Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has suggested in a recently published interview that he could step down from his post as premier several days after presidential elections are held in the country in October. On the same day, an MP from his Georgian Dream movement said that he would initiate procedures for the impeachment of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili this week.
It’s questionable whether either of these developments will actually happen, as Ivanishvili may not step down right away and Saakashvili will likely serve out the rest of his presidential term. But these events do highlight already existing shifts in Georgian politics, with implications for Tbilisi's ties with both Russia and the West.
Since emerging onto the political scene in 2011, Ivanishvili has maintained that he doesn’t intend to stay on for long as prime minister, given that his background is in business, not politics. After securing an election victory in October 2012, Ivanishvili quickly took many measures to strengthen his movement's power and political position in the country, including sacking or detaining key Saakashvili loyalists and installing his own in strategic sectors like the judiciary, industry and the military. Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, the leader of the United National Movement (UNM) party, was among those detained — and as the Georgian Dream statement this week on impeachment proceedings indicates, Saakashvili himself could be in the crosshairs soon.
While Ivanishvili's ongoing consolidation of power has raised many questions about the genuineness of his claim that he would step down as prime minister, he has never abandoned that prospect completely. Instead, he has been vague in his language about his potential resignation, saying he would stay on if needed to avoid political instability or other damaging prospects to the country.
But regardless of whether Ivanishvili steps down or the specific position he takes on in the future, Ivanishvili is likely to play an important role in Georgia's political scene for years to come. After all, it was Ivanishvili who was able to cobble together a previously fractious opposition to present the first major challenge — and defeat — of Saakashvili's decade-long dominance in Georgian politics since he came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003.
It was also Ivanishvili who set in motion a significant change to Georgia's foreign policy, particularly when it comes to relations with Russia. Taking advantage of a declining economic situation and what many Georgians saw as an overly aggressive stance towards Russia by the fervently pro-Western Saakashvili, Ivanishvili has resumed trade relations with Russia that had been frozen since before the August 2008 war between the two countries. He has also set in motion the prospects for increasing cooperation in other more strategic areas like energy and security. And Ivanishvili's more pragmatic stance towards Russia and less unconditional support of the West is mirrored by most influential figures within his camp.
However, there are still significant obstacles to a complete shift in Georgia's foreign policy and warming ties between Tbilisi and Moscow. Most important is Russia's military presence in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Georgia's continued efforts to maintain ties to the European Union and NATO. But it is clear that the shifts in Georgia's foreign policy already taking place under the Ivanishvili administration will continue to reorient the country's position domestically and in the region, whether Ivanishvili stays on as premier or not.