Op-ed: The fight for Bidzina Ivanishvili
The Georgian Dream party (GD) appears to be in a sort of a crisis. Since January, seven MPs left its faction in parliament and others were rumored to follow suit. GD still has a strong majority (the loss of constitutional majority is not too important at this moment), but the split makes people think of weakness in Ivanishvili’s leadership, something GD depends on for its very existence. Why is this happening, and how dangerous is the process for the ruling party?
We know what the trigger was. At the end of December, Parliament rejected the list of candidates for the Supreme Court that the Council of Justice (CoJ) sent for approval, even though parliamentary leadership and, presumably, Bidzina Ivanishvili, were supportive of it.
Eka Beselia, the chairperson of the legal affairs committee, led internal opposition to the list. Later, she and a group of her supporters proposed a motion to postpone the process of appointing the judges for life until the end of 2024. After the motion was defeated in Parliament, she was the first to quit the ruling party, followed by others.
This background needs some clarification. Appointing judges for life was considered the last stage of several waves of the judiciary reform that started two governments’ ago, in Eduard Shevardnadze’s era, and generally followed recommendations of the democratic West.
Selecting judges through meritocratic criteria, giving them decent salaries, making the process of their selection independent from the politicians, and appointing them for life would make them independent and honest – so the theory goes. This is all accomplished now.
The majority of judges are appointed for life by the CoJ. It is only selecting permanent members of the Supreme Court that requires approval by Parliament.
Judges hold the majority in the CoJ, the most important decision-making body within the judiciary system, though it also includes non-judges. Supposedly, this is another safeguard of the independence of the judiciary.
However, the CoJ, as well as the judiciary system in general, is widely believed to be effectively guided by an informally influential group of judges usually referred to as “the clan”, allegedly led by two people, Mikheil Chinchaladze and Levan Murusidze. Apparently, other judges slavishly follow the instructions of “the clan”.
The latter, on the other hand, derives its power from being close to the government and ensures that judges satisfy the government wishes if the outcome of some cases happens to be important for it.
This means we have arrived at a paradoxical situation whereby formal independence of the judiciary corps – theoretically, an achievement – makes it difficult to fight the influence of “the clan”. Its members, as well as judges who tend to follow their instructions, are appointed for life and cannot be dismissed.
Some politicians and activists hope that the notorious judges may somehow be shamed into resigning, but it looks unlikely. Come what may, “the clan,” and Messrs. Chinchaladze and Murusidze in particular became the two most demonized people in the country as chief obstacles to the independence of the judiciary. The leaders of the GD appear to be the only ones who do not share this consensus. Which is fully understandable: the system as it stands ensures their control over the courts.
The old and the new
However, is disagreement on this issue the core reason for the split within GD? There are reasons to be skeptical. The rebels say members of “the clan” are bad because they were first appointed by their predecessors, the United National Movement, and followed their bidding while the UNM was in power.
This is all true, but the dissidents of today never protested when the same group made sure the courts carried out selective, politically motivated justice against the UNM leaders after GD came to power.
However, even if the protest against the powerful “clan” is only a pretext, it is brilliantly chosen: the defectors support a popular cause and present themselves as champions of judiciary independence.
As to the real reason for the split, it appears to be the GD old-timers resenting the power of the speaker of Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, and the group around him. The latter were not politically active when GD was in the opposition in 2011-12 and some of them had even worked for the UNM government.
However, after the 2016 elections, Mr Ivanishvili chose them to lead Parliament at the expense of seasoned veterans like Ms Beselia. One of the dissenters, Zviad Kvachantiradze, the GD majority leader in 2015-2016, said that he had considered quitting several months prior and the judges’ case was only the “last straw”.
The dissenters complained that their opinions were ignored and the majority was mainly ruled through anonymous messages they received in a closed online chat. The judges’ case gave them an opportunity to leave gracefully.
While only seven people left so far, quite a few others are openly critical of Mr Kobakhidze’s leadership. Support for the draft legislation proposed by Beselia’s group became a test case: seventeen members of the majority faction supported it in open defiance of Mr Ivanishvili’s specific wishes. On the other hand, only seventeen other GD members voted against: this was understood as expressing support for “the clan,” hence extremely unpopular.
Most of GD’s faction chose not to participate at all. Even though the bill did not pass, this was a huge psychological defeat for Ivanishvili: in this episode, he was not really in charge of his own party.
What the dissenters hope for
It is fairly clear what Mr Ivanishvili wants: a disciplined team obedient to his will. But what is the dissenters’ game? They left the majority but are reluctant to criticize the leader of the party they had quit.
As Roman Gotsiridze, an MP from UNM, correctly observed, they moved in opposition to Irakli Kobakhidze, not Bidzina Ivanishvili. Their rhetoric suggests they have not lost hope: by relying on Kobakhidze, Ivanishvili made a wrong choice, but he may still be convinced to move to the brighter side. They do not fight Bidzina Ivanishvili – they fight for him.
When Ivanishvili unexpectedly decided to bring back Irakli Garibashvili, his prime minister of 2013-15, as the political secretary of the party, they got a glimmer of hope.
Garibashvili had resigned from his position (presumably, at Ivanishvili’s behest) without explaining why, and was not seen in public after that.
The veterans (those who defected or stayed) were unanimous in welcoming him back: he represents good old times when Bidzina still trusted them. They expressed expectations that he was brought in to replace hated Irakli Kobakhidze.
But was he? In his first statements, Garibashvili only stressed the need for an unequivocal loyalty to Ivanishvili and chastised Eka Beselia’s group for playing the enemy’s (UNM’s) game.
Nobody can say for sure what exactly Mr Ivanishvili summoned his forgotten lieutenant for. Maybe he can help in stopping further defections, but it is highly unlikely he will go after the notorious “clan” in the judiciary: why punish people for being obedient? After all, how much does Ivanishvili actually trust his former vizier which he effectively fired some three years ago?
Bringing in Garibashvili looks like a desperate move of a leader who is in trouble but ran out of fresh options. It may temporarily placate some of his hesitant supporters but will hardly strengthen general confidence in his rule.
By Ghia Nodia, the head of the Caucasus institute for Peace, Democracy and Development