The role of Bidzina Ivanishvili in the governance of Georgia has raised concerns since the billionaire and founder of the Georgian Dream (GD) party resigned as Prime Minister near the end of 2013. Since that time, while no holding no formal government position, elected or appointed, Mr. Ivanishvili has continued to exercise significant power in that government, and, by most measures, has remained the most powerful man in the country.
The role played by Mr. Ivanishvili raises two distinct, but not unrelated, concerns. First, in a democracy grounded in a constitution and rule of law, political power should be held by people who are either elected to office, or appointed by those who are elected. Moreover, power should be linked to positions not to persons. It is apparent that the role played by Mr. Ivanishvili, since leaving office, has not been consistent with those principles and thus has been a barrier to consolidation of democracy in Georgia.
The second concern is that Mr. Ivanishvili’s role in Georgia has some negative impacts on the quality of governance. Because he is involved in many major policy and personal decisions, government officials frequently seek Mr. Ivanishvili’s input regarding those types decisions. However, because he holds no official office, there are few structures for getting this input on a regular and consistent basis. This has slowed government processes in Georgia.
There is, however, another important consideration about Mr. Ivanishvili. While he currently holds no official position, this should not be taken to mean that nobody ever elected him to anything, as many of his stronger critics imply. In fact, quite the opposite is a more accurate description of the reality. A substantial majority of the Georgian people voted for the GD in 2012 knowing that Mr. Ivanishvili was the party’s leader and would assume the office of prime minister if his party won. As there have been no national elections since then, Mr. Ivanishvili can reasonably assert that he has support from the people. This only goes so far because by resigning he formally gave up his claim to that support. This situation also underscores that Mr. Ivanishvili could have avoided this problem entirely simply remaining in the office to which the people elected him; and if he wanted a less hands on role, appointing a strong chief of staff or deputy prime minister.
This rationale may have some relevance today, but it will have none following the parliamentary elections this fall. If the GD loses, Mr. Ivanishvili will have no influence over the new government. In the more likely event that the GD either wins outright or is the major partner in a governing coalition, the voters of Georgia will have voted for a GD that is led by somebody else, most likely new Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Once that happens, Mr. Kvirikashvili, not Mr. Ivanishvili will be the person who the Georgian people have elected to lead their government. This does not mean there will be no role for Mr. Ivanishvili. He could be an elder statesman type figure or even an influential leader of the GD as a political party should he want that, but continuing to be the most influential person in the government would be a graver problem than it is now.
Several people in senior positions within the GD have told me in recent days that the former Prime Minister is anxious to make that transition. However, we have heard that it in the past from people close to him as well as from Mr. Ivanishvili himself. The question of whether or not he will complete that transition remains unanswered. The more specifically relevant question is whether Mr. Ivanishvili can stay out of political life when he perceives a problem or a political crisis of some kind.
The possibility that the GD wins a plurality, but not a majority, of seats in the coming election is one that cannot be ignored. If that happens, the role of Mr. Ivanishvili will be central to any post-election coalition discussions. Any party that would join a GD led coalition would need strong guarantees that Mr. Ivanishvili’s role will recede. Having an informal party leader, with no government job, making key decisions about matters of governance is troubling enough, but when that party dominates the government it is, in some respects, workable. If more than one party is in the next government, that system will no longer be at all feasible.
The irony facing Mr. Ivanishvil is, of course, that the most important thing he can do to secure his reputation and legacy, and more importantly continue Georgia’s democratic development, is remove himself from the governance of the country. In many respects this means that Mr. Ivanishvili must allow bigger picture challenges, such as institutionalizing democratic governance and strengthening political institutions, to be more important than the smaller bore questions of preventing a government official from making what he perceives to be a mistake, a wrong decision or a bad appointment. This is much easier than it sounds because in Georgia’s divided and combative political climate it is easy to see how even small mistakes could lead to larger problems.
Therefore, it is essential that Mr. Ivanishvili recognize that mistakes and poor decisions will be made, but that if they are made within the frameworks of legal processes, the country, and indeed his party’s electoral fortunes, at least for now, will survive. The evidence for this is that the despite the mistakes the GD has made in the last several years, the country has survived and the GD is poised, if it runs a smart campaign, to do fine in the coming elections. Democracy, after all, is a political system that is most definitively not aimed at avoiding mistakes and bad decisions, but at creating structures that limit the impact of those mistakes and bad decisions.
Recent political developments in Georgia may provide some insight into the role Mr. Ivanishvili intends to play going forward. For example, the new Prime Minister has been in office for less than two months, but his appointment has already had an impact on the political environment in Georgia. Mr. Kvirikashvili has brought a calm temperament and approach to his position that has begun to make relationships between the government and civil society less contentious, and those between the President and the Prime Minister less rancorous. It is not clear whether Mr. Kvirikashvili did these things in consultation with Mr. Ivanishvili or on his own. If, the Prime Minister and Mr. Ivanishvili discussed these actions together than that is evidence that Mr. Ivanishvili attitudes toward civil society and the President are evolving and that he will be increasingly comfortable playing a less dominant role. On the other hand, if Mr. Ivanishvili was not consulted, that is is evidence that Mr. Kvirikashvili is comfortable acting decisively with less concern about Mr. Ivanishvili’s response. Either of these possibilities would be a positive development for the country.
The appointment of Mr. Kvirikashvili as Prime Minister is also significant because it precludes the possibility of Mr. Ivanishvili returning to politics to lead the GD coalition in the 2016 election. This idea, although never likely, had been bandied about over the last year or so, particularly when the political fortunes of the GD appeared to be suffering. There was some logic to this because if Mr. Ivanishvili returned to politics and his party won the election, he would have an electoral and constitutional imprimatur on his role. While that possibility may have made some sense even in late 2015, going forward yet another change of Prime Minister would send a message of poor governance and disorganization, precisely the profile the GD needs to combat to do well in the coming election.
For Mr. Ivanishvili the choice should be easy. He does not need to walk away from political life entirely or have no contact with the government, but simply to make it clear, most importantly to the government itself, that he no longer wants to, or will, play a leading role. This does not have to preclude occasionally offering an opinion or providing advice to leaders of the government, but that should be the limit of his role. The GD government, particularly if it gets reelected, will be experienced and competent enough to do fine with less involvement from Mr. Ivanishvili. Moreover, it should not be lost on Mr. Ivanishvili that by playing a smaller role in political life, he will be taking away one of the most potent critique of the GD. Opponents of the GD rarely miss an opportunity to draw attention to Mr. Ivanisvhili’s role while, for good measure, frequently exaggerating the influence he wields and hinting, or simply stating, that Mr. Ivanishvili is part of some murky and nefarious Russia plot. By genuinely removing himself from political life, Mr. Ivanishvili can substantially weaken that attack and put his opponents on their heels a bit. This might be the incentive that resonates most with the GD founder.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.