Irakli Garibashvili has been tapped as Georgia’s new Prime Minister, after Giorgi Gakharia’s decision to quit over the coming pre-trial detention of Nika Melia, the UNM chair. Georgia’s foreign partners so ardently hope for de-escalation of political tensions, but if the track record Garibashvili’s first stint in the Prime-Ministerial chair tells is anything to judge his policies and beliefs by, those hopes are likely to be dashed.
Garibashvili’s nomination by the Georgian Dream completes his long return from the political wilderness, where he was cast by his boss and patron, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Tenaciously, Garibashvili managed to climb back, deploying his trademark mix of anti-opposition vitriol, the rumored backing from some quarters in the police and prosecution, and his alliance with the hardline elements in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Garibashvili initially rose to ranks as one of Ivanishvili’s close lieutenants, who, as the oligarch once famously remarked “does not need to be told twice” when implementing instructions. When he left in 2015, he left his own party, and the country only more bitterly divided.
Fighting the UNM
Garibashvili frequently opted for harsh rhetoric against political rivals, cementing his place among the UNM’s fiercest adversaries. While playing this role, he promised to erase the opponents “from the political radar,” condemned “cohabitation” between the GD and the UNM, called UNM “a criminal organization“ and seemed to condone violence against its former officials, calling it “understandable and natural.” Not only he routinely shunned compromise, but as Prime Minister, he actively sought escalation.
Shortly after his first appointment in 2013, he laid the charge of “hundreds of forced disappearances” at the door of the previous administration and said the investigation was ongoing – a charge that was subsequently never adjudicated. Proceeding with this policy, he also inaugurated a special service at the prosecutor’s office in 2015 to review alleged thousands of crimes committed by the UNM administration. No summary report was presented of this service’s work and its results.
In his fight against the GD’s arch-rival, Sorbonne-educated hardliner embraced homophobic conspiracies going so far to suggest that “the broadcast aired on Rustavi 2 [then pro-UNM channel] is a vile plot against our country and our co-citizens, so is ‘the provocative march’ announced by the so-called ‘LGBT’ representatives, that in fact is organized by the United National Movement.”
Cleansing the allies
As Prime Minister, Garibashvili also sought and destroyed the alleged enemies within, spearheading purges to cleanse the Georgian Dream from figures considered ‘disloyal’ to Ivanishvili. Allegedly, his family and professional links with high-ranks of the police investigators and prosecutors were instrumentalized for the political ends. Garibashvili’s father-in-law was known as a notorious head of Kakheti police district during Shevardnadze years, while he himself served as the Minister of Interior in the Georgian Dream’s first cabinet, personally headed by Ivanishvili.
The political destruction of an influential pro-western grouping, Free Democrats, around Irakli Alasania, then-Defense Minister, stands out as Garibashvili’s landmark political operation within the coalition of parties that brought the Georgian Dream to power. Senior military officers of the General Staff were arrested for the alleged mishandling of the tender procedures worth GEL 4 million. Alasania gave them full-throated support and was later dismissed by PM Garibashvili, who called him an “adventurer, stupid, and ambitious minister”, and painted Alasania as “traitor” and “lobbyist” for UNM.
In the meantime, rumors of intimate nature were spread by anonymous accounts against Alasania, as well as his political ally and a sister-in-law, Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze. Free Democrats left the coalition and abandoned three ministerial posts. Panjikidze’s Deputy David Zalkaliani, currently serving as Foreign Minister, also stepped down then saying: “Regrettably questions have emerged about our country’s foreign policy course.”
The accused officers were ruled guilty by the court in a highly controversial decision in 2016. Their charges were significantly reduced on appeal and they were subsequently pardoned by President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Garibashvili was also locked in a running battle against President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was gradually stripped of all but ceremonial functions. In a characteristic move, PM Garibashvili upstaged the President and signed the Association Agreement with the EU – the right usually reserved to the Head of State.
Videos, videos, videos…
On social networks, Garibashvili earned a moniker “Hakim Pasha” after the nickname of the anonymous user who uploaded video footage serving Garibashvili’s goals. Covertly shot videos – often of intimate or incriminated character – were deployed regularly during Garibashvili’s posting as Interior Minister and his first Prime Ministerial tenure.
