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Georgia’s Lazarus Bidzina Ivanishvili’s latest political comeback and the law of diminishing returns

Source: Meduza

Story by Will Neal for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Georgia is set to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections this autumn, and the run-up to the vote has been eventful already. Late last December, Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that he would officially return to politics once again after years of exerting his influence behind the scenes. Having previously “retired” from political life not once but twice, the billionaire founder of the ruling party, Georgian Dream, has reemerged as its “honorary chairman.” Since then, Georgia’s government has undergone a reshuffle, with Irakli Kobakhidze — a staunch critic of the West renowned for his loyalty to Ivanishvili — taking on the role of prime minister. Naturally, these developments have provoked much speculation about the future of Georgia’s E.U. membership bid and its policies towards Russia. But what does the “third coming” of Bidzina Ivanishvili mean for domestic politics in Georgia? Tbilisi-based journalist Will Neal reports for The Beet.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Bidzina Ivanishvili once said he doesn’t believe in an afterlife — words from a man now staging the third act of his very own political death-and-resurrection show that might have proven ironic, were there anyone who still believed he ever really left. 

Georgia’s most powerful oligarch is an elusive figure who’s yo-yoed in and out of office since his party, Georgian Dream, first assumed power in 2012. By his own admission, Ivanishvili loathes public appearances and apparently prefers instead to maintain his presumed hold on power from the shadows as the government’s éminence grise. His discomfort at the center of attention is so intense that he claims he doesn’t even celebrate his own birthday.

And so, when Ivanishvili reluctantly announced his second formal “return” to the party’s helm at the end of December, the obvious questions were why again, and why now?

Much has been made of Georgia’s precarious geopolitical situation amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, and rightly so. Since the full-scale invasion began, and to a degree even before that, Georgia’s government has steadfastly sought to distance itself from historic Western partners while simultaneously openly cozying up to the Kremlin. Opponents decry the country’s supposed pro-Russian drift, and the turn in Georgia’s long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” has seen the United States sanction key Ivanishvili allies. Additionally, European leaders have considered similar measures against the oligarch himself, very nearly costing Georgia its bid for E.U. candidate status last year. 

There’s no doubt that Ivanishvili is back to steady the ship, but the Georgian Dream government’s increasingly fraught standing on the international stage offers only a partially eclipsed view of the revenant oligarch’s possible motivations — not least given disquiet among the ruling party’s ranks and the growing disillusionment of voters heading to the polls in October. 

Georgian officials listen to the national anthem at a rally in Tbilisi in celebration of Georgia’s E.U. candidacy. December 15, 2023.
Shakh Aivazov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

Born in 1956 in Chorvila, a village in central Georgia, Ivanishvili grew up the youngest of five in a family blighted by abject poverty. After graduating university in Tbilisi, he obtained an economics PhD in Moscow before turning to business, amassing a sizeable fortune in Russia’s metal and banking sectors during the privatization frenzy that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

By the time he returned to Georgia, shortly before the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, Ivanishvili was a multi-billionaire, reportedly going on to provide considerable funding for infrastructure projects and police reform under President Mikheil Saakashvili’s nascent administration. Eventually, however, the two men fell out, prompting Ivanishvili to form Georgian Dream in 2012 in a bid to oust Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the parliamentary elections later that year. 

So little was known of Ivanishvili when he announced his first foray into Georgian politics that journalists reportedly struggled even to find a photograph of him. “He’s always been this sort of mystical figure,” says Shota Kakabadze, an analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics. “There’s this one legend that [when Ivanishvili was] growing up poor, there was an ice cream man who used to give him free ice cream out of pity, and when he became rich, he came back and bought the very same guy an ice cream factory.” 

The profile of an obscure and humble philanthropist, whose money has in no small part helped finance Georgia’s transformation into a modern if fledgling democracy, allowed Ivanishvili to tap into something of a messianic streak in the nation’s politics. Saakashvili capitalized on something similar during his initial years as president but steadily lost hold amid allegations of abuse of power and human rights violations, and the fallout from a war with Russia in 2008 that saw Moscow consolidate control over about a fifth of Georgia’s territory. 

