The government crisis that erupted in Georgia earlier in November was originally cast as a struggle over the country’s geopolitical orientation. But as time passes, it seems the real fulcrum of contention is connected with checks and balances on authority, and the potential influence of unaccountable public figures.
The political drama, which resulted in the abrupt sacking of the defense minister and the withdrawal of the Free Democrats from the governing coalition, has sharpened longstanding worries among many observers in Tbilisi that critical government decisions hinge on one man, the 58-year-old tycoon, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
“Ivanishvili is outside democratic control, outside institutional checks and balances, yet he is ultimately calling the shots, which puts Georgia in a vulnerable position both vis-à-vis democracy and foreign policy,” claimed Kornely Kakachia, a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University.
The billionaire professed to retire from politics in late 2013, when he stepped down as prime minister after the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, which he funded, gained power the previous year. He has since supposedly busied himself with a civil-society start-up, an investment fund, and, most recently, plans to set up a think-tank and co-host a TV show on current events.
Yet he has been a near-constant and active presence in the ongoing political crisis, which began with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s November 4 dismissal of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and his deputies. Ivanishvili’s prominence has fueled the impression in many minds that he is the true power behind Gharibashvili.
Alasania and his deputies were sacked after alleging that some influential individuals in Georgia were intent on preventing the country from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Alasania’s assertion, which came after two criminal investigations were launched into Defense Ministry practices, have yet to be substantiated. Despite multiple attempts by EurasiaNet.org, Alasania could not be reached to elaborate on his comments.
There is no evidence to suggest that Ivanishvili, who has close ties to Russian business circles, demanded Alasania’s removal, or is discouraging NATO membership for Georgia. But in Georgia’s clique-centric society, the patron often matters more than the proof.
Thirty-two-year-old Gharibashvili, who has worked in Ivanishvili-connected operations his entire professional career, has long been seen as the former prime minister’s Mr. Fixit. Both men scoff at such allegations.
Even so, many remain convinced that Ivanishvili is pulling the strings.
“We live in an informalocracy,” quipped Sergi Kapanadze, a former deputy foreign minister under ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, and co-founder of a think-tank, Georgia’s Reforms Associates. “The main problem with such a setup is the atrophying of state institutions.”
“Key decisions in the government are made with one man in mind,” he continued. “So, no matter how estimable, influential and rich this man may be, officials end up self-censoring their work. It creates a bottleneck in decision-making, as key decisions are queued up for approval from a person who has no direct format of interaction with state institutions, and the approval can only come via third persons who have access.”
Asked in a November 11 television interview about whether Ivanishvili was behind the government’s actions against Alasania, ex-foreign minister Panjikidze hinted broadly in the affirmative. “What do you think?” she shot back with a smile. Panjikidze is Alasania’s sister-in-law.
For signs that informal power is being wielded, observers point to several events, including the fact that both Gharibashvili and Alasania held private post-dismissal talks with Ivanishvili, and that Gharibashvili apologized for his description of Alasania as “foolish” after on-air criticism from the ex-premier.
The billionaire, despite his supposed distaste for politics, also attended a meeting of the Georgian Dream coalition held to determine the group’s future. His presence prompted Alasania, who later withdrew his Free Democrats party from the alliance, to storm out.
Kapanadze, Kakachia and other analysts believe personalities and popularity were factors in precipitating the political crisis. They point to an August survey conducted for the National Democratic Institute in which Alasania, at 60 percent of 3,338 respondents, outstripped the popularity of both Ivanishvili (45 percent) and Gharibashvili (54 percent).
Jealousy over those ratings, combined with growing respect for Alasania in Western circles, could have prompted Gharibashvili and Ivanishvili to want to take some of the air out of the defense minister, some experts believe.
But to hear Ivanishvili tell it – at length in a 90-minute November 8 television interview with the state-funded Georgian Public Broadcasting – he is “not a revenge-seeking person.”
“I will stand beside any politician who will take the country in the right direction,” he said, according to a summary published by the Civil.ge website. “I will confront everyone, who makes mistakes and takes steps damaging the country.”
He claimed he has no desire to return to politics, or to push Georgia away from Western European institutions, just a desire to know more about how the Defense Ministry handled a telecommunications tender, the topic of one criminal investigation.
Both Kapanadze and Kakachia are willing to give Ivanishvili the benefit of the doubt on the question of EU/NATO membership for Georgia. But they are concerned that he has excessive influence over governmental policy. “One big flaw with the current power arrangement is that we largely depend on whether or not [the] national agenda coincides with one man’s personal agenda. We can only hope that he personally believes that Georgia should stay the Western course,” Kapanadze said.
“Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia and most likely has links to oligarch circles there,” said Kakachia. “We don’t know what [Zurab] Abashidze and [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory] Karasin [the special envoys in talks between Georgia and Russia, respectively] talk about during all their meetings. We see more trade and a possibility of greater dependence on the Russian economy. All of this obviously creates questions.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.