Bidzina Ivanishvili HOT as his Georgian Dream Party Passes Disputed “Foreign Agents” Bill

  • Ivanishvili has successfully overcome popular protests and a presidential veto.
  • He has tightened his grip on power by passing several laws.
  • As October’s elections loom, Ivanishvili is steering Georgia in a more pro-Russian direction.
Ivanishvili
@Saeima | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why is Ivanishvili’s temperature HOT?

Answer: Ivanishvili has overcome vocal opposition to pass his bill, priming his Georgian Dream Party for re-election.

On 28 May, despite weeks of protests, Bidzina Ivanishvili and his ruling Georgian Dream party overturned a presidential veto to approve the “foreign agents” law. Officially known as the “transparency on foreign influence bill,” this law dubs non-governmental organisations that receive over 20% of their funding from abroad as “organisations acting in the interest of a foreign power.” These entities are then required to disclose fiscal information to the Georgian government, or they will face thousands of dollars’ worth in monthly fines. 

The “foreign agents” bill will grant the Georgian Dream party control over how foreign (mostly Western) messages are framed. As some NGOs disclose information on their donors, the “foreign agents” law will give the founder of the Georgian Dream party – the party’s main political advisor – insight on who is funding these entities. With this information, Ivanishvili can better advise Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze on how to respond, shifting his rhetoric to discredit the Georgian Dream’s main detractors.

More crucially, the hundreds of organisations who refuse to comply with Georgia’s new demands will be significantly hindered by fines up to almost $10,000. This expense means that the organizations’ Georgian offices will operate on a much tighter budget – that is, if they choose to remain in the country. A weakened foreign opposition will help Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party solidify its majority in October’s parliamentary elections. In these elections – scheduled for 26 October – Georgians will vote for their members of parliament. Any party or coalition with a majority will be asked to nominate Georgia’s next prime minister, set to rule for the next four years.

By passing the “foreign agents” law. Ivanishvili has proven his dominance over the Georgian political scene. His “foreign agents” law sparked significant opposition nationwide, with tens of thousands of protesters rallying against the bill since its inception. The protesters are backed by President Salome Zourabichvili, who publicly denounced this bill as a “Russian law” that “contradicts our constitution and all European standards,” despite her limited, ceremonial role.

Ivanishvili responded to the popular resistance by suppressing popular opposition with Georgia’s riot police, then overrode Zourabachvili’s veto by utilizing the Georgian Dream’s parliamentary majority. With 83 out of 150 seats in parliament, the Georgian Dream’s united majority effectively undermines one of Georgia’s systems of checks and balances, enabling Ivanishvili and his party to pass laws without significant resistance. He has successfully exploited this to concentrate power around himself and his party.

What is changing Ivanishvili’s heat level?

Answer: Since Ivanishvili’s return to politics last December, Georgian Dream has overturned two presidential vetoes, hindering the opposition. 

The Georgian Dream president’s power stems from his strategic political maneuvers and control over key figures in the government. One of his critical moves to consolidate power was orchestrating the resignation of Irakli Garibashvili and nominating Irakli Kobakhidze as prime minister. Garibashvili’s popular momentum could have led to marked internal divisions within Georgian Dream or even the birth of splinter parties.

With elections approaching in October, Ivanishvili needs a government that fully supports him, and Kobakhidze fits this requirement perfectly. As the new leader of Georgian Dream, Kobakhidze allows Ivanishvili to steer the ruling party in a unified direction, which is essential for overriding President Zourabichvili’s vetoes. Additionally, Kobakhidze’s leadership helps prevent Georgian Dream’s votes from being divided among splinter groups, thereby strengthening Ivanishvili’s hold on power.

The new power dynamic with Kobakhidze as Prime Minister has significantly bolstered Ivanishvili’s influence. Since Kobakhidze’s appointment, Georgian Dream has achieved a level of unity that enabled it to pass two key laws aimed at tightening its control ahead of the upcoming elections, despite unsuccessful veto attempts by President Zourabichvili. In addition to the controversial “foreign agents” law, the Georgian Dream-dominated parliament passed legislation granting itself control over the membership of Tbilisi’s Central Election Commission, further consolidating its power and ensuring its dominance in the electoral process.

