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Who is Irakli Kobakhidze, Georgia’s next Prime Minister?

1 February 2024
Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

Irakli Kobakhidze, one of Georgian Dream’s most outspoken figures who has frontlined the party’s turn from the West and towards greater conservatism, is to become Georgia’s seventh Prime Minister since Georgian Dream took power in 2012. So who is Irakli Kobakhidze?

On 1 February, outgoing prime minister Irakli Gharibashvili confirmed rumours that Irakli Kobakhidze, the former parliamentary speaker and current party chair, would be Georgia’s next prime minister. Parliament is expected to confirm Kobakhidze in the role no later than 12 February.

Irakli Kobakhidze first publicly entered Georgian party politics in early 2015 as the party’s Executive Secretary. Prior to taking on the role, he had been largely unknown to voters, although the party has claimed he had previously worked with Georgian Dream as a legal expert. 

Kobakhidze’s rapid rise to power consequently confused, and in some cases irritated, many seasoned politicians within the party, which at the time still led a government coalition that included six other political groups. 

Irakli Kobakhidze’s party career has flourished against a backdrop of simultaneous upheaval and entrenchment of Georgia’s ruling party: the coalition’s protracted collapse, a revolving door of prime ministers, a deterioration of the party’s relations with the West, and Ivanishvili’s oscillations between formally participating in politics and claiming that he remained outside of Georgia’s political sphere.

As the October 2024 general election approaches, Kobakhidze, a constitutional lawyer by training, will be tasked with delivering a fourth term for the party, using his trademark provocations and dogged rhetoric to court Georgia’s electorate. 

Lawyer, lecturer, or leader

After graduating from the University of Dusseldorf with a PhD in law in 2006, Kobakhidze lectured at Tbilisi State University and the Caucasus University in Tbilisi. Prior to his entry into politics, Kobakhidze also worked at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a project expert and manager, and at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a project coordinator. 

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Irakli Kobakhidze stands behind Irakli Gharibashvili as the party marks its parliamentary victory in October 2021 elections. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

In January 2015, shortly after Irakli Kobakhidze was touted as Georgian Dream’s future Executive Secretary, his father, Gia Kobakhidze, resigned from the pro-Russian Democratic Movement party and left politics, stating that this was so as to not complicate the launch of his son’s own political career.

Kobakhidze’s rise through Georgian Dream’s ranks accelerated swiftly after the party’s first victory as an independent party in October 2016, being catapulted into the Parliamentary Speaker’s seat.

During his time as Speaker, Kobakhidze began to establish his dedication to the party line, no matter how controversial. The then-Speaker oversaw the 2017–2018 constitutional amendments, which postponed Georgia’s transition from a mixed to a fully proportional electoral system until this year, as well as abolishing direct presidential elections. He also defended controversial lifetime judicial appointments that caused the party to lose its constitutional majority in 2019, after a number of its MPs left in protest. 

Kobakhidze’s tie to controversial moves by his party only strengthened later that year: his resignation as speaker followed mass street protests after his party hosted a Russian delegation in Parliament and sat a Russian Communist Party MP, Sergey Gavrilov, in his chair. 

Despite leaving the Speaker’s chair, Kobakhidze continued to serve as an MP, and took on the party’s chairmanship in January 2021 upon Bidzina Ivanishvili’s second ‘retirement’ from politics. 

Leading a turn from the West

Over his nine years in politics, Kobakhidze has become one of the ruling party’s most outspoken figures, frequently pioneering narratives subsequently picked up by others in the party and the media. 

Kobakhidze was one of the party’s most vocal advocates of a ‘foreign agent’ law, proposed in early 2023, which was widely seen as a threat to civil society, the media, and freedom of expression. While the government retracted the laws after three days of mass public protests, Kobakhidze went on to dismiss the protesters as being opposition stooges, and used homophobic rhetoric against 21-year-old protester, Lazare Grigoriadis. Grigoriadis remains in detention on charges of attacking police and damaging police property almost a year after the protests. 

Kobakhidze has also in recent years opposed criticism of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, describing opponents of the Church as ‘rootless’, and this year vowing to introduce legislation criminalising ‘offending religious buildings and objects’. 

While maintaining that his party’s foreign policy is fundamentally pro-Western, Kobakhidze has led a turn in the opposite direction. His and his party’s rhetoric has grown increasingly hostile to Georgia’s Western partners in recent years, especially following Russia’s fullscale invasion of Ukraine and Georgia’s official EU application. 

[Read more: Irakli Kobakhidze: The face of Georgia’s turn from the West

Despite widespread public support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion, Kobakhidze has led accusations that Western countries and organisations were attempting to push Georgia into war with Russia, claiming that a ‘Global War Party’ was intent on doing so. 

‘God forbid, but if we theoretically allowed that war to erupt in Georgia by the end of December, of course, in that case we would have [EU] candidacy status guaranteed. However, perhaps […] it’s not worth attaining such status this way’, Kobakhidze told Georgia’s public broadcaster on 5 July 2022.  

While frequently criticising the US, EU, Ukraine, and their representatives, the chair’s rhetoric on Russia has been cautious at best. 

Kobakhidze has similarly reliably claimed that any allegations of political or judicial corruption in Georgia by Western countries are false and driven by malicious motives. In 2023, the incoming prime minister led a campaign accusing USAID of preparing Georgian activists to overthrow the Georgian Dream-led government, charges which the US Embassy denied.

[Read more: Georgian Dream hits out at ‘spies’ and Western-funded ‘extremism’

The rhetoric and ideas spearheaded by Kobakhidze have attracted the criticism of  Western partners, including the US. 

In May 2023, Georgian Dream was effectively pushed out of the Party of European Socialists as an observer member: a move that came soon after outgoing Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili made homophobic and transphobic statements at the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) event in Hungary in May 2023.

Kobakhidze now comes to power at a crucial moment. In December, Georgia was granted EU candidate status despite failing to fulfil the criteria laid down by the bloc. In the weeks that have followed, the ruling party, and Kobakhidze himself, appear to have taken a more conciliatory tone towards the West. 

With elections now approaching though, which way Georgia goes under a Kobakhidze Prime Ministership, and under the ever-watchful eye of ‘honorary party chair’ Bidzina Ivanishvili, remains to be seen.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet
Read in Russian on Jnews