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Managing Upwards: Fall and Rise of Irakli Kobakhidze

In the summer of 2019, Irakli Kobakhidze might have felt wronged.

He was just forty years old and at the peak of his career as the Speaker of the Parliament when he took an unexpected tumble. And all of that happened because a Russian MP was spotted sitting in his official chair. Kobakhidze took the fall in response to a public outcry.

But soon, Giorgi Gakharia, the Interior Minister who took responsibility for a violent and no less controversial dispersal of protests later that fateful day, was promoted to prime minister. When Gakharia didn’t prove as loyal as the ruling Georgian Dream party wanted and quit, he was replaced by Irakli Garibashvili. Garibashvili secured reappointment despite the controversies – including the persistent rumors of corruption – surrounding his first term as Prime Minister.

Kobakhidze was down but not out. He kept himself active after the resignation in the ways that count in Georgia’s political system based on patronage. He repeatedly and devotedly demonstrated his loyalty to the party’s billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili. He retained a leading position in the party and often set the tone of what the Georgian Dream and its rule would become.

Yet, time and again, others got promoted, but not him. Until, months ahead of crucial elections, Garibashvili suddenly resigned, and the long wait was finally over. On February 8, after the tap and the nod from Ivanishvili, the Parliament confirmed Irakli Kobakhidze as Georgia’s new Prime Minister. Seat of power, at last. It is his time to shine – and to shine even brighter than before.

Political lineage

Kobakhidze, 45, burst onto the political scene from relative obscurity despite coming from a prominent family and enjoying a career as an expert in constitutional law. Son of Gia Kobakhidze, a longtime politician and former MP, Kobakhidze got his MA and PhD degrees in law in Dusseldorf, Germany. During the years of the United National Movement rule, Kobakhidze earned a reputation as a law professor at Tbilisi State University. At different times, he also worked with various international and non-governmental organizations – including USAID, UNDP, and the Council of Europe.

The professor made his first political steps after Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s reclusive billionaire, came to challenge the increasingly illiberal UNM rule. In 2012, Kobakhidze reportedly assisted Ivanishvili when he founded the Georgian Dream party. The cooperation continued after GD’s victory, but Kobakhidze remained mainly in the shadows until he assumed the role of the party’s executive secretary in 2015. A major spotlight came in 2016 when parliamentary elections catapulted him into the Speaker’s chair. In 2017, he led efforts to redraft the national constitution. He was then prematurely ousted in the 2019 Gavrilov controversy and had to settle for party roles again.

This is when Kobakhidze made his reputation as a polarizing politician. After the 2020 elections, as the party grew more uncompromising and illiberal, he’d take these qualities to a whole new level. In 2021, he was elected as the ruling party chairman.

Master of labels

As Ivanishvili, the country’s top decision-maker, increasingly retreated behind the scenes, Kobakhidze emerged as the party’s leading voice, and a particularly shrill one, at that. His rhetoric made him the prime suspect in his chief editorial role in the “message box” – widely parroted party rhetoric aimed at delegitimizing local opponents or confronting Western allies. His influence was also felt in lengthy letters published by People’s Power, a right-wing GD splinter group dedicated to testing anti-Western conspiracies. “Radical opposition,” “agents,” “Rich NGOs,” “coke-head,” “Church-bashing criminal,” “liberal fascists,” “uprooted,” “[youth with] confused orientation” – are some of the GD terms to describe critics, which Kobakhidze loves to repeat until his copyrights become undeniable and until the target has to resign to living with the label.

The party leader became GD’s chief attack dog whose remarks – delivered with a deadpan poker face – were often tinged with rancor, malice, and cynicism. Often claiming the stage in areas where the government would be expected to have a say, Kobakhidze also symbolized the effective disappearance of an already blurred line between the ruling party and the executive.

It’s hard to say which phase of his life shaped the new prime minister into the politician he is today. But one thing he seems to have picked in his early years is his identity as a gifted child.

