Ivanishvili’s third coming

Georgia’s ‘March for Europe’ protests express deep polarization in the country over the current government’s pro-Russian course. The return of Moscow-friendly oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to official politics signalled the beginning of an election campaign whose outcome will decide Georgia’s democratic future.

Georgia, a country whose democratic system has been shaken lately, is now facing a critical test of its democracy as it gears up for the 2024 parliamentary elections. The elections will determine if the Georgian Dream party (GD) stays in power for a fourth term. The upcoming elections have become more important since Georgia received EU candidacy status in 2023. While a significant step towards the country’s Europeanization, candidate status does not formally guarantee EU membership.

Georgia must still fulfil the twelve priorities as outlined by the European Commission and secure deep democratic reforms, such as strengthening the rule of law, protecting vulnerable groups in society, implementing anticorruption efforts and, most importantly, ‘de-oligarchization’ measures that would limit the overwhelming influence of vested interests in public and political affairs.

Georgia’s democratization will play an important role in its pursuit of EU membership and must be a priority for whoever is to become a decision-maker. Those elected must maintain the country’s declared pro-western stance, especially in foreign policy. Thus, the key question is whether the current ruling party would firmly commit to both democratization and the pro-western agenda if it remains in power for the next four years.

Image: Marcin Konsek / source: Wikimedia Commons

Guess who’s back, again

This year started with the not-so-surprising news that the oligarch and former Georgian PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose overwhelming influence on Georgian politics is considered a challenge for the country’s democracy-building, is returning to politics as the honorary chairman of the Georgian Dream party.

Ivanishvili’s party, GD, first rose to power in 2012, replacing the government led by the United National Movement party. Initially serving as prime minister, Ivanishvili expressed his intentions to leave politics very early. In 2013 he finally resigned and was replaced by Irakli Garibashvili. In 2018, Ivanishvili made his first political comeback by retaking the leadership of the party. He cited several reasons for his decision, including the failure of anti-poverty measures, the presence of ‘destructive opposition movements’, and internal instability within the party.  Presidential elections were being held in Georgia that year, and both GD and Ivanishvili supported the candidacy of Salome Zourabichvili. Despite the growing differences between Georgian Dream and Zourabichvili, Ivanishvili’s endorsement mobilised many voters, ultimately making her victory possible.

Then, in 2021, Ivanishvili left politics again, claiming this time it was for good. But two years later, on 30 December 2023, he officially announced his ‘third coming’ and formally became the party’s main political advisor. He explained his decision by stating his intention to protect the party from ‘human seductions’ and emphasized that ‘consultations with just two or three leaders will no longer be sufficient’.

These ‘consultations’ with GD party figures proved that Ivanishvili never stopped being involved in decision-making. Opposition parties and western partners never doubted his role in the Georgian Dream party or his significant influence over the government. Many believe that the demand for ‘de-oligarchization’ was added to the EU’s 12 priorities to limit Ivanishvili’s influence over Georgian politics, even during periods when he was formally inactive as a politician. Despite his official return to politics, it is unlikely that Ivanishvili’s public image as an oligarch will change. His role within the party is often seen less as offering advice and more as giving orders, which, given the current dynamics within GD, are unlikely to be challenged.

Why now?

There are generally two  opinions on the reasons for Ivanishvili’s comeback. One is that he wants to influence the parliamentary elections in October 2024. According to this view, Ivanishvili wants to show to the decreasing number of GD voters that he remains the party’s main figure. Supporting GD means supporting him personally. Strategically, this would mean uniting voters who may have been dissatisfied with other party leaders when Ivanishvili was ruling from the wings.

The other opinion is that Ivanishvili has returned in order to tighten Russian control over the country. He is widely considered by his opponents as a ‘man of Moscow’and his comeback is seen as Russia’s attempt to ensure that a friendly government remains in power, sabotaging further steps toward Euro-Atlantic integration.

Yet, Ivanishvili’s alignment with Russia is not without contradictions. For instance, in 2023 GD tried to pass the ‘Russian law on foreign agents’ that could have significantly weakened civil society. The move sparked widespread protests in the country that forced the government to drop the law, leaving Moscow disappointed and raising doubts over Ivanishvili’s unwavering loyalty to Russia.

