A Tale of Three Prime Ministers

The resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who will most likely be replaced by current Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikishvili, does not come as a huge surprise. Rumors that Garibashvili would not remain in his position through the 2016 election have been around for quite a while. Moreover, Kvririkishvili was frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Garibashvili.

Kvirikishvili will be Georgia’s third Prime Minister since the 2012 election, following Garibashvili and his predecessor Georgian Dream (GD) founder Bidzina Ivanishvili. While this is not, in of itself, a strong cause for significant concern, it suggests an instability in the government that has, and will continue to, raise challenges related to governance. Kvirikishvili’s departure from the Foreign Ministry means that there will be a new leader, the fourth since the election, of that ministry, and possibly others as well. The turnover in several ministries has already contributed to an environment where key personnel spend substantial amounts of time acclimating to new posts or fighting to hold on to their political futures. This cannot help but interfere with the already daunting task of governance in Georgia. It makes it more difficult to create and implement long term plans, for partners, investors and civil society actors to have regular interaction with various government agencies, and undermines the institutional memory that is essential for functioning government agencies.

There are many likely reasons for Garibashvili’s resignation, but two issues, the role of Bidzina Ivanishvili and the coming elections in the fall of 2016, are central to these events. Since leaving office in fall of 2013, Ivanishvili has sought to both remove himself from the day to day governance of Georgia, while also remaining the preeminent leader of the GD coalition, and by extension the Georgian government. This proved extremely difficult as Ivanishvili sought to exercise power outside of the formal institutions of governance. It also created substantial problems related to governance and democracy.

Garibashvili was appointed Prime Minister after Ivanishvili resigned, but his leadership was always heavily dependent upon the good will of his predecessor. Garibashvili was a protege of Ivanishvili, but he remained dependent upon him for political support as well. Absent a strong independent base of support either in the Georgian government or electorate, Garibashvili, in some important respects, had a constituency of one, Ivanishvili. Once that individual soured on Garibashvili, his fate was sealed. While Garibashvili ultimately was unable to keep his mentor satisfied and remain in power, from the beginning of his tenure as Prime Minister, he was caught in the maw of an almost impossible situation that ultimately he could not sustain. Even at the time of his resignation, Garibashvili’s fate lay almost entirely in the hands of his political rabbi.

Reports out of Tbilisi, from both official and unofficial sources, indicate that some members of the government and leadership of the GD coalition were surprised to learn of Garibashvili's resignation. More accurately, they were surprised at the timing of these events as they had been rumored for months. If that is true, it is further evidence that it was Ivanishvili, either alone or in consultation with a very small number of confidantes, who made this decision. 

Many of the rumors around the possible resignation of Garibashvili also named Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili as the most likely person to become Prime Minister. Usupashvili is a polished, smart and effective politician who probably would have made a fine Prime Minister, but moving him away from parliament would have substantially weakened that institution just as has become stronger and more relevant. This would have undermined one of the most meaningful advances of democracy in the last few years in Georgia. 

Garibashvili’s record as Prime Minister was decidedly mixed. He led Georgia to an association agreement with the EU, made great progress towards establishing visa free travel with Europe, governed over a period of relative domestic calm and slow but steady normalizing of Georgia’s democratic development. However, he was never able to get the moribund economy moving, was unable to craft solutions to major policy challenges or otherwise resolve many of the daunting problems facing Georgia in both domestic and foreign policy. Although by most measures Georgia has gradually become more democratic in recent years, Garibashvili drew attention away from those advances by making statements about media and civil society freedoms that were frequently clumsy and aggressive sounding, occasionally even threatening. Additionally, Garibashvili, while smart, focused and hard-working, was never a natural politician. Although he could be impressive in small groups settings, he lacked the dynamism and charisma that a head of state needs.

For these reasons, the decision to remove Garibashvili was clearly made with an eye toward the coming election. Replacing Garibashvili now allows the GD time to send a message that they understand the problems, are making changes and are not taking anything for granted. It also allows Kvirkishvili, if he is indeed the next Prime Minister, to put his new government in place and to get to work in advance of the elections. Additionally, Kvirkishvili is, while not a fresh new face, a more dynamic political actor than Garibashvili and will likely appeal more to voters in the fall. For example, Kvirkishvili's recent comments about the need for media pluralism at the height of the Rustavi 2 contretemps were a welcome and mature intervention, and reflect the values and goals the GD should be trying to promote, particularly during an election year. If those sentiments continue to be heard, and acted upon, from the new Prime Minister, Georgia will be much better off.

Kvirkishvili has a somewhat more autonomous position in Georgian politics than Garibashvili did in the years leading up to his appointment as Prime Minister. Although Kvirkishvili would not be ascending to his new position without the endorsement of Ivanishvili, the new Prime Minister has a record in politics that is considerably longer than that of Garibashvili at the time he became Prime Minister. Kvirkirashvili, in addition to his tenures at the Foreign and Economics Ministries, has been involved in politics for over a decade, largely has a member of the New Rights and MP from that party from 1999 to 2004 before joining the Georgian Dream in 2012.

Kvirikishvili’s independence from Ivanishvili, however, should not be overstated. Like Garibashvili, Kvirkishvili almost certainly owes his current post, as well has his two previous cabinet positions to the now retired former Prime Minister who put together the GD coalition in 2012. Moreover, after leaving parliament in 2004, Kvirikishvili’s career in the private sector was connected to Ivanishvili’s banking interests. 

It is, therefore, impossible to dissagregate these recent changes in the Georgian government from the informal, but powerful role played by Bidzina Ivanishvili. It is all but certain that he played a major role in the decision to replace the Prime Minister, but this decision also demonstrates the ongoing issues Ivanishvili’s role raises for Georgian democracy-one that Georgia’s inevitably renders the country less democratic, and its government more dysfunctional. This is true even when the decisions he makes, like this one, are reasonable and, on substance alone, entirely defendable.

Garibashvili’s resignation also represents a failure of the model Ivanishvili put in place in 2013. Having a loyal, but almost entirely dependent, supporter take over as Prime Minister, while Ivanishvili left politics, was not a successful plan. Ivanishvili was unable to cede full control to his successor, and found himself dragged into politics with some frequency, particularly during times of political tumult or crisis. Now that Garibashvili, a man who despite not living up to the expectations of his mentor, was loyal and sought to cooperate with Ivanishvili, is gone, Ivanishvili will face new challenges. Either he must move away from politics for good, or seek to continue to play a leading role in the country through a new Prime Minister who may be more dynamic and experienced, but is less likely to be as unfailingly loyal as his immediate predecessor. The willingness of Ivanishvilli to accept this tradeoff indicates his concerns regarding Garibashvili and about the upcoming election. The amount of time he waited to make this decision, despite early signs that of the problems demonstrate how highly Ivanishvili thought of Garibashvili and how much he valued Garibashvili’s loyalty.

In the event that neither of those scenarios come to pass, it is possible that Ivanishvili may have to reenter politics, most likely as the top GD candidate in the fall election. Although that would come as a surprise given that he has, on previous occasions, made it clear that he wants to get out of politics, there would also be some logic to that solution. After all, there would be some sense in the man who has, to a great extent been running the country, to seek public office so he can continue to do that more smoothly.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.