Georgia’s oligarch is back. Will he steer the country towards Russia?

Leader of ruling party Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili celebrates exit poll results during rally after end of parliamentary elections, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 31 October 2020.
© EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE   |   Leader of ruling party Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili celebrates exit poll results during rally after end of parliamentary elections, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 31 October 2020.

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As Georgia’s politicians are gearing up for this year’s elections, which are due in late October, the founder of the country’s ruling Georgia Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made yet another come back – his second – to the country’s politics. The opposition says that the oligarch never really went anywhere and that during his stated “retirement” from politics he was, in fact, Georgia’s shadow ruler. For now Ivanishvili only returned to the party he has established, staying out of government. However, just one month after the oligarch’s come back to politics, the Georgian Dream appointed a new prime minister: Irakli Kobakhidze, a vocal critic of the West, and a Russian sympathizer. Is Georgia about to steer even closer to Russia than it had during the past several years?

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s second return to Georgian politics

Ivanishvili returned to the Georgian Dream in late 2023, when he took over the newly-created position of “honorary chairman”. The oligarch said that he was back in order to “help party members fight temptations”. According to him, against the backdrop of “complete self-destruction of the opposition”, including Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, the risks of corruption and internal confrontation in the Georgian Dream are increasing.

During his brief speech at the party congress that anointed him unanimously honorary chairman, Ivanishvili drew parallels with his first return to politics, in 2018, and claimed that the then EU Ambassador to Georgia told him then that if he had not returned, “in a month there would be nothing left of the party”.

“Then I fulfilled my mission, put the team in order again, adjusted the system, and only after that I left politics for the second time”, Ivanishvili added.

Ivanishvili first announced his departure from politics in 2013, a year after the Georgian Dream party he founded won the parliamentary elections. Having won a victory over the United National Movement in 2012, the oligarch – who was prime-minister following the elections – announced that he would resign as soon as he achieved stabilization of Georgia’s domestic and foreign policy.

A year later, Georgian Dream’s candidate  Giorgi Margvelashvili defeated incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili in the presidential election. With Saakashvili out, Ivanishvili announced his resignation.

However, in 2018, Ivanishvili returned to politics and was elected chairman of the Georgian Dream. But a few months after the victory of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections in 2020, the oligarch again announced that he was leaving his post.

Ivanishvili’s second “final” departure from politics occurred on January 11, 2021. The Georgian Dream website published a farewell letter from the oligarch, in which he said that he was leaving the party on the eve of his 65th birthday in order to return to a non-public lifestyle. According to the businessman, he had fulfilled his mission to re-establish teamwork and build a system.

The Georgian opposition never bought the retirement story and constantly said that Bidzina Ivanishvili was the country’s éminence grise. By announcing his second return, Ivanishvili actually confirmed that he retains influence on the processes taking place within the ruling party. The oligarch said that all this time he held consultations with two or three leaders of the Georgian Dream, and this “helped maintain a healthy environment in the team”.

The West is weary of Georgia’s pro-Russian oligarch

In June 2022, the European Parliament expressed, in a resolution, concerns about “the destructive role played by the sole oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in Georgia’s politics and economy, and the level of control he exerts over the government and its decisions”, and about “Ivanishvili’s exposed personal and business links to the Kremlin, which determine the position of the current Government of Georgia towards sanctions on Russia”.

The then Prime Minister of Georgia, Irakli Garibashvili, denounced the resolution as “irresponsible and offensive” and claimed that the document adopted by the European Parliament had “too many factual inaccuracies, too many lies.” He described the vote in Strasbourg as a “spectacle”.

Days after the resolution was adopted, Georgia was skipped when the Commission formally recommended to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Republica of Moldova.  Instead, Tbilisi was handed a list of 12 recommendations, the implementation of which should have contributed to a review of its status. One of the recommendations concerned the “deoligarchization” of the country. And although Bidzina Ivanishvili was not openly mentioned as an oligarch, it was clear whom the document was referring to.

Concerns about the role and influence of Bidzina Ivanishvili on Georgian politics were also reflected in a report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which was published in the fall of 2022. The document accused Ivanishvili of capturing the state, facilitating Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia, and having secret businesses in the Russian Federation.

