Commentary: Will Bidzina do a Nelson, or will he do a Sonia?

No soft touch. Bidhzina Ivanishvili is a shrewd self-made man.

No soft touch. Bidhzina Ivanishvili is a shrewd self-made man.

In this commentary Dennis Sammut says that Bidzina Ivanishvili is an enigmatic and often misunderstood leader who has been able to change Georgian politics in a very short time, and that despite his announced political retirement he is likely to remain a very significant person in Georgian public life.

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s announcement that he will resign as prime minister and retire from mainstream politics one week after the presidential election on 27 October has left Georgians and everybody else astonished and bewildered, even though he had previously hinted that that is what he will do.

Ivanishvili was swept to power on a wave of popular support in the parliamentary elections in October 2012. He had achieved what many had thought was impossible. He had united  the fractured Georgian opposition forces that were opposing Mikhel Saakashvili’s government; he had resisted and overcame enormous pressure of dubious legal standing that had been exerted on him, his friends and his business interests by the previous government in an effort to dissuade him from participating in politics; and he had managed to brush off unjustified and unproven claims made by Saakashvili, and parroted in the most irresponsible way by many European politicians and journalists, that he was somehow a Kremlin agent.

Ivanishvili had working in his favour his personal fortune which ensured that his political project was well resourced, and the political climate in Georgia, which by 2011 had reached a point where something had to give anyway. Yet this is not the whole story. Ivanishvili’s unique personality came into play too. An enigmatic and reclusive person Ivanishvili stepped uncomfortably into the limelight of national and international politics out of a sense of duty, yet his motives were often misunderstood by friends and foes alike. Whilst his name was well known in Georgia because of his charitable and humanitarian work, few had ever seen him or met him. In his first political rally in May 2012 he came across as naïve and uncertain. Within weeks his performance had become polished and articulate. Georgians saw before their own eyes the transformation of Ivanishvili into a national leader. Within a short time a trust was built between him and the electorate which resulted in the convincing victory against all odds in the 2012 election. Georgians used to having to push their leaders out of office cannot understand why at the peak of his popularity Ivanishvili has now decided to quit. To understand they need to remember what Ivanishvili has said on a number of occasions, that he is first and foremost interested in people. Political power was never for Ivanishvili an end in itself.

Of course there have been others in other countries who refused power at the peak of their popularity. Two that come to mind are Nelson Mandela and Sonia Gandhi and the two offer models that Ivanishvili may decide to follow. Mandela having been released from prison oversaw the transition of South Africa from apartheid to majority government. After serving for one term as President he retired from political life. By and large he has kept out of South African politics since, even though he remains a beacon for the whole nation. He does not need to speak. Everybody knows for what he stood for. His name and his memory is enough to keep South African politicians in line. Sonya Gandhi, very much like Ivanishvili, was catapulted to public life by circumstances. The wife of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi she became the rallying point for a confused Congress Party very reluctantly when Rajiv was assassinated. The problem was Sonia was Italian and she felt she could not take on the Prime Ministership of India. She remained however very much at the centre of politics, as Chairman of Congress and as President of the informal yet influential National Advisory Council, which is sometimes accused of being India’s shadow government.

Which model will Bidzina choose when he resigns as Prime Minister in a few days time. It is unlikely that he will copy either of these two models, and is more likely to develop his own.

There are dangers in whichever strategy he chooses. If he interferes too much whilst not holding public office, he will justifiable be open to accusations of wielding power without responsibility and accountability. He needs to avoid this at all costs. On the other hand the political situation in Georgia is too fragile for him to abandon the project that he initiated two years ago completely. Ivanishvili cannot treat Georgian politics like one of his business start-ups. However if Ivanishvili is to continue playing a political role he must retain a political office, even if it is simply within his Georgian Dream party. His promise to become a civil society person may sound quaint in theory but it is not clear how it will work in practice. In any case once he has taken the plunge into Georgian public life Ivanishvili is going to find that simply disappearing back into the shadows is not a viable option. Like his entry into politics, his exit needs to be managed carefully.

 

Dennis Sammut has followed Georgian politics for nearly two decades, and is currently based at Oxford University. He contributed this article to Caucasus Elections Watch. (dennis.sammut@spc.ox.ac.uk)