In Georgia cabinet reshuffling begins after former Prime Minister returns to politics

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

Not even a month after controversial former Prime Minister of Georgia Bidzina Ivanishvili returned to politics on December 30, 2023, there have already been at least two key replacements within the ruling government of the Georgian Dream party. On January 29, the current Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili abruptly announced his decision to step down. Three days later, on February 1, it was announced that Irakli Kobakhidze, who served as the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, would be taking over as the country's next Prime Minister. According to the Georgian Dream's new party charter, the party's honorary chairman — Bidzina Ivanishvili — holds the powers to advise and convene the political council and approve the candidacy of the new Prime Minister. Pundits projected a cabinet reshuffling following Ivanishvili's comeback.

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 he 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.

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 now-former 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 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.”

But Kobakhidze must have forgotten the candid interview Ivanishvili gave in 2018, where he openly and candidly described just how involved he remained in pulling the strings or, in Ivanishvili's own words, “remote control”:

They are confusing informal governance with public oversight. The public put a degree of trust in me and I can use this trust at any moment and criticize any leader. […]We don’t have an extensive experience of public oversight of the government and I’m there to fill that gap. […] There was a serious risk of the team [Georgian Dream party] falling apart. I was watching this from the outside and, at a critical point, I realized that exercising remote control was not enough […] to keep the team together.

In his earlier assessment of the internal developments, Gia Khukhashvili, political analyst and former adviser-turn-critic, said there were several reasons behind Ivanishvili's decision to return to the political stage. Ivanishvili's personal fears over his well-being and security were among the main factors that influenced his return, potentially paving the way to secure political immunity from possible EU sanctions in the future.

In June 2022, the European Parliament adoptedresolution calling on Georgian officials to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.” 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 recent cabinet reshuffling indicates manual control has been initiated.

Opposition politicians and activists also disagree on Ivanishvili's involvement in the domestic political scene during his so-called time away from politics.

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.”

Other members of the opposition chimed in on the recent cabinet reshuffling. Paata Manjgaladze from the Strategy Aghmashenebeli party called the change a “facade.” While Levan Khabeishvili, chair of the United National Movement, the largest opposition party, said the changes were “not related to the well-being of our citizens” but were rather Ivanishvili’s “so-called political entanglements.”

Teona Akubardia, from the Reform Group, said, “Changing the pawns on the chessboard is the tactic that Bidzina Ivanishvili has used before to win the game, and he has always done it successfully.”

Irakli Kobakhidze previously served as the chair of parliament from 2016–2019. He resigned following mass anti-government protests in 2019 over an invitation to Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov to address parliament in Russian from the speaker’s tribune. He was appointed chair of the ruling party in 2021.

Kobakhidze has been among the most outspoken leaders of the ruling party, including spearheading a surge in anti-Western rhetoric in recent years. The parliament is expected to confirm his appointment in the following days, making Kobakhidze the seventh head of government since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power in 2012.

The now-former Prime Minister Gharibashvili will be replacing Kobakhidze as the chair of the ruling party.

During a briefing in which the former PM announced his resignation, he thanked Ivanishvili, as well as other members of the party, and everyone else for their support during his term.

With eight months left before the parliamentary election in Georgia, it remains to be seen what Ivanishvili's intentions truly are. Or as journalist Giorgi Lomsadze wrote in this piece, “Dubbed the Third Coming, Ivanishvili's latest appearance became the third episode in what seems like a quinquennial cycle when the tycoon descends from his glassy, hilltop palace down to the capital city to perform a grand political act and ascend back.”

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