The billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling party is once again, reluctantly, emerging from the shadows to take an active role in politics.
Bidzina Ivanishvili announced at an unscheduled congress of the ruling Georgian Dream party on December 30 that he had decided to become the party's "honorary chairman."
He said that he took the "unpleasant" decision because the country was facing challenges arising from the "complicated geopolitical situation."
He lamented that the ruling team once again needed his steadying hand because the opposition has become so marginalized that it's unable to keep the country's rulers honest.
He also spoke cryptically about the risk of internal discord and "corruption" in the party ranks.
Ivanishvili said that he would be Georgian Dream's "main advisor" and that Irakli Kobakhidze will stay on as chairman, a role he's been performing "brilliantly" for the past three years. The billionaire also said he has no ambition to become prime minister. "Political activity is not in my nature," he pleaded.
Ivanishvili's reappearance is being christened in social media as his "third coming."
In 2011 he emerged from a life of reclusive luxury and philanthropy to assemble a coalition of politicians that took down the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in the parliamentary election the following year. After serving as prime minister for just over a year and handing over the reins of power to his then-31-year-old protege Irakli Garibashvili in 2013, he declared his mission accomplished and retired from public life.
He retired again in early 2021, a few months after the party secured a majority in the last parliamentary election. Among the reasons he cited was that he was about to reach pension age, 65.
Analysts and politicians have speculated broadly about Ivanishvili's intentions in re-entering the fray now.
Among them are the challenges associated with Georgia's quest to join the European Union, which Ivanishvili identified in his speech as the country's "main foreign policy task."
One of the EU's main requirements for Georgia is "deoligarchization." This has largely been understood as referring to Ivanishvili's informal role in the country's governance. (He acknowledged in his speech yesterday that over the past three years he "was in communication with two or three party leaders," which he said was an "ordinary phenomenon.")
By formalizing his role in politics now, he's seeking to remove this criticism and gain a certain "immunity" from possible EU sanctions, according to pundit Gia Khukhashvili, a former advisor to and current critic of Ivanishvili.
Others have attributed the decision to the billionaire's insecurity about the fall 2024 election in which Georgian Dream will seek a fourth straight four-year term in power.
As things stand now, the party appears to be in a solid position, particularly after the country was granted the long-coveted EU membership candidate status earlier this month. Recent polls show Georgian Dream with 25 percent support, which is nearly double that of its nearest competitor.
In his speech, Ivanishvili was insistent, perhaps a little too insistent, that the party would prevail comfortably in next year's poll. If the election were held today, Georgian Dream would win between 90 and 100 seats in the 150-seat parliament, he asserted. He said that the opposition had been "completely destroyed" and that critical media's "torrent of lies" against the ruling party was having no effect whatsoever.
Which brings us to one of Ivanishvili's main arguments for resurfacing: Georgian Dream is too strong and too well positioned for its own good.
"With the destruction of the opposition, risks in the ruling team grow. The absence of an opposition can indeed daze and slacken the ruling team. In addition, when there's no one opposing us from the outside, there emerges a temptation of concocting discord within the team. Given the current non-existence of an opposition, corruption risks rise, and need to be urgently insured against. All of this has led me to make the unpleasant decision to return to politics," he said.
His own reasoning aside, it can be argued that Ivanishvili's return to the public sphere will make Georgia's political discourse more honest.
"This step of his should be welcomed by society and by the opposition," said Gia Khukhashvili, the analyst. "One of the trump cards of the Georgian Dream's system has always been the untouchability of the decision-maker. Effectively, decisions were taken by Bidzina, policy was determined by Bidzina and then people would go and attack the messenger, [current Prime Minister Irakli] Garibashvili. So the decision-maker was effectively not held accountable for anything. … [Now] The players are on the stage, there's no one left behind the scenes. The main protagonist has come out."
John Horan is Eurasianet's Caucasus editor.