In 2012, Ivanishvili formally took office as prime minister after leading an anti-Saakashvili coalition to victory at the polls. He would resign his post the following year, but it was nevertheless during these early days of the first Georgian Dream government that the oligarch appeared to cement his control over the country’s political establishment. 

“Ivanishvili likes to treat things as a business corporation — whatever happens, he has several key positions that nobody can touch, from which his power originates,” explains Nodar Kharshiladze, founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre. “One is the prosecutor’s office, so he can influence legal decisions. The secret police, they’re always his guys, also the Interior Ministry, and he keeps a close watch on the National Bank — so law enforcement and money.”

His apparent interests thus secured, Ivanishvili then seemed to retreat into the background, resolving to return to frontline politics only if and when a genuine crisis demanded it, such as to assuage in-fighting within his coalition in 2018, and, most recently, in December of last year, amid the ongoing domestic and geopolitical fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ivanishvili is photographed sitting next to Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze after being elected as Georgian Dream’s chairman at a party congress in Tbilisi. May 11, 2018.
Georgian Dream Party / Handout / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

‘His interests, his security, his money’

While the European Union may have recently granted Georgia the first formal step on a very long road to membership, it achieved candidate status despite what many saw as a concerted and significant effort by the country’s government to sabotage the bid. 

Since Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, Georgian Dream officials have repeatedly accused Western partners of wanting to drag them into the conflict, describing calls for Georgia to join sanctions against the Kremlin as an attempt to create a “second front” along the boundary line with their own occupied territories. The vitriol has proven consistently astounding. There were highly personal rhetorical attacks by government officials leveled at the outgoing U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in addition to the attempted impeachment of President Salome Zourabichvili for taking trips to Europe to promote integration. Other incidents have been downright outlandish, like when senior members of Georgian Dream claimed that the U.S. was plotting with Ukraine to finance a coup in Georgia. 

Meanwhile, Tbilisi’s relationship with the Kremlin has only grown warmer. Last May, Georgian Dream agreed to resume direct flights with Moscow, just two months after attempting to pass measures widely decried as an analog of Russia’s “foreign agents” law. A few days later, at an international conference in Bratislava, then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili attributed Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine to NATO expansionism (the Kremlin’s preferred narrative). 

Critics are nevertheless quick to point out this trend didn’t start with the outbreak of a large-scale war in the region but instead represents the acceleration of a drift further into Russia’s orbit that arguably began with what is known as “Gavrilov’s Night,” when Russian Duma member Sergei Gavrilov gave a speech on “Orthodox brotherhood” from the speaker’s chair in Georgia’s parliament in 2019, sparking anti-government protests.

In other words, while outward signs indicate a sudden pro-Russian shift, the reality is more complex than manichean geopolitics would suggest. “I don’t really agree with the assessment that [Ivanishvili is] pro-Russian, or that he gets directions from Putin,” Kakabadze says. “He cares about himself most of all — his interests, his security, his money.” 

Ivanishvili poses for a photograph at his summer house in Ureki, Georgia. August 2013.
Daro Sulakauri / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Since 2022, Ivanishvili has been locked in a legal battle with Credit Suisse over losses he claims to have racked up due to a fraudulent scheme by disgraced French banker Patrice Lescaudron. Ivanishvili’s associates claim that he’s had trouble recovering his money because of a conspiracy against him, with the U.S. and the E.U. supposedly leaning on the bank to withhold his funds. Ivanishvili himself has repeatedly and publicly claimed to be “de-facto sanctioned” by the West. 