Smart, talented, and educated are the qualities for which Kobakhidze seeks recognition. During his years in Germany, he tried his hand at fiction and published a book – Return to Terranuova – that he describes as a “fairy tale for little grownups.” He showed off his musical skills by accompanying a Night Show band on guitar as they sang Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and he likes to obsessively remind the public of his summa cum laude university diplomas.

Kobakhidze has also tried to project an image of a man who does the math himself. He periodically publishes his quantitative research findings on economic issues, hoping to prove the critics wrong, and took credit for exposing a scandalous error in the parallel vote tabulation (PVT) after the 2020 elections. His nomination as an incoming PM was promptly followed by supportive ads on social media portraying him as an educated and intelligent politician continuously showing how it’s done (a “masterclass,” as the Georgian attack ad jargon goes) to the dim-witted opposition. Kobakhidze also repeatedly tried to score points with voters as a “principled” politician standing up for national pride by returning criticism – and conditionalities – to the Western allies.

Man with many faces

This could also be a legacy that the new prime minister wants to leave. For Kobakhidze, politics is less about values and ideas (unless one considers harboring special hatred for rivals as a value) and more about a winning game with the sole purpose of outsmarting and eventually ruining (or what he charmingly calls “finishing”) his opponents. Kobakhidze has never tried to hide this, often displaying the mentality of a pulp-fiction criminal who doesn’t want to be identified as the perpetrator but secretly craves credit for masterminding a very sophisticated crime. A man of appearances, he seeks the spotlight, even if he’s not entirely comfortable in it.

Those who’ve met him in person describe him as a somewhat introverted, awkward type. Others have painted him as something of a double-faced Roman deity of Janus. Somewhere between the tense negotiating rounds of the post-2020 government crisis, Aleko Elisashvili, an opposition politician, claimed that Kobakhidze’s combative tone would disappear during internationally mediated talks and he’d switch to his very different, more charming personality to work his magic on Western diplomats.

Elisashvili may not be wrong here: Kobakhidze is a man who would eagerly copy best foreign practices when it suited the party and abandon them when they threatened its power, proudly pose for photos with foreign leaders only to alienate them later, defend the constitutional principles in the textbooks he has written, and even write them into the constitution, and then disregard them in the very scenarios they were designed for. His style of argument focused on manipulating facts and laws to justify controversial policies (as in the recent impeachment proceedings against the president) and catching his critics in hypocrisy or “double standards” while neglecting his own. He would vote for NGOs to be labeled foreign agents despite his previous career in organizations that funded them. But more than that of a Steppenwolf, Kobakhidze displays the quality of a cold-blooded pragmatist, someone calculating, rather than conflicted.

This makes it even more unclear what qualities he will be channeling into his executive tenure. If Garibashvili perfectly fitted the chosen role as a conservative family man, Kobakhidze can be both a diplomat and a destructive polarizer, a far-right homophobe and a European liberal.

It’s his turn

As Irakli Kobakhidze assumes his post, speculations continue about why Bidzina Ivanishvili, freshly emerging from the shadows, opted for a change. The shared belief is that the decision came not for Kobakhidze’s popularity but despite his lack of it. It could be that Garibashvili, again, valued his family way too much – Kobakhidze is less tainted by obnoxious corruption scandals compared to his predecessor. Chances (and some signs) are that Ivanishvili decided to put a muffler on divisive conservative rhetoric – Garibashvili’s resignation was quickly followed by a crackdown on far-right groups. Other theories also circulate, varying in their level of conspiracy and creativity, as is often the case with a billionaire’s every move.

Or perhaps Garibashvili and other party colleagues were right during their recent remarks: Kobakhidze’s new role is a royal acknowledgment of his service. Ivanishvili might be simply rewarding the unwavering loyalty of his apprentice and recognizing his role in the party’s stable rule.

After all, Kobakhidze is a former gifted child. Some of these children grow up to use their talents for the greater good. Others keep merely seeking the approval of their superiors. The rest are left to judge what part of their success comes from talent – and what part comes from a lack of morals or the wealth of their superiors.

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