Bidzina Ivanishvili was again described as a “pro-Russian oligarch” in the annual security report for 2024, published on the eve of the Munich conference. The report, titled “Lose-Lose?” warned that more governments would prioritize personal gain over cooperation and investment in the international order. In the document, Georgia was included in the “Shades of the Gray Zone” section, which is devoted to analyzing the impact of Russia’s military actions against Ukraine on Eastern Europe.

The report noted that despite Russia's unsuccessful attempts to bring Georgia, Moldova and the Western Balkans into its camp, Moscow did impede their integration with the West. According to the authors of the document, Bidzina Ivanishvili is assisting Moscow in this.

“The pro-Russian oligarch and founder of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is responsible for the country’s recent democratic backsliding and its defection from the EU, against the wishes of the majority of Georgian society. Russia has also used threats to foment separatism in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to sow instability.”

As Ivanishvili’s men switch places, the opposition wonders whether the country is steering away from the West and closer to Russia and Asia

Announcing his next return to politics, Bidzina Ivanishvili also promised that he would not become head of government and would not replace prime-minister Irakli Garibashvili. However, a mere month later – on January 29 – Irakli Garibashvili officially announced that he was leaving the post of head of government, which he had held for almost three years. Ivanishvili stated that Irakli Garibashvili himself wished to resign from his post. “He wanted it himself, I didn’t want it,” Ivanishvili said.

Irakli Garibashvili was succeeded, as Prime Minister, by the chairman of the Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze. In fact, the two men switched places, as Garibashvili took over the party from his namesake.

Both men have succeeded, at some point in their career, Bidzina Ivanishvili – Garibashvili as a prime-minister, in 2013, and Kobahidze as party chairman, in 2021. Both had courted controversy during their careers.

Irakli Garabishvili resigned, following his first stint as prime-minister (2013 – 2015) after he was embroiled in a corruption scandal. Last September, Garabishvili survived yet another corruption scandal, this time without resigning. His second term in office will be remembered for Georgia’s refusal to join anti-Russian sanctions and the intensification of anti-Western rhetoric.

One of the most vocal promoters of anti-Western narratives during these past years was Garabishvili’s successor, Irakli Kobakhidze. A defining moment in his political career was in June 2019 when, at an assembly of MPs from Orthodox countries hosted by the Georgian parliament, Kobakhidze, who at the time was speaker, let State Duma deputy Sergei Gavrilov to stay in his speaker seat while addressing the assembly. The move provoked spontaneous protests in Tbilisi. To disperse the demonstrators, rubber bullets and tear gas were used against them. Several dozen people were injured, two people lost their eyes. Due to the harsh actions of special forces in the so-called “Gavrilov’s Night” Kobakhidze was forced to resign as speaker of parliament.

In July 2021, Kobakhidze was the one to announce the withdrawal of the Georgian Dream from the so-called “Michel Agreement”, an accord with the opposition which had been mediated by the President of the European Council Charles Michel.

And after the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Irakli Kobakhidze repeatedly said that Kyiv wants to open a second front in Georgia. In total, since the start of the war in Ukraine, OC Media has counted at least 57 cases in which the chairman of the ruling party publicly criticized Western diplomats, European parliamentarians or EU institutions.

Just after assuming the post of Prime Minister, Irakli Kobakhidze was criticized by the opposition for refusing to take part in the Munich Conference, sending instead Foreign Minister Ilya Darchiashivili to represent the government (president Salome Zurabishvili, who has an increasingly tensed relationship with the Georgian Dream, also attended).

Kobakhidze was also criticized after taking office as prime minister, for choosing to meet first with the Chinese ambassador to Tbilisi and only after that with the US ambassador. He replied that relations between Tbilisi and Washington, which are of a strategic nature, have weakened in recent years and “require improvement”. Kobakhidze also said that against the backdrop of weakening relations with the United States, China’s interest in Georgia is growing: trade and economic ties are developing, Chinese companies are “very actively” participating in economic projects in Georgia, an agreement on free trade has been signed between the countries, and there are direct flights. Literally three days after these words, the People's Republic of China decided to introduce a visa-free regime for Georgian citizens. Against this background, the Georgian opposition fears that Bidzina Ivanishvili needed a change of prime minister to continue promoting anti-Western narratives and change course from Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic development towards its northern neighbor and Asia.

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