As conspiracy theories go, Ivanishvili doesn’t have to look far for supporting evidence. In 2023, the U.S. imposed sanctions not only on several high-ranking members of “the clan” (a cabal of powerful judges who allegedly control Georgia’s legal system on Ivanishvili’s behalf) but also on Otar Partskhaladze, a former prosecutor general widely reported to be one of Ivanishvili’s right-hand men and the godfather to one of his grandchildren. With pressure mounting on his entourage, some members of the European Parliament have also called for Ivanishvili to face sanctions himself amid the furor last March over Georgian Dream’s attempts to enact their “foreign agents” bill. 

“There’s this old joke: ‘Russians are terrible people. If you piss them off, they’ll kill you. But the Americans are worse, they’ll take away your money,’” says Kharshiladze. “[Ivanishvili] doesn’t want to be in conflict with the U.S. After Ukraine, it’s been harder to balance things [between Russia and the West], and he wants to get in good with the Americans again, even though they don’t trust him anymore.” 

By stepping back into the limelight, Ivanishvili may well hope he can challenge the prevalent view of his position as an obscure and untrustworthy oligarch and rebrand himself as merely an exceptionally wealthy honorary party chairman with legitimate cause to be directly involved in relations with Western partners. Rumors abound that he may also be plotting a bid for the country’s presidency, which would make sanctioning him a daring prospect for any country that considers itself Georgia’s ally. 

Mr. Naoborot

Some speculate that Ivanishvili has equally returned to public office in a bid to boost Georgian Dream in the polls ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections, but in truth his present lack of international political currency won’t likely curry much favor among voters. Inflation and the soaring cost of living, coupled with a massive and socially disruptive influx of Russian nationals fleeing conscription, have stoked disillusionment and resentment toward a party widely felt to be on the wrong side of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. 

Georgian protesters hold a pro-E.U. rally outside of the parliament in Tbilisi after the government dropped its proposed “foreign agents” bill. March 9, 2023.
Vano Shlamov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Ivanishvili’s announcement that he is returning was telling. “My main goal is not further strengthening the electoral party but protecting the excessively strengthened team from human temptations,” he said in December. “The ruling party needs a new center of gravity, and I believe that my mission to create this new center of gravity is timely and necessary today.”

After more than a decade in power, high-ranking officials within Georgian Dream have done exceptionally well for themselves, but tensions between senior members have deepened as they’ve gained influence. Broad factions under three key figures — Kakha Kaladze, Irakli Garibashvili, and Irakli Kobakhidze — currently divide the party. And each of these men has his own rival political and (in Kaladze’s and Garibashvili’s cases) alleged business interests. 

“Ivanishvili is what the Russians might call Gospodin Naoborot [‘Mr. Vice Versa’],” says Petre Tsiskarishvili, secretary general of United National Movement, Georgia’s largest opposition party. “When he says there’s ‘temptation’ within his team, he means there’s temptation toward corruption, and what he really means is that there’s corruption beyond his control.”

With this in mind, some observers believe Ivanishvili returned not to facilitate a bump in Georgian Dream’s popularity or to steady relations with Western partners but to reassert his dominance within the party’s internal politics. The heavy hitters had simply gotten too big for their boots and needed reminding of who’s really in charge. 

As mayor of Tbilisi, Kaladze is by far Georgian Dream’s most popular figure and therefore largely untouchable, while Kobakhidze is understood to have consistently proven himself to be Ivanishvili’s most loyal asset within the party’s upper echelons. And so when the ax swung last week, it fell squarely on the neck of Garibashvili, who found himself ignominiously shunted from his post as prime minister to swap places with Kobakhidze as party chair. 

Irakli Kobakhidze speaks to journalists at a Georgian Dream party congress in Tbilisi. February 1, 2024.
David Mdzinarishvili / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

“A lot of experts believe we’ll also see high-profile arrests in the coming months of some people who’ve been involved in corruption — maybe [Garibashvili’s] associates or business partners,” explains Kakabadze. “That might be a pre-election strategy, but also a signal to Georgian Dream that they should hold their horses because Ivanishvili’s still in control of everything.”

