Georgia's opposition parties have reacted with mixed feelings to the appointment of former foreign affairs and economy minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili as prime minister in December, a week after the resignation of his predecessor Irakli Garibashvili. On the one hand, the new head of government struck a conciliatory tone in his dealings with the opposition, in marked contrast to his predecessor. On the other, many believe the changeover showed real power lies with billionaire businessman and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A former employee of Ivanishvili's, Kvirikashvili is perceived to be yet another figurehead who will execute orders rather than lead, very much like Garibashvili. With less than 10 months left before the country holds a parliamentary election, the new prime minister will have precious little time to prove his critics wrong, and to improve the image - and the chances at the polls - of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
The soft-spoken Kvirikashvili is a familiar figure to Western investors and diplomats, one who has repeatedly reassured the West of Georgia's commitment to democratic values, its interest in enhanced commerce with the European Union (EU), and in EU and Nato accession in impeccable English.
The 46-year-old banker, former MP and technocrat, who holds a master's degree in finance from the University of Illinois, is a close ally of Ivanishvili's. Having worked in banking for the better part of the 1990s and early 2000s, he was appointed Director General at Ivanishvili's Cartu Bank in 2006.
When the billionaire businessman's party won the election in 2012, he was appointed economy minister in the new cabinet. His almost three years at the helm of the ministry coincided with a time of depressed growth in Georgia, with GDP growth declining to an average of 3.5% a year, from 5% during the previous administration of the United National Movement (UNM) party. Lower remittances from recession-stricken Russia, declining trade, and the devaluation of the currency by almost 40% between 2014 and 2015 did little to endear him - and the Georgian Dream government - to the electorate.
But the real reason why GD has lost so much support from the electorate since the 2012 election has more to do with the continuous political infighting between the GD and UNM. In 2015, economic woes added to the polarisation, and issues such as the political influence over the judiciary, the oversight of the banking sector, and the fight over opposition television channel Rustavi 2 TV created a rift between the two parties, and drove the electorate away from politics. More than half of the respondents to a November poll were either undecided about who to vote for in the parliamentary election, or refused to answer the question.
Kvirikashvili's mandate during the next 10 months will therefore be to reinstate Georgians’ trust in the government, and he might just be the man for the job. He already extended an olive branch to UNM during end-December parliamentary hearings, calling for GD to "defuse political polarisation" and explaining that GD was "in the government and we have to try hard to find even the slightest chance for cooperation”. His words were not lost on his political opponents. "Unlike your predecessor, you strike a constructive tone that is welcomed," said Giorgo Tevdoradze, a UNM member of parliament.
Kvirikashvili's appointment signals a change in GD's strategy before the election, namely the willingness to aim for more dialogue and less confrontation in Georgian politics. Before December, GD was anything but conciliatory. From placing an arrest order on former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is the founder of UNM, forcing him into exile, and stripping him of his Georgian citizenship after he acquired Ukrainian citizenship, to interfering with a trial over the ownership of Rustavi 2 TV, the GD administration made sure UNM was pushed to the side of Georgian politics and turned into a "criminal organisation", as Garibashvili called it.
But turning Georgian politics into GD's playground backfired, for the international community, the opposition and the electorate reacted negatively to the government's interference in areas of society in which a democratic government has no business interfering. Given that accession to the EU and Nato are the pillars of GD's agenda, the escalation in tensions with the opposition and the government's interference with the judiciary and the central bank in 2015 significantly eroded its credibility domestically and internationally.
Enter Kvirikashvili, who has the right character and credentials to mend the relations between GD and UNM to the extent to which they can be mended at this point. Whereas his 33-year-old predecessor was seen as impetuous and young, Kvirikashvili's experience, calm and honesty have already won him more fans than Garibashvili. After regretfully admitting to "failing to restrain himself a couple of times" while dealing with UNM representatives, he told lawmakers that his "huge desire" was to put an end to confrontation, for Georgian politicians had become "actors on a very undesirable stage".