With fresh elections due in October 2016, prime minister Irakli Garibashvili resigned abruptly on December 23 after just over two years in office (and at the ripe old age of 33). The political crisis has left Georgia, including both the government’s supporters and detractors, stunned. Giorgi Kvirikashvili, foreign minister only since September 2015 and, formerly, the minister of economy and sustainable development, became Georgia’s new prime minister-designate on Christmas Day. Like Garibashvili, he’s a political unknown with longtime ties to Ivanishvili, formerly the head of the Ivanishvili-owned Cartu Bank.
Before ascending to power, Garibashvili was a longtime employee of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who financed the Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება) coalition, united mostly by its opposition to the policies and anti-Russian orientation of Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Garibashvili rose quickly in the new order after the Georgian Dream coalition won the 2012 parliamentary elections. While Ivanishvili himself held the premiership between October 2012 and November 2013, it was Garibashvili, by then a trusted Ivanishvili adviser, who took the pivotal role of minister for internal affairs. In that position, barely out of his twenties, Garibashvili was tasked with ‘reforming’ the Georgian police forces, though he spent more time throwing several former Saakashvili era officials in prison.
When Ivanishvili decided to step aside from frontline politics, no one believed that he was necessarily ceding control of Georgia’s new government, and Garibashvili never truly shook the impression that he was really just a puppet serving at Ivanishvili’s pleasure. That impression will be even harder to shake now, with tongues wagging that it was Ivanishvili who ordered Garibashvili’s resignation.
It isn’t an outrageous leap to believe that Ivanishvili is still calling the shots in Georgia’s government, nor is it unrealistic that he is eager to shake up Georgian politics, above all to protect his return on investment as fresh elections beckon.
Garibashvili never had much of a political power base independent of Ivanishvili. Moreover, he often clashed with Giorgi Margvelashvili, Gerogia’s president, who easily won the October 2013 presidential election (to what is now a mostly ceremonial office, thanks to reforms in the last year of the Saakashvili era that transferred power from the presidency to the parliament). Margvelashvili, formerly a little-known academic and former education and science minister, owes his position, like Garibashvili, mostly to Ivanishvili and his bankroll, though he is nominally an independent and he has demonstrated his willingness to disagree with Ivanishvili publicly from time to time.
It’s no surprise to anyone that the Garibashvili-led government has struggled for the past two years. The economic expansion of the Saakashvili years, with its technocratic zeal for improving infrastructure and attracting foreign development, are now a long-faded memory. Inflation is up, GDP growth is stagnant by the standard recent trends (now expected to be less than 3% and far below the 5% prediction earlier this year) and Georgia’s currency, the lari, is down — by nearly 40%, compared to the US dollar in the last 15 months. Garibashvili’s government has lurched between the rhetoric of reform and a far more unfocused reality, given the varied perspectives among the nationalists, socialists and liberals that comprise the many parties that comprise the Georgian Dream coalition.
His government is also tainted with the appearance of incompetence. Flash flooding in June 2015 caused a devastating humanitarian crisis in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, but it also wiped out the national zoo, killing many animals and letting many others escape, leading to surreal photos throughout the international media of a hippopotamus (among other beasts) stomping through city streets.
The Georgian Dream coalition’s victory in 2012 — and Saakashvili’s graceful concession — initially bolstered Georgia’s fledgling democracy. But the ensuing three years have harassed many former officials in a sweep that critics believe is politically motivated, and Saakashvili himself has left the country out of fear of prosecution. Currently, he’s moonlighting as the appointed governor of the notoriously corruption Odessa province, in alliance with Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko, who hopes to end a stalemate with pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region — like Saakashvili before him, a victim of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regional muscle-flexing. Furthermore, Ivanishvili and others have attacked both NGOs and the independent media.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in the telecommunications industry in Russia, steered Georgia away from the sharp disagreements that characterized relations with Moscow under Saakashvili, whose hawkish foreign policy provoked Russia into invading and occupying South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway Georgian republics. Even today, Russia still occupies the two regions, for better or for worse. But to the government’s credit, a de facto Russian embargo against Georgia, which previously banned flights between the two countries and halted trade in red wine and mineral water (each among Georgia’s most precious exports) is now over.
Still, the Georgia Dream coalition hasn’t abandoned Saakashvili’s goal of closer ties with the European Union, even if calls for Georgia to join NATO are far more muted today. Indeed, Garibashvili stepped down the same week that all 28 EU member-states ratified a landmark 2014 association agreement, which will bring Georgians not only closer economic cooperation but perks such as visa-free travel throughout much of Europe.
Nevertheless, deteriorating economic conditions mean that the coalition’s popularity is tanking. A National Democratic Institute survey earlier this month gave the Georgian Dream coalition just 18% support. That’s still more than Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM, ერთიანი ნაციონალური მოძრაობა), which boasts just 14% support. But it’s a clear sign that Ivanishvili’s hold on Georgia is now quite precarious.
A third party, Our Georgia – Free Democrats (ჩვენი საქართველო – თავისუფალი დემოკრატები), led by former defense minister Irakli Alasania, wins 9% of the vote. The Free Democrats, comprised of pro-Western liberals, initially joined the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. The party joined the opposition abruptly in November 2014 when Alasania, another youthful rising star (though, at 42 years old, a decade senior to Garibashvili), was sacked from his position as defense minister, despite winning plaudits from US and European officials.