It was not Santa or Father Frost, who dropped down from the chimney to Georgia on New Year's Eve. It was a no-less proverbial character, the nation's shadow ruler Bidzina Ivanishvili, who unexpectedly rolled into the light to announce that he was back to take the reins of power.
Since then, the nation has been scratching its head, trying to figure out what drove the reclusive billionaire into the open.
Dubbed the Third Coming, Ivanishvili's latest appearance became the third episode in what seems like a quinquennial cycle, when the tycoon descends from his glassy, hilltop palace down to the capital city to perform a grand political act and ascend back.
The First Coming happened in 2012, when once publicity-shy Ivanishvili came down to town to kick out President Mikheil Saakashvili's party from government and put his newly founded Georgian Dream party in charge. The following year, Ivanishvili retired from the posts of the prime minister and ruling party chairman, saying that politics was not really his thing and that he was leaving the nation in safe hands. Ivanishvili then outsourced the job of a prime minister to his longtime aide, Irakli Garibashvili.
Ivanishvili continued to steer Georgian Dream remotely from his palace for five years until his Second Coming in 2018. He then reappeared to end infighting in the Georgian Dream-led coalition and boost public support for his preferred presidential candidate. Succeeding on both counts, Ivanishvili again declared that he was quitting politics and all attempts to talk him out of it were useless.
"I'm leaving the post of the party's chairman and I'm also quitting my party," he wrote then in a valedictory opus. "I hold my head up high and I'm full of gratitude to the people as I quit politics." Except, he did not. The billionaire remained the nation's poorly veiled éminence grise until he awoke from political hibernation for the third time by the end of last year.
In an appearance at a hastily scheduled Georgian Dream convention on December 30, Ivanishvili said that he was forced by circumstance to return to politics. "I was forced to take the unpleasant decision of returning to politics," he said, listing several national and governance challenges that required his attention.
Formally, Ivanishvili has returned in the capacity of honorary chairman of Georgian Dream, though he made it clear that he was not back as some political emeritus, but rather as the party's CEO. In no uncertain terms Ivanishvili reminded the ardently applauding party members that he was still the boss and that the governing establishment remained existentially dependent on him.
His plans began to take somewhat concrete form a week and a half later when he took away the power to nominate the prime minister's candidacy from the party chairman and made it the prerogative of the honorary chairman, ergo himself. "He made it clear that he is going to be the prime minister of a prime minister, the chairman of a chairman," Gia Khukhashvili, a former adviser-turned-critic of the billionaire, told Formula TV.
But formalizing his power to call dibs on the candidate for the top executive job cannot alone explain Ivanishvili's latest appearance, or, as one observer quipped, his upgrading his status from shadow ruler to semi-shadow ruler. In fact, all of Georgia's prime ministers were appointed with direct or indirect imprimatur of Ivanishvili for the past 12 years. Twice he has installed his aide and current prime minister, Garibashvili, and is expected to put him back on the shelf soon.
At the same time, Ivanishvili made it abundantly clear that he loathes public gatherings, and bureaucracy and prefers to keep to himself. Even back in the 1990s and 2000s, when he was still making a fortune in Russia, he jealously avoided the spotlight.
"I don't like meeting journalists, participating in public events and receptions," he said in a rare 2005 interview. "People need to wear masks at such events, but I hate formalities. I'm a materialist. I don't believe in an afterlife. Life is short and I don't want to limit my freedom. I generally dislike being the center of attention. I don't like celebrations and I don't even celebrate my own birthday."
One way or another, he repeated that point over and over again since coming to power in Georgia. Given his dislike for public life, most observers can only guess what compelled Ivanishvili to abandon the life of wealth, privilege and gardening this time around, and return to party management and formality.
Some assumed that his goal is to give his party a boost ahead of parliamentary polls that are due in fall of this year, but others pointed out that he does not have much popularity to lend anymore. "There does not seem to be a polling-based logic to Bidzina Ivanishvili coming to office, at least when it comes to different politicians' approval ratings," Dustin Gilbreath, an analyst with the CRRC polling group, told Eurasianet.
He noted that recent public opinion polls suggest that Georgian Dream leaders like Prime Minister Garibashvili and, especially, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze are way ahead of Ivanishvili when it comes to public support. The mayor appears more popular with the public than the prime minister and the billionaire taken together.
Still, some commentators argue that in an election year Ivanishvili may be compelled to display that he has matters under control, especially amid continued turbulence in Georgia and the world. Potentially game-changing parliamentary elections in the EU and presidential elections in the US, coupled with domestic challenges like alleged elite corruption, rampant poverty and mass emigration, all pose risks to the stability of the country and Georgian Dream's hold on power.
"In this turbulent period he prefers to run everything with his own 'iron hand' and try to reassure voters," commented Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a think-tank.
The current layout of political forces suggests that this year's elections could result in a coalition government, a more balanced division of powers between united opposition groups and Georgian Dream. During his First Coming, Ivanishvili claimed that he had something like that in mind for an ideal form of governance in Georgia.
"The ideal parliament to me is a parliament with three parties with none of them having more than 50 percent of seats," Ivanishvili said back in 2011. But just like Ivanishvili's promises to quit politics, things worked out differently in reality. Since then, Georgian Dream has grown into a juggernaut, a supermajority and plans to remain as such following this year's polls.
Another widespread opinion holds that Ivanishvili was teased out of the shadows by an external force. Constantly accusing the billionaire of doing the Kremlin's bidding, opposition politicians claim that this force is Moscow. Others, however, suggest that the pressure came from the opposite center of global gravity, the European Union.
Kakachia thinks that Ivanishvili might be trying to meet halfway the European Union's request for Georgia to de-oligarchize itself. To advance toward the much-wanted membership in the bloc, Georgia is requested to improve democratic governance and contain oligarchic influence. "It is likely that he wants to show the world that there is no behind-the-scenes governance in Georgia," said Kakachia. "For now, the West might accept this game because it has too much on its plate and there is no realistic challenger to Ivanishvili in Georgia yet."
His stated fear of becoming the target of Western economic sanctions could have also played a role in Ivanishvili's return. Opposition politicians say that, by taking up a somewhat formal role, he will try to window-dress the odd form of governance he created in Georgia for a short period and, once domestic or foreign threats to his position are overcome, he will go back into I'm-quitting-politics mode.
"Ahead of the elections Ivanishvili will probably appear once at a funeral, twice in a church and perhaps once in a theatre," said opposition lawmaker Roman Gotsiridze. "And that will be the extent of his supposed coming out of the shadows."