PM Departure Shows Georgian Dream in Flux

A divide within the ruling Georgian Dream party has come to head yesterday, as Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has announced his resignation citing differences of opinion with his party comrades, as well as – importantly – GD founder and leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. While the departure of PM Kvirikashvili has been long rumored, post-departure statements by MPs and the acting cabinet members have shown the ruling GD in crisis.

Ivanishvili was forced to formally assume the party leadership in May 2018, following a bitter dispute among competing GD groups over coordination and decision-making, which was triggered by a vote to appoint the board member of the Public Broadcasters. In a dispute, a conservative, and numerically more sizeable, faction of MPs has confronted Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze and his allies, mostly “younger faces” that Ivanishvili co-opted for the past parliamentary elections from the ranks of civil society and business community.

Return of Ivanishvili has all but pre-ordained the departure of Kvirikashvili. But restless MPs are only one dimension of trouble in Ivanishvili’s large, and increasingly unruly political family.

Kvirikashvili, although closely associated with Ivanishvili, has been competing for his patrons’ attention and favor with several of his fellow cabinet members – notably, the GD old-timer, but increasingly unpopular Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, and most recently, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. During his two-and-a-half-year tenure, Kvirikashvili did manage to carve out a base of support, which includes Economy Minister Dimitri Kumsishvili and Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze.

Kvirikashvili as well as possibly Ivanishvili are also cautious of another GD mandarin, Kakha Kaladze building his base of power, finance and patronage as Tbilisi’s mayor.

The simmering keg was brought to boil by the series of public protests, which exposed PM Kvirikashvili as a weak crisis manager and laid bare his incapacity to run the tight ship even during crisis. The internal trouble also meant that the influential GD members started to suspect each other of aiding and abetting, or at least benefiting, from the protest.

Most damningly, Kvirikashvili’s weakness meant that he was increasingly failing to shield Ivanishvili from the brunt of popular protest as well as muted, but nonetheless audibly painful international criticism of weakness in public administration and policy coordination.

Having assumed the wheel of his political ship in near-mutiny, Ivanishvili has to now stabilize it.

He does not seem intent to re-assume the Prime Ministerial position. Thus, personal loyalty might dominate his choice of PMs successor.

The impending re-shuffle of the cabinet posts might thus be a more telling indicator of the course that Ivanishvili would now take to position the Georgian Dream ahead of the upcoming Presidential polls, but – much more importantly – stir his ship to victory in the crucial 2020 parliamentary elections.

In managing his country, as well as the country, Ivanishvili has, so far, preferred to seek a fragile, but electorally winning, balance between GDs conservative base and society’s (and, perhaps, his own) demands for continued modernization.

While opting for stability looked like a safe bet for many Georgians following the stormy years of Saakashvili’s administration, after six years of GD governance stability starts to look and feel too much like stagnation. Restless youths, protests against police brutality and prosecutorial injustice, publicized cases of abuse of office by GD officials and rumors of corruption at the top call for a decisive shakeup.

Luckily for Ivanishvili, there seems to be no credible partisan challenge from the opposition. During the last protest, GDs publicity machinery has managed to ward off the feared unification of the various strands of protesters by painting them as UNM supporters, or ultra-liberal hippies. Ultra-nationalist and religious conservative groups, many of which enjoy links with conservative GD members, but also with a part of GD electoral base, were also deployed as a physical counterweight to more liberal challengers.

But these are tactical victories. Popular mobilization, including through social media, is based on a sound network of civil society organization – some of which well-established, and others – springing from the grassroots.

In the coming months, Ivanishvili would need to find a consolidating base for his team, that resonates with public and to present his party as a potentially victorious force. Should this fail, however, Ivanishvili may well opt for a different way of securing his stake in Georgian politics by diversifying his investment.

One way or the other, Georgia is in for a hot political summer.