Ever since Georgia became an independent state over 25 years ago, it’s political culture has been characterized by a chaotic mix of personality cults, strong-man tactics, corrupt party functionaries, and mysterious power brokers who hide behind the façade of the tiny South Caucasus nation’s formal branches of power.
In the case of the latter, that person manifested himself in the form of eccentric billionaire oligarch and Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. A veteran of the wild privatisation days of the early 1990s, Ivanishvili made his fortune in Moscow before returning to the country of his birth during the presidency of his predecessor and erstwhile bitter rival, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was once the toast of the West before his own heavy-handedness and penchant for buffoonery and self-aggrandisement helped destroy his reputation in Europe and the US.
Ivanishvili successfully defeated Saakashvili and his United National Movement party in 2012 and served as prime minister for just over a year before handing over the formal reigns of power to his unknown handpicked successor, 31-year-old Irakli Gharibashvili, who had worked in multiple positions in Ivanishvili’s multi-billion-dollar business empire.
Gharibashvili had had no previous experience in government prior to his appointment as Ivanishvili’s chosen successor and lasted just 13 months before Ivanishvili lobbied the Georgian Dream – the party he founded prior to successfully running against Saakashvili – to oust Gharibashvili for his poor job performance and his constant public squabbles with the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, over issues of executive authority.
Ivanishvili replaced the youthful and wildly inexperienced Gharibashvili with Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the former CEO of Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank. Over the two and a half years that he served as prime minister, Kvirikashvili successfully quelled certain concerns about the abilities of Georgia’s chief executive to manage the country but was never able to shake the widespread belief that the pro-Russian Ivanishvili was and still remains the country’s shadow leader.
Having formally retired from public life to his massive €44 million titanium and glass hilltop palace overlooking the Georgian capital Tbilisi five years ago, Ivanishvili often appears to operate as a sort “supreme” or “dear” leader capable of circumventing both opinion polls and the outcomes of elections as he remains a private citizen.
As prime minister, Kvirikashvili was unable to stabilise or stimulate a badly stagnating economy as the national currency, the lari, lost much of its value over the last two years or to encourage foreign investment from the West as Russia, the Gulf States, and China move in, Kvirikashvili was able to push through certain initiatives that brought Georgia closer to its goal of full Euro-Atlantic integration.
Kvirikashvili has been sent packing after sharply disagreeing with Ivanishvili over economic policy and how to respond to a series of anti-corruption protests that have rocked Tbilisi in recent weeks and forced the resignation of key ministers in Kvirikashvili’s cabinet.
With the collapse of the Kvirikashvili government, Ivanishvili is now in a position to continue to shape Georgia’s political future for some time to come. Unlike previous years, the latter of the two recently announced that he was formally getting back into politics and proclaimed that he wanted to take an active role in guiding his Georgian Dream party’s near-monopoly on power and to further his own autocratic impulses.
The appointment on June 15 of, yet again, another youthful prime minister who will be wholly subservient to Ivanishvili’s whims does little to further Georgia’s hopes of emerging from the chaos and corruption of a post-Soviet state to a functioning Western-style, pro-business democracy that is fully on a path to European integration.
The country’s newly named 36-year-old prime minister, Mamuka Bakhtadze, only entered politics eight months ago when he was appointed as finance minister. He looks likely to be the latest in a string of weak Georgian heads-of-state who were intentionally thrust into an executive role by Ivanishvili – who, at one point, held Georgian, Russian, and French citizenship simultaneously – while he bides his time until he can announce his own formal return to power.
Whether or not the Moscow-educated Bakhtadze can break that mould will depend on his ability to cope with the rise of nationalism, populism, unemployment, and anti-Westernism in Georgia, as well as his using his skills to manage his relationship of his watchful overseer and patron, Ivanishvili.