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Garibashvili’s Three-year Premiership: the Guardian of Self-Serving “Stability”

Irakli Garibashvili Leaves Toxic Legacy

At a special briefing on January 29, Irakli Garibashvili announced his resignation and said he had accepted an offer to chair the ruling Georgian Dream party. He said he was offered to leave in the summer but “made a decision” to do this now.

Citing “internal democracy” in the Georgian Dream party and the practice of “rotation” as reasons for his resignation, he said that “there are many successful leaders” in the GD team and that it is “necessary to give others a chance.”

Garibashvili, 41, worked in Bidzina Ivanishvili’s companies for eight years before entering politics in late 2011. He entered the cabinet as Interior Minister, and a year later, in November 2013, rose to Prime Minister to succeed Ivanishvili.

In December 2015, Garibashvili unexpectedly resigned and left the party. Then, as now, his resignation came ahead of the parliamentary elections and was linked to the government’s falling ratings. Corruption was also reportedly an issue, with Ivanishvili himself saying he had told Garibashvili that “his relatives would become a problem.” Several of Garibashvili’s relatives held senior positions during his two terms, particularly in the police, which drew critical attention from the opposition and the media.

So, what legacy does Irakli Garibashvili leave after his second term as Prime Minister? What will be he remembered by? We’ve looked at his three years as PM to discern the bigger picture.

Credit is due?

Garibashvili credits his government for Georgia’s high economic growth, „uninterrupted peace”, and “stability” during his tenure. He also credits his government for achieving the EU candidacy and playing the role of a prisoners-exchange mediator in 2022 between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

These claims are disputed. Georgia indeed has had high economic growth, but economists point to low post-pandemic base, the influx of moneyed Russian migrants as key factors. They say growth was a combination of luck and circumstance, rather than a result of policy, and is not going to last. In part, that luck was built on other’s misfortune – the war in Ukraine choked up old trade routes and opened new transit opportunities for Georgia.

Relative peace is what Georgians indeed appreciate, especially against the backdrop of horrors Russia inflicted on Ukraine. Yet, kidnappings and harassment of Georgians by Russian occupation troops continued, as did the impunity for the perpetrators, such as the killers of Tamaz Ginturi who was shot near Tskhinvali occupation line. The response by the government has been muted, limited to a formal statement.

Talk Europe, Walk the Opposite Way

The most frequent compliment that PM Garibashvili used to make for himself was that he and his government secured the EU candidacy for Georgia. However, the road towards the candidacy was long(er) and more winding than it could have been due to the government’s inability to implement the European Commission conditions, in contrast to Moldova and Ukraine, who managed to get the status a whole year-and-a-half earlier. In addition Georgia showed a drastically decreased record of alignment with EU’s foreign policy in recent years, reaching as low as 31% in spring 2023. And although the alignment with CFSP was not one of the 12 initial priorities identified by the European Commission, it is an axiom that EU candidate countries must align their policies with the European Union. 

In December 2023, when Georgia was granted the status, it was questionable whether member states would decide to give Tbilisi the green light, ignoring the country’s modest track record in implementing EC conditions and focusing more on geopolitical considerations. The nine outstanding conditions remain to be fulfilled, and observers worry that the government’s approach has been overly formalistic and superficial. Therefore, it remains an open question whether the policies of Garibashvili and his government were conducive to obtaining the status or, on the contrary, these policies almost cost Georgia its candidacy.

Spat with the West

Another factor in a bumpy road towards the EU candidacy was generally strained relations with Georgia’s Western partners, with frequent attacks by GD government representatives on the members of the European Parliament, Ambassadors accredited in Georgia, etc.

The worsening relations with traditional partners were accompanied by cozying up with the proponents of “alternative Europe.” PM Garibashvili established a cozy relationship with Hungarian President Viktor Orban. Garibashvili visited Hungary in 2022, and Orban returned the visit to Tbilisi alongside his cabinet.

Garibashvili’s high-profile participation in the conservative hardliner gathering – Conservative political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2023, where he voiced anti-liberal and ultra-conservative messages, cost the Georgian Dream its membership in the Party of European Socialists (GD pre-empted and left PES citing PES’s “ideological transformation” towards the “pseudo-liberal platform,” two days after the decision on GD removal was taken by PES Presidency).

Backtracking on NATO

Meanwhile, Irakli Garibashvili will also be remembered for rhetoric damaging Georgia’s standing with NATO to the extent that Georgia’s long-standing partners in NATO concluded that “Georgian leadership does not believe in NATO membership”, as the Estonian PM said last year. During his visit to Georgia in May 2023, NATO Secretary General Special Representative Javier Colomina said NATO was concerned both about the “rhythm” of reforms and their “substance.” This was by far the harshest public criticism by a NATO official in Georgia’s history.

Garibashvili’s remarks at the Qatar Economic Forum were particularly controversial in 2022. He claimed that to join NATO, Georgia must first resolve its territorial conflicts, echoing the position of the skeptical nations and sharply contradicting the official Georgian position. Attending the 2023 GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava, Garibashvili named NATO as “one of the main reasons for war in Ukraine,” triggering outcry at home and consternation of Georgia’s partners.

Cozying up to Russia

Garibashvili’s PM term was marked by the rapprochement with Russia, including alleged personal contacts. In April 2023 Georgia and Russia restored direct flights, with Russia simultaneously abolishing the visa regime for Georgians and introducing quotas for students to study in Russia. Meanwhile, by the end of PM Garibashvili’s term Russians dominated as the largest group of international visitors to Georgia and in 2023 Georgia increased its natural gas imports from Russia by 16.5%. In parallel, relations with the Ukrainian government have deteriorated.