Georgian Dream did not reply to The Beet’s questions for this story in time for publication.

Joining forces?

Throw a stone in Tbilisi, and you’ll hit three opposition party headquarters. Girchi, European Georgia, Strategy Aghmashenebeli, Lelo for Georgia — the list goes on. Many are off-shoots of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, most recently with last year’s departure of former chairman Nika Melia, who now plans to establish yet another group. Therefore, describing the incumbent government’s opponents at this year’s parliamentary elections as scattered would be putting it mildly. And yet Shota Gvineria, a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Research Center in Tbilisi, believes that “Georgian Dream is facing a real prospect of losing power for the first time.” 

Recent polls show that only 25 percent of voters would name Georgian Dream their first choice in October, while combined support for genuine opponents (excluding the government’s spin-off groups and ideological outliers) stands at just under 35 percent. 

“If President Salome Zourabichvili decides to create an anti-Georgian Dream coalition, consolidating all other political parties, there may well be a chance,” Gvineria speculates. “She’s the only possible candidate on the Georgian political market who could possibly be an alternative to the current government, the only person who has enough political weight, both inside and outside the country, to pull off this trick of being the charismatic leader and consolidating everyone under her banner.”

President Salome Zourabichvili attends a march in support of Georgia’s E.U. candidacy in Tbilisi. December 9, 2023.
Shakh Aivazov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Zourabichvili has already announced the formation of a “coordination center” through her administration as president, meant to “gather proposals” from NGOs and opposition parties on how best to tackle the reforms the European Union has laid out as criteria for membership. This forum’s capacity to kickstart a more widely organized movement depends on various opposition groups’ receptiveness to uniting in this way and on how swiftly they can reach a consensus with the election less than eight months away. 

For the United National Movement, at least, the biggest stumbling block will be Zourabichvili’s long-standing reluctance to grant a presidential pardon to Saakashvili, whose health has dramatically deteriorated while languishing in prison on abuse-of-power charges following an ill-advised return to the country in 2021. “Without pardoning Misha, [Zourabichvili] is a non-starter for anybody in UNM,” says the party’s secretary general, Petre Tsiskarishvili. “The [prerequisite] is pardoning Misha, and then we’re open to any kind of negotiations, including her acting as some kind of unifier of whatever sort.” 

Saakashvili himself offered a similarly lukewarm response to the prospect of a united front under Zourabichvili. “Only the power of the people can do the job. UNM has a unique and long memory of people-power, and I will be at the forefront of this battle,” he said in a written response to The Beet’s request for comment, penned from the secure medical facility where he is currently being held. “I am not so sure that [Zourabichvili] can form her own independent political force at this stage,” he added, “though she looks more sympathetic than [Georgian Dream] to the majority of the electorate and has genuine political skills.” 

The party’s preferred tactic, Tsiskarishvili says, would be for opposition groups to campaign independently with an emphasis on issues and policy, weighing the possibility of a coalition only after the election results are in. Giga Bokeria, chairman of the opposition party European Georgia, said the same. “The only plausible way is to have strong teams and key reforms agreed between parties, but nothing further than that before the ballot,” he told The Beet. “In that way, we can hopefully break this cycle of relying on charismatic figures.”

Ultimately, Georgia is a place where political campaigns often play out as a moral conflict of personality between party leaders. Partly because of the messianic streak in the country’s democratic history and partly because every incoming government since independence has effectively criminalized members of the previous administration. As Saakashvili’s case attests, all the mudslinging and smear tactics amount to a dogfight for political or literal survival. Ivanishvili and his competition with his nemeses will likely dominate rhetoric and public opinion ahead of Georgia’s October vote. The oligarch’s return puts the opposition at the mercy of Georgian Dream’s impressive and brutal PR machine, though Ivanishvili could find himself at risk of the only thing he fears more than the limelight: accountability. 

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Story by Will Neal for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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