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Former Georgian PM Gharibashvili re-enters politics promising a hardline approach to the opposition

6 March 2019
Irakli Gharibashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili (GPB)

Former Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has returned to politics with promises to unite the ruling Georgian Dream party and put an end to the government’s ‘soft’ approach to the ‘destructive opposition’.

On Tuesday, the Georgian Dream party, under the leadership of former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced that Gharibashvili would be their new political secretary. This marked the end of Gharibashvili’s hiatus from both the party and Georgian politics.

Gharibashvili, 36, is a former business executive in several of Ivanishvili’s companies, including Cartu Bank, Georgian Dream Ltd and the Cartu Foundation charity.

In 2011, Gharibashvili followed the Georgian billionaire and his Georgian Dream coalition into politics defeating former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party (UNM) in 2012 parliamentary elections.

Gharibashvili first served as interior minister from 2012–2013, before replacing Bidzina Ivanishvili as Prime Minister and party chair in October 2013.

In December 2015, after 13 months as prime minister, he announced his resignation; he did not offer any clear explanation behind the move.

According to Sergi Kapanadze, one of the leaders of the opposition European Georgia Party, Gharibashvili’s return indicated that ‘Georgian Dream is in a ridiculous situation’ and was experiencing a ‘serious crisis of new ideas, new faces, new approaches’.

‘It is also interesting that [Ivanishvili] did what Asaval Dasavali [conservative anti-UNM popular newspaper] and other pro-Russia forces have been demanding from him. Ultimately, it is impossible to analyse what goes on in one oligarch’s mind, but the crisis is obvious and it will get worse’, Kapanadze told OC Media.

‘Destructive opposition’

In an interview on Tuesday with TV Pirveli, Gharibashvili said that the reasons behind his comeback were similar to those that prompted Bidzina Ivanishvili’s return to frontline politics in April 2018. He vowed to ‘unite’ and ‘strengthen’ Georgian Dream.

A month after introducing the latest changes to the Georgian constitution, Ivanishvili returned to politics in April 2018 as the chair of the party he founded, citing, among other things, internal party conflicts.

Gharibashivli also reiterated his position against the formerly ruling UNM party and their spin-off, the European Georgia party; both are currently in opposition in parliament.

‘It’s impossible to rehabilitate these people’, Gharibashvili told TV Pirveli, contrasting what he said was his ‘rigid’ approach to the opposition with Ivanishvili’s ‘humane position’.

He criticised the UNM for failing to avoid war with Russia in 2008 and for ‘losing territories’, but also insisted that ‘Russia started the war’.

In the interview, Gharibashvili was forced to address the latest scandals faced by the party.

Namely, he rebuffed allegations by Georgian banker Mamuka Khazaradze, who recently accused the government of undermining the Anaklia Deep-Sea Port project, of which he is a part.

Mamuka Khazaradze addressing parliament on 4 March (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Gharibashvili said that if Ivanishvili wanted to participate in the project, ‘nothing would preclude’ him from doing so, considering his ‘financial resources’.

He questioned Khazaradze’s success in implementing the port project so far.

Gharibashvili added that there should be no ‘untouchable’ individuals in Georgia, ‘including influential businessmen’, referencing the ongoing money laundering investigation into 2007–2008 transactions made by Khazaradze.

Gharibashvili was softer in his criticism of newly formed opposition group under former Georgian Dream MP Eka Beselia.

However, he reprimanded Beselia for making intra-party disagreements public, and for ‘helping enemies’ with her latest criticisms.

Eka Beselia (Tabula)

The former PM argued that his party’s plans to go forward with the lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices, over which Beselia resigned, was the best option available.

‘This is orchestrated by our main, destructive opposition party, their satellite non-governmental organisations, and other persons involved’, Gharibashvili said, referring to the criticism against Georgian Dream regarding judicial lifetime tenures.

A coalition of 40 civil society groups warned in December that confirmation of the current list of judges would ‘bring about a further strengthening of clan governance of the judiciary’.

[Read on OC Media: Legal committee head resigns amidst ‘crisis’ and ‘clan rule’ in Georgia’s judiciary]

‘Power belongs to Ivanishvili’

In the same interview, Gharibashvili reminded ‘everyone, and by everyone, I mean everyone’, that ‘power and its mandate belonged to and belongs to Ivanishvili’.

He also confirmed that his departure, as well as return, was agreed to by Ivanishvili.

A week after Gharibashvili left politics in 2015, Ivanishvili told TV GDS that ‘in the past, now and also in the future, I think that Irakli and I will have a lot in common — in politics and beyond’.

He hailed Gharibashvili as a successful prime minister, and for ultimately following his example and resigning ‘voluntarily’ while being ‘at the peak of success’.

However, earlier in January 2015, Ivanishvili publicly criticised then–PM Gharibashvili by claiming that his relatives were his weak spot.

‘I told him several times: “your relatives and your security will cause you trouble, don’t irritate the public with either” ’.

Ivanishvili mentioned Zviad Jankarashvili and Roman Chkhenkeli as examples, without providing further information.

Jankarashvili, Gharibashvili's cousin-in-law, headed the department of internal inspection of the Interior Ministry under Gharibashvili. He and Chkhenkeli, the government's economic council secretary, left their positions and distanced themselves from Gharibashvili in December 2014.

In his 5 March interview, Gharibashvili said he had ended relationships with ‘several relatives’ but refused to go into details, saying it was ‘private’.

Five years earlier, when pressed in parliament by the opposition UNM about his relatives ‘appointed to different positions’, Gharibashvili replied that his wife’s relatives ‘didn’t count as relatives’, and that the inquiry ‘was not serious’.

A crisis within Georgian Dream

Gharibashvili’s return coincided with what critics have called a crisis within Georgian Dream.

Seven MP’s have left the party since 21 February, including one of its founders, Eka Beselia, stripping Georgian Dream of their constitutional majority.

The current makeup of the Georgian parliament.

[Read on OC Media: European Georgia loses parliamentary minority status as more MPs leave ruling party]

Georgian Dream has been plagued by internal party strife since coming to power.

In June 2018, Gharibashvili’s successor, Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned as PM citing disagreements with Ivanishvili.

In July 2018, Georgian Dream sacked MP Davit Chichinadze for his frequent public criticism of the party.

On 5 November, before the presidential run-off election, Ivanishvili addressed the public asking for their votes for Salome Zurabishvili, and promised to reach out to Georgian Dream’s ‘old guard’ that the party had alienated.

Gharibashvili, who had kept out of the public eye after resigning, also spoke out on 26 November 2018, two days before the presidential run-off.

The UNM’s Grigol Vashadze came within 1% of Zurabishvili, an independent candidate endorsed by Georgian Dream in the first round.

Gharibashvili addressed Georgians through his Facebook page urging them not to legitimise the ‘traitor Saakashvili and his anti-national political power’.

Gharibashvili’s own premiership was marked by the first major internal conflict within the then–six-party Georgian Dream coalition, which included Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party.

The coalition lost the Free Democrats party after Prime Minister Gharibashvili fired party leader Irakli Alasania from his post as defence minister.

The coalition ended in 2016 after the Georgian Republicans also left and Ivanishvili’s party successfully won a constitutional majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections independently.

After his resignation, Gharibashvili returned to the private sector. In early 2018, he became an advisor to Chinese conglomerate CEFC China Energy.

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