Ambivalent on Ukraine 

Relations between Georgia and Ukraine strained due to ex-President Mikheil Saakshvili, and further declined in recent years, especially after the invasion of Russia in Ukraine. The ambivalent messages by PM Garibashvili further exacerbated the already strained relations. These included claims that international sanctions against Russia are ineffective, that Georgia will not join them, and that Ukraine was not interested in Georgia receiving the EU candidate status. PM never visited Kyiv, while Ukraine has recalled its ambassador. Among Georgians who overwhelmingly support Ukraine, this was the cause of much consternation.

Strategic partner with China

Garibashvili, who worked for the Chinese company before returning to lead the government, has labored to cultivate a relationship with Beijing. While he was visiting China in the summer of 2023, the two sides issued a joint statement on establishing a Strategic Partnership. The move prompted the Georgian Dream representatives to highlight the investment opportunities, while the opposition and some experts heaped criticism. The critics pointed out that the declaration on partnership largely ignored Georgia’s concerns and focused almost exclusively on China’s global projects, such as Belt and Road and others. There are concerns that a strategic partnership with China is at odds with Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic outlook.

Democracy on decline

Contrary to PM Garibashvili’s claims, the reports by authoritative international organizations, such as Transparency International, EU, and CoE, to name a few, indicate that Georgia has slid on its democratic credentials and human rights. State capture, problems with an independent judiciary, elite corruption, and other problems have shown themselves in recent years. Georgia’s downslide has become the major stumbling block on its EU integration path. This was explicitly confirmed by the report from the European Commission, which said that Georgia had fulfilled only three out of 12 of its priorities. EaP Index 2023 was the most recent document showcasing Georgia’s democratic decline.

The extent of the deterioration of Georgia’s rule of law standing is demonstrated by an unprecedented move by the US State Department to sanction four Georgian judges for corruption in 2023. PM Garibashvili personally shielded the judges and said: “This decision raises a big question mark for me.” Later that year, former Georgian Prosecutor General Otar Parstkhaladze was also sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for channeling Russian influence in Georgia. Here, too, Partskhaladze’s assets were shielded by the Central Bank of Georgia, triggering resignations from its managing board.

Corruption allegations

Corruption allegations have marked the second term of Garibashvili. The most memorable episodes were linked to transferring a forest to PM Garibashvili’s wife, Nunuka Tamazashvili, for 49-year lease or when the government plane was used to fly his freshman son to take up college in the United States.

The petty corruption remained low, with the most recent TI Corruption Perception Index showing a small, three-point deterioration. However, TI-Georgia, in its regular monitoring in January 2024, said that although “Impressively low levels of petty corruption characterize Georgia,” there is almost “total impunity for high-level corruption” and that “the influence of the ruling party’s founder over key institutions meets the definition of state capture.”

Civil society as a scarecrow

Attacking civil society and media representatives became a usual occurrence and part of the quotidian rhetoric of PM Garibashvili.

July 5, 2021, was another dark day in the history of modern Georgia. The participants of LGBTQI+ and Tbilisi Pride hopes to peacefully assemble were dashed as the counter-demonstrators conducted organized violence targeting civic activists and journalists, as a result of which dozens of them were injured, and one cameraman tragically died as a result of sustained injuries. The events caused strong condemnation in and outside the country and cast a shadow over EU-Georgia relations, as stated by EU member states’ embassies in Georgia. Many pundits accused the PM of condoning the violent groups by saying that “when 95% of our population are against holding a propagandistic parade in a demonstrative manner, we shall all obey that, [my] friends.” CSOs called for his resignation following the tragic events.

In March 2023, in the episode that seriously damaged Georgia’s image as a democracy and Georgia’s EU integration prospects, the Georgian Parliament started deliberations on the Russian-style Foreign Agents Law, (so-called Russian law) which was aimed at curbing the freedom of expression and operation for civil society and media. The law was condemned by virtually all of Georgia’s international partners and civil society and even GD former officials. Mass protests, violently repressed by law enforcers, ensued the approval in the 1st hearing of the law. After 3-day protests, GD majority in the Parliament was forced to strike the law down in the second hearing.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories and the blaming of mystical enemies for attempts to drag Georgia into war and overthrow the government have accompanied  Garibashvili’s tenure. These intensified around the events of March 7-8. He also has a habit of contrasting Ukraine, which is at war, often describing the horrors the war has brought to Ukraine and saying that “nobody can stop it,” with Georgia and crediting his government with keeping the peace. On more than one occasion, Garibashvili  emphasized that the “Ukrainization” plan of Georgia’s enemies to “turn the country into a second shooting gallery had failed.”

President’s Impeachment Attempt

One of the memorable trends of PM Garibashvili’s office term is the deterioration of the relations with Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, culminating in a failed but widely publicized attempt to impeach her in October 2023.

Polarization, polarization

Among other trends characteristic of the Prime Minister’s term have been increasing political polarization, attacks on opposition, narratives exploiting fears of war and instability in the Georgian society, harassment of international organizations and summoning of civil activists over alleged training plots” allegations, and in general spreading of conspiracy theories of attempts to overthrow the government.

What now?

If there’s one person who would regularly compete with PM Garibashvili’s stern tone and divisive rhetoric, it’s Irakli Kobakhidze, who is expected to become the new prime minister and was officially nominated at the party’s congress on February 1. The choice of Bidzina Ivanishvili, who now has the power to nominate the new prime minister, suggests that Georgian society should not expect anything new, either in terms of policy or rhetoric.

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