The leaking of post-mortem photographs of Zurab Zhvania, the prime minister who died in murky circumstances in 2005 was one of such cases. Zhvania’s death was officially attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, but PM Garibashvili claimed the investigation was going actively forward into “serious injuries to [Zhvania’s] head,” allegedly sustained before death. These claims were used to insinuate the involvement of the previous administration in Zhvania’s death, but it failed to produce any finding that would modify the results of the initial probe.
In May 2013, during his tenure as the Interior Minister, leaked secretly recorded gay threesome sex video purportedly featured a man who fiercely criticized some senior officials, including Ivanishvili’s close advisor Gia Khukhashvili, his Deputy Gela Khvedelidze and Deputy Chief Prosecutor Lasha Natsvlishvili, now serving as GD consultant and allegedly as the ruling party ideologue. Garibashvili soon announced arrest of Khvedelidze, saying the latter leaked the video for the purpose of “revenge” against the man who had levelled allegations against Khvedelidze.
Allegations of nepotism
Allegations of nepotism accompanied Garibashvili’s first tenure as Prime Minister. He repeatedly denied the allegations, while once facetiously remarking that “the wife’s relatives are not considered as relatives”.
Garibashvili resigned from the post in 2015, some ten months before the 2016 parliamentary elections. Although Garibashvili did not cite reasons behind the decision, Ivanishvili told the Georgian Public Broadcaster later that he “had consultations” with Garibashvili about his resignation.
He also referred of Garibashvili’s weakness in dealing with his family – hinting at the allegations of influence by PM’s in-laws in police service. Overall, however, Ivanishvili praised his lieutenant for “gradually becoming a good politician in October 2015 – two months before PM has resigned, as Ivanishvili put it “at the peak of his success […] to let others try.”
Back to the table
Garibashvili resurfaced in Georgian politics in 2019 after nearly four years interval, as the political council of the ruling party named him as Political Secretary of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia.
Following his appointment as the Defense Minister, Garibashvili has distinguished himself by using the ministerial machinery for self-promotion. Repeatedly, the Ministry’s strategic communications department – beefed up by allied support – has been used to denigrate Minister’s political opponents, and media, triggering watchdog criticism.
Most recently, Garibashvili stood behind the well-orchestrated media and political campaign running under the hashtag “David Gareji is Georgia”. This campaign, carefully orchestrated through social and government-sponsored media, including the Public Broadcaster, featured all previous hallmarks of Garibashvili’s political operations: accusations of treason, covert videos, alleged malfeasance of the UNM, and the zeal directed against the “enemy from within” – this time at the Foreign Ministry.
The “cartographers’ case” has been one visible aspect of that campaign, while the larger media aspect, covered by social media as well as the pro-governmental Imedi TV, aimed to paint the opposition as unpatriotic and treasonous.
The prosecution made yet unclarified allegations of the accused cartographers acting on “orders from above” during the UNM rule. In this endeavor, Garibashvili was strongly backed and aided by certain elements of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who conflated the technically and legally unrelated case with the alleged need to defend David Gareji monastery from being “signed away” to Azerbaijan.
Garibashvili repeatedly opted for political homophobia during his first tenure. He proposed to limit constitutional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman back in 2014, in a move to please hardline conservatives and the Orthodox Church that campaigned against adopting anti-discrimination law, which was Georgia’s precondition to get a visa free regime with the EU. The GD-led Parliament passed relevant constitutional amendment in 2017.
In his resignation statement, Prime Minister Gakharia made clear that he spoke against the strong-armed crackdown on the UNM’s office, where the opposition leaders and activists gathered to offer Melia a physical shield against the impending police detention. Garibashvili made it clear upon nomination, that he is determined to “soon restore order”, a sentiment that was confirmed by Irakli Kobakhidze, GD Chair, to mean sending Melia behind bars.
If, as expected, Garibashvili is approved by GD-dominated Parliament in the coming days, the ethereal hope of a compromise with the opposition to resolve the ongoing crisis is likely to soon evaporate.