Georgia’s billionaire Premier Bidzina Ivanishvili named a 31-year-old minister as his chosen successor, reinforcing opposition claims that the tycoon would continue running the Black Sea nation from behind the scenes.
Ivanishvili, who’s vowed to step down this month after a year in office, said Nov. 2 that he’d nominate Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili to replace him in the country’s most powerful job. The appointment needs backing from parliament, which Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition controls.
The billionaire, 57, says he’s achieved his aim to reshape Georgia’s political system after beating outgoing leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in 2012 parliamentary elections and backing the winning candidate in a presidential ballot last month. UNM officials say Ivanishvili will retain control over Georgia, home to energy links between Europe and the Caspian Sea that ship oil and gas westward to bypass Russia.
The choice of nominee “fits the outgoing prime minister’s plans of having a behind-the-scenes role in Georgian politics,” Lilit Gevorgyan, senior analyst at IHS Global Insight in London, said yesterday by e-mail. “Garibashvili is someone who’s been vetted long before the Georgian Dream came to power, working for Ivanishvili’s businesses.”
Garibashvili, a founding member of Georgian Dream, has been interior minister since last October and worked earlier at Ivanishvili’s charitable foundation. He graduated in 2004 from the political science faculty of Paris’s Sorbonne University and has a master’s degree in international relations from the capital’s Tbilisi State University. As well as Georgian, he speaks English, French and Russian.
“Garibashvili has managed to transform the police, which had lost its credibility -- this man has managed to make the police honorable again,” Ivanishvili told reporters Nov. 2 in Tbilisi. “This man deserves this post.”
UNM officials have criticized the nomination and questioned whether Ivanishvili will relinquish control.
“We don’t really think Garibashvili has any competence as premier,” UNM lawmaker Zurab Japaridze told reporters in Tbilisi after Ivanishvili announced his chosen successor.
Giorgi Kandelaki, another UNM deputy in parliament, was skeptical about the nominee even before he’d been named.
“We already know the new prime minister will be a very weak figure and a puppet of Ivanishvili,” he said Oct. 30 by e-mail. “It’s essential for all friends of Georgia, anyone out there who cares about Georgia’s European and democratic future to not allow the anti-democratic, informal rule to which Ivanishvili aspires.”
Ivanishvili’s year in power has been marked by clashes with Saakashvili. Members of the previous government, such as former Premier Vano Merabishvili and ex-Defense and Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, were arrested, sparking criticism from the European Union and the U.S. Saakashvili said yesterday that he’d decided to pardon Akhalaia in one of his final acts before leaving office after two terms.
Ivanishvili said Oct. 23 that he’d step down a week after the new president’s Nov. 17 inauguration to a diminished office as Georgia shifts powers to the premier. President-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili, 43, got 62.1 percent in the Oct. 27 vote.
Margvelashvili told reporters today in Tbilisi that he won’t work from the glass-domed presidential palace used by Saakashvili and his administration, saying the space must be handed to the public for educational purposes.
His arrival will help ease political tensions by bringing an end to Georgia’s “divided government,” according to Moody’s Investors Service.
Ivanishvili’s exit “will further ease political infighting and pave the way for a more policy-focused debate, thereby reinforcing a credible institutional framework in Georgia,” Moody’s said Oct. 31 in an e-mailed note. “We expect no change to the broad orientation of the country’s economic and foreign policies, which have supported Georgia’s creditworthiness.”
Ivanishvili policy goals include raising living standards, improving the justice system and boosting ties with Europe, the U.S. and Russia, with which Georgia fought a five day war in 2008 over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. The tycoon, who made most his $5.5 billion fortune in Russia, wants Georgia to initial an EU association agreement this month.
Georgia’s economic performance has worsened under Ivanishvili’s stewardship, with growth in gross domestic product slowing to 1.5 percent from a year earlier in the second quarter, down from as high as 8.2 percent in the same three months of 2012.
Foreign direct investment fell for the first year in three in 2012. Moody’s rates the country’s debt at Ba3, three steps below investment grade and on par with Nigeria and Portugal.
Garibashvili can’t be judged until he’s had time to make his mark on his new post, according to Tengiz Pkhaladze, chairman of the International Centre for Geopolitical Studies in Tbilisi.
“He’s someone who already had a reputation and personality -- he was a good minister and his main achievements were depoliticizing the police,” he said yesterday by phone. “Let’s wait and see his own program and vision now and maybe in two months’ time we’ll be able to say more.”