de-oligarchisation clause does not mention any specific names, it is widely understood to refer to the Georgian Dream founder and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Speaking at the Georgian Dream's party congress last month, Ivanishvili asserted his political comeback was not related to the upcoming elections but rather served the purpose of creating a “new center of gravity,” in his role as the honorary chairman and chief advisor to the ruling party:

I believe that my political and life experience, as well as relevant advice, are necessary for the team to lead our country to a final victory. We have the opportunity to fully restore the state sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and to position Georgia among high-income countries by 2030 and join the European Union. Our duty is to fully utilize this opportunity, and we should spare no effort for it.

The current Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, said it was necessary for the ruling government to bring Ivanishvili back into politics and save the country once again, as he did in 2012:

Everyone is well aware of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s unique role in saving Georgia. If he had not entered politics in 2012, today we might not have a country at all.

The ruling party's chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, described the billionaire's return to the spotlight as a “very important event in our political life. It will provide opportunities for great success in the future. We must thank Ivanishvili for this decision.” The party chairman also dismissed suggestions that Ivanishvili's had been running things behind the scenes: “Today’s decision proved that there is no informal government in our country. Giving advice does not mean informal governance.”

Ivanishvili said in his speech at the party congress he has been advising the party's “team” ever since former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned in 2021 over the authorities’ decision to arrest key opposition figure, Nika Melia, the leader of the opposition United National Movement. In his speech, Ivanishvili described Gakharia's decision as an “act of betrayal” and that had it not been for him stepping in as an advisor,” the consequences for the country could have been grave.” He also said such involvement was a “normal practice that existed in many democratic countries.”

The celebrations and words of welcome may be ringing high at the moment among members of the party and ruling government, but in many cases, it is not out of excitement. Many politicians are reportedly concerned about their political fate now that Ivanishvili is back, noted political analyst and former adviser-turn-critic Gia Khukhashvili in an interview with Interpressnews. The political analyst said the billionaire won't shy away from putting some of the members of the ruling party “through the meat grinder,” and by doing so, slowly start restoring his control over the party.

According to Khukhashvili, Ivanishvili's personal fears over his well-being and security were among the main factors that influenced his return to the political limelight, potentially paving the way for securing political immunity in the future. That and a number of officials within the ruling party gaining immense wealth and therefore no longer depending on Ivanishvili's coffers have led to Ivanishvili's decision to return and switch to “manual control.”

The control, whether manual or not, worked quickly. The same day Ivanishvili announced he was returning, December 30, the party approved the new party charter, adding the party's honorary chairman to the party structure with powers to advise and convene the political council. The latter's powers also include approving the candidacy of the new Prime Minister.

Reactions from the country's opposition groups were just as swift and less positive in tone. Sopo Japaridze, from the opposition United National Movement, said Ivanishvili's return only confirmed that “the Russian oligarch never left Georgian politics. Today, he finally confirmed the informal rule in the country and once again confirmed his fear that changes are inevitable in 2024.”

Another opposition figure, Paata Manjgaladze, deputy of Strategy Aghmashenebeli party, said Ivanishvili's return was a sign the billionaire was the “informal ruler” all along and that changes made to the party's charter only upped his “shares [of the party] by 100 percent.”

The best response and analysis to Ivanishvili's comeback, however, was by these traders at a local market in Tbilisi:

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.