The Commission was founded as an institution to guarantee electoral fairness and transparency. The Georgian Dream’s March law grants Ivanishvili important control over the members of this commission, allowing him to choose lenient observers if necessary. More importantly, it helps Georgian Dream bypass another important source of checks and balances, adding on to Ivanishvili’s pattern of power concentration.

After six months as honorary chairman, Ivanishvili has substantially turned up the heat. Virtually unchecked by the Central Electoral Commission, able to disregard presidential vetoes, and now equipped to counter unfriendly foreign influence, Ivanishvili is posed to lead his party to victory in October’s elections. Meanwhile, his decision to have Garibashvili step down decreases internal threats. No longer prime minister, Gaibashvilii loses his relevance in the Georgian political scene, and would gain no benefit from seceding from Georgian Dream. This is crucial for Ivanishvili’s electoral success, as Georgians will face less choice in October.

What is driving Ivanishvili?

Answer: Ivanishvili looks to consolidate his hold onto power, and leans towards Moscow to avoid military conflict. 

Ivanishvili has effectively tightened his grip on power, minimising domestic threats. As honorary chairman, he has been able to shrug off political opposition, in the form of President Gourabachvili and former Prime Minister Garibashvili. Moreover, with the “foreign agents” law and an aggressive police force, the Georgian Dream party is working to silence popular opposition. 

However, Ivanishvili’s political dominance is still threatened from outside Georgia, in the form of external security issues. It is important to note that Georgia has been an EU candidate and on the path to NATO membership since April 2008, mere months before the Russo-Georgian War. Today, with Russia’s military presence in Ukraine, Ivanishvili understands that the time has come to fully lean West, or pivot East. 

While NATO or EU membership would grant Ivanishvili vital deterrence against Moscow, accession processes to these organizations can be lengthy, and both are incompatible with Georgian Dream’s current authoritarian tendencies. Ivanishvili has chosen to lean away from Western support, passing similar legislation to Russia to guarantee an electoral victory in October. At the same time, he is amicably signalling to the Kremlin that Tbilisi has no intention of joining the Western bloc. 

By this token, every “Russian Law” passed by the Georgian parliament does not only increase Georgian Dream’s chances of victory, but also greatly reduces the chances of a Russian attack, securing Ivanishvili’s hold on power in multiple ways.

Russo-Georgian relations were immensely strained following their 2008 war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war broke out after NATO’s announcement that Georgia would soon join the organisation, and ended after five days of fighting, with Russia gaining control of the breakaway regions in five days. While Russia recognizes these regions as independent states, Georgia continues to claim them as its own.

This continues to be a source of tension between the two states, yet it seems that Georgian Dream has decided to initiate a slow rapprochement with Moscow. Rather than threatening Russia, Tbilisi decided against sanctioning Russia in the wake of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and recently resumed direct flights between Georgia and Russia to popular protests. Thus, Ivanishvili’s appeasing approach to the Kremlin, as well as his distancing from NATO and the West, can be linked to a desire not to repeat what happened in 2008.

Additionally, billionaire Ivanishvili studied and made his fortune in Moscow before starting a political career back in Georgia. As prime minister four years after the Russo-Georgian War, Ivanishvili embarked on a “pragmatic” foreign policy, advocating for Georgian “concurrence in interests with Russia.” As head of government, Ivanishvili resumed Georgian wine exports to Russia, marking a major step in the countries’ economic relations. Though Russo-Georgian relations remained formally broken at that time, these signals show early evidence of Ivanishvili’s favourable stance on Russia. Today, the “foreign agents” bill mimics a law passed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The Georgian government has become increasingly hostile towards the West, as Georgian Dream’s prospects of victory increase.

The “foreign agents” law represents a clear stance against Western influence, signaling to Brussels and Washington that Georgia is shifting away from its pro-Western orientation. In response to the law’s passage, the US imposed visa restrictions  on those responsible, highlighting the escalating tensions between the West and Georgia. Despite this, Ivanishvili understands that the EU is unlikely to risk pushing Tbilisi closer to Moscow with severe measures such as economic sanctions or revoking Georgia’s candidate status.

Russia sees a potential ally in Ivanishvili’s Georgia, especially as its invasion of Ukraine continues. Ivanishvili is playing on this gamble, hoping that the West will refrain from taking strong actions and that Putin will be appeased. This strategy aims to secure a Georgian Dream victory in the October elections and further consolidate his power.

Article authored by: Nicholas Kattar

RAIA Team

The shared Account of RAIA members and Alumni