Ivanishvili’s comeback brought about governmental changes in Georgia, which were often linked to his personal preferences. Irakli Kobakhidze, a former leading figure, replaced Irakli Gharibashvili as prime minister. Kobakhidze is widelyunpopular amongst the Georgian public and there are no expectations that he will take serious steps against societal polarization, another issue prioritized by the EU. Very few believe that either Gharibashvili or Kobakhidze had or have any autonomy in decision-making, or that this change islikely to be a serious turning point for the country.

As the elections get closer, GD will start campaigning. There is no doubt that Ivanishvili will use all the resources at his disposal to ensure the success of those loyal to him. This time, it might not be just GD who receives the oligarch’s support. In recent years, various smaller parties have emerged with clearly anti-western and often pro-Russian stances, such as Power of People. Their base usually consists of former GD members. There are also several pro-Russian rightwing movements believed to be backed by the government as counter-movements to anti-government demonstrations. It is expected that the oligarch and other GD members may try to empower these groups in order to grow their support base before the elections.

The opposition and public opinion

The opposition has met Ivanishvili’s return to politics with less surprise. It is widely believed that, overtly or not, he is behind Georgian Dream – the party they all are competing against. Therefore, the opposition is calling for a fight against the oligarch regime. Dismantling the GD government would send a powerful signal that the country is back on the path of Europeanization. The major political oppositional pro-western parties, such as United National Movement, Lelo, Strategy Agmashenebeli, Girchi and Droa, believe that Georgian Dream has been undermining the country’s strategic foreign policy course. They argue that EU candidacy status is an achievement of the Georgian people, particularly the youth, who have shown unwavering support and commitment to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path.

It is no secret that the opposition in Georgia faces multiple challenges in terms of resources, internal stability and public trust. It is also clear that no party alone can secure a majority. Creating coalitions would be a clever move,but for that to happen, partners must share a common aim and rally around the same values. This can be challenging, as is the case with the UNM, which has an implicit association with former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Previous experience shows that not everyone feels comfortable with being associated with him, even indirectly, due to perceptions of his political legacy. While some view Saakashvili as the founder of the modern Georgian state, others see him as another authoritarian leader or are simply unsure. Saakashvili’s influence over the UNM must decrease for cooperation to be successful. However, limiting Saakashvili’s authority is yet another challenge, because of the deep-rooted support he still holds among the party’s voters.

The UNM has also been experiencing divisions. As the elections approach, those who no longer follow the party lines are creating new parties in coalition with public figures who are clearly against the oligarch regime- One example is  Nika Gvaramia, the public figure associated with creation of Mtavari Arkhi, one of the main opposition media channels. Recently Gvaramia joined those who distanced themselves from UNM and announced the creation of new party called Ahali. This means that there will be a diversity of opposition forces at this election, but at the same time a need for them to find common aims in order.to ensure thatthe GD does not take advantage of their fragmentation.

One of the biggest problems of pre-election Georgia is public mistrust towards political parties. Recent statistics reveal that 62 per cent of voters said that no party represented their interests, showing a huge gap between societal needs and party offerings, or at least the public’s perception of them. It is also noteworthy that more than 40 per cent of the population lacks a clear idea of which party to support. On the one hand, this presents an opportunity for opposition parties to gather more votes. On the other hand, it poses a challenge, as they will need to prove greater reliability than the GD-led government and possibly adopt a more realistic and result-oriented strategy. Given that GD’s agenda has been marked by populism and unfulfilled promises on various fronts, the opposition parties must be able to show the public that they can achieve their goals even if the public currently does not see it that way.

Looking ahead

Parties are still in the early stages of their electoral campaigns, with the active phase likely to begin in the summer. It is already evident that GD and Ivanishvili will be using all the resources at their disposal to maintain their grip on power. Ivanishvili’s ‘third coming’ signals Georgian Dream’s intent to consolidate support around him. His return and potential continuation of GD’s governance are associated with Russia’s long-standing interests in undermining Georgia’s European vector. It is expected that a fourth term for the GD government could hijack the already fragile democracy in the country.

At the same time, the opposition parties, far from being strong and united, need to work among themselves to gain public support. This presents a formidable challenge, particularly in light of the prevailing public distrust and hesitancy. The success of their campaigns therefore hinges not only on how realistic their plans are but also on internal cohesion and the ability to show the public that, in a coalition, they have enough resources to promote democratic reforms and advocate for the country’s EU integration.

Published 3 May 2024
Original in English
First published by New Eastern Europe 3/2024

Contributed by New Eastern Europe © Nino Chanadiri / New Eastern Europe

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