Georgia's richest man is back in formal politics for the third time

Georgia's richest man is back in formal politics for the third time
The official political return of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili could also enhance Russia’s already growing influence in the Caucasian country. / bne IntelliNews
By Tornike Mandaria in Tbilisi January 10, 2024

To critics, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s  announcement on December 30 that he would become "honourary chairman” of Georgian Dream merely makes explicit the control he has continued to exert over the party he founded.

Ivanishvili’s return to frontline politics is seen both as a move to sidestep European Union criticism of his backroom role, as well as to boost his Georgian Dream party’s chances in this autumn’s general election. But it could also enhance Russia’s already growing influence in the Caucasian country.

In his announcement, Ivanishvili said that political activity is not in his character, but the complexity of Georgia's current geopolitical situation has made him step in. 

Ivanishvili stated that the opposition is too weak and lacks the resources to keep an eye on the ruling party, so he had decided to get involved to prevent it from getting corrupt. He claimed that  his aim is not to make the party stronger for elections, but to keep a powerful team from making wrong choices.

He discussed the seven-year objectives of Georgian Dream, stating, "Our aim is to elevate Georgia to the status of a high-income nation and secure its accession to the European Union by 2030."

Ivanishvili’s latest re-emergence marks his third coming into Georgian politics. In 2011, the billionaire and philanthropist quickly gathered a political coalition around him that unseated President Mikheil Saakashvili's government in 2012. 

After a year as prime minister, Ivanishvili retired from public life in 2013, only to return in 2018 and retire again in 2021.

Outside politics, Ivanishvili, whose total assets are valued at $6.55 billion, according to Forbes, continues to make headlines for his luxurious lifestyle and his business dealings. He's known for moving huge, old trees to his park by the Black Sea, a project that shows his power and wealth and gets both admiration and criticism. 

His involvement in financial disputes, notably an almost $1 billion conflict with Swiss bank Credit Suisse, and changes in his wealth also keep him in the spotlight.

But it is his continuing political influence that has been the most constant subject of speculation and controversy. His involvement in politics, even when he held no official position, has been an open secret, often overshadowing the formal political structure.

In 2021 Ivanishvili stated he would end all political consultations with Georgian Dream representatives. However, upon his return to politics for the third time, he revealed that he had been in communication with two to three party leaders to help maintain a stable situation within the team, describing this as a normal occurrence.

The EU's call for deoligarchisation as a condition for Georgia’s accession to the bloc is widely interpreted as a direct challenge to Ivanishvili's informal role in the country's governance. The EU awarded Georgia candidate status last month but reiterated its call for deoligarchisation. By taking an official position within Georgian Dream, Ivanishvili might therefore be aiming to address this criticism. 

The internal dynamics of Georgian politics will also be affected by Ivanishvili's re-entry. The controversy surrounding the "agents of foreign influence" law, reminiscent of similar legislation in Russia, has damaged Georgian Dream's reputation.

Despite this, the party continues to hold significant public support, as indicated by recent polls. Ivanishvili's presence is expected to stabilise the party's standing and possibly steer it through the upcoming parliamentary elections. Under the new party rules, as the honorary chairman, Ivanishvili can now nominate the prime minister candidate for the party and also call special party meetings.

In his address, Ivanishvili also pointed to the increasing complexity and challenges of the geopolitical environment surrounding Georgia. As the country Georgia moves towards EU membership, its continuing close relationship with Russia is likely to create more difficulties.

Considering Ivanishvili's background of building his wealth in post-Soviet Russia and his alleged ongoing connections with Russian political and business leaders, his re-entry into politics could also potentially deepen Georgia's relationship with Russia.

Tbilisi is also enjoying a newly announced strategic relationship with China, which involves interests in the Middle Corridor, a trade route from China to the EU that bypasses Russia.

In the coming months it will be interesting to observe whether Ivanishvili's return to frontline politics will promote the country’s links with Russia and China, or whether it will support Georgia's pursuit of joining the EU, the other major foreign policy goal mentioned in his return address.