An extraordinary congress of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party on Thursday formally agreed the nomination of Irakli Kobakhidze to the post of prime minister. He is expected to be endorsed by parliament tomorrow. After the Party Congress, which lasted about 16 minutes, Kobakhidze told journalists that all ministers would remain in office except for Defense Minister Junasher Burchuladze who is to be replaced by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Irakli Chikovani.
Irakli Garibashvili, the former Prime Minister of Georgia, resigned from his post on January 29, and today replaced Kobakhidze as the Chairman of the “Georgian Dream.
The swap is seen as another expression of the power wielded by Bidzina Ivanishvili who just before new year made a dramatic return to front-line Georgian politics. In a commentary which was first published on the electronic newsletter, Caucasus Concise on 1 February, commonspace.eu research team discusses the role of Ivanishvili as the "supreme leader" of Georgia. They argue that "in democracies political leaders are accountable not only to the voters in elections, but also subject to scrutiny by parliament, the media and civil society. Bidzina Ivanishvili needs to be accessible to all these parts of the Georgian body politics. He needs to be able to explain policies, answer questions and accept the responsibility for decisions taken not only by him but also by his subordinates, for the Georgian Dream's government is Ivanishvili's government, and there is little doubt left about that."
History will judge if Bidzina Ivanishvili's third return to front-line Georgian politics is good for Georgia or not. The people of Georgia will have their say before that, in crucial parliamentary elections this autumn. There is however one thing that has now become certain, if ever it was in doubt: Ivanishvili is Georgia's “Supreme Leader”. From him flows all executive power and he can hire and fire at will. This week's somewhat inelegant removal of Irakli Garibashvili from the post of prime minister – supposedly, according to the Constitution the most important position in the country - has confirmed Ivanishvili's absolute control over the country's political process. The instrument through which Ivanishvili has been able to exercise control is the Georgian Dream (GD), a political force which he established in 2010 to help defeat what then looked like a deeply entrenched administration led by Mikhail Saakashvili.
Georgian Dream has won convincingly in all elections since. While the Georgian opposition questions its legitimacy, most Georgians appear to be – if not exactly content – at least ready to acquiesce, fearing that an alternative will be worse. Georgian Dream is an opaque institution: whilst it goes through the motions of holding congresses and electing political councils the issue of power and where it stems from is far from clear. Ivanishvili's announcement shortly after New Year, that he was returning back to the new position of Honorary Party Chairman could not have been a grassroots initiative, because most members and party leaders appear to have been taken by surprise.
There have been some attempts to turn Georgian Dream into the party of the modern Georgian nomenklatura – with senior state officials, many businessmen, and local strongmen and fixers happily signing up. It has been less popular with intellectuals, academics, artists and youth. In a few months time it will have to face the Georgian public in hotly contested elections. Even though the opposition remains largely divided and in disarray, victory for Georgian Dream is far from being a done deal. Strong international interest is likely to make manipulation of the elections difficult.
So why has Ivanishvili chosen this moment to return to the limelight? In his acceptance speech for his new position he gave clear hints. According to him, the problems – or at least the risks – where not from the opposition, but internally from within the party itself. His job was to make sure everyone remains on the straight and narrow. On that occasion he made it a point of praising the two leading persons in GD – the Party Chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, and the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili. This week it was suddenly announced that the two will swap positions.
The loser in this swap is Irakli Garibashvili. He was clearly enjoying the role of prime minister, basking in his performances on the international arena, and boasting of his economic achievements. In the process he may have forgotten that his political base is non-existent, and he survives as a political creature only because one man says so: Ivanishvili. Garibashvili worked with Ivanishvili in his banking and commercial activity long before politics. Up to now he has been considered by Ivanishvili as a safe pair of hands. Quite why rock the boat so close to a sensitive election remains a bit of a mystery. Kobakhidze found out he was to be the new prime minister shortly after returning from an official visit to China where as Party leader he was guest of the Communist Party of China. It was quaint to see how official GD announcements tried to omit the name of the Communist Party of China in its official reports of the visit, preferring to use the term the ruling party of China. Kobakhidze style is very different from Garibashvili. If Ivanishvili has come to the conclusion that the next year of election campaigning, elections, and post-election turmoil are going to be messy it was better to have a tougher guy at the head of the executive. Kobakhidze's political base is slightly wider than Garibashvili. He may bring some of his close associates into government. It is unlikely he will be able to build a strong enough political base not to be prone to a sudden dismissal, as his recent predecessors.
Many consider this situation to be unhealthy for Georgian democracy. It is true that Georgia is not unique in having strong political figures exercising influence on government, whilst not being directly part of the executive or legislative branches of government. Ivanishvili's return to the front line is in that regard a positive thing. He was exercising power behind the scenes anyway, so more transparency is better. There must also however be more accountability. In democracies political leaders are accountable not only to the voters in elections, but also subject to scrutiny by parliament, the media and civil society. Bidzina Ivanishvili needs to be accessible to all these parts of the Georgian body politics. He needs to be able to explain policies, answer questions and accept the responsibility for decisions taken not only by him but also by his subordinates, for the Georgian Dream's government is Ivanishvili's government, and there is little doubt left about that.
This commentary was prepared by the research team of commonspace.eu.