It’s an inspirational narrative — particularly because other leaders of post-Soviet states often cling onto power and rarely step down voluntarily. The big wrinkle: Few of Ivanishvili’s political opponents or regional political analysts believe it.
They say he will probably continue governing from behind the scenes, evading responsibility for a ruling party accused of increasingly anti-democratic leanings.
Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept to victory in October’s elections, but opposition groups claim that the voting was rigged and have refused to take their seats in Parliament.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have issued complaints about Ivanishvili’s leadership, including ties to Moscow, in a nation with ambitions to join NATO.
Ivanishvili’s pay-it-forward tone breaks with others in the region. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated constitutional changes that could keep him in power until 2036. Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed he won a sixth term in August elections that were widely condemned as rigged.
It also contrasts with President Trump, who is now pondering his political future and released a video Wednesday noting the clout of his “movement.”
On Monday, the reclusive Ivanishvili released a letter saying that he’s quitting politics on his own terms.
“Since I am a closed person, I will return to my usual life,” Ivanishvili told The Washington Post in an interview. “And there will be no publicity. I will vote in elections like a normal citizen, and this will be the maximum of my civic activity.”
But regional analysts and Georgian opposition figures are skeptical that Ivanishvili is sincere. In 2013, he stepped down from his post as prime minister, similarly vowing to leave politics. It was widely believed that he was still calling the shots before he formally returned to his position as Georgian Dream’s leader in 2018.
“There is no reason to assume that this time will be any different,” said Elene Khoshtaria, a prominent Georgian politician. “His network remains in key positions of all major institutions, and there is nothing and no one restricting him from continuing his informal rule.”
Ivanishvili acknowledged that “it didn’t work out for the first time, which is not good and not nice.”
In 2013, Ivanishvili said he would continue financially supporting and advising Georgian Dream in an unofficial role. This time is different, he insisted. If the party struggles in his absence, he won’t intervene, he said. In a Georgian television interview this week, he told his fellow citizens that this would be their last time hearing from him.
Even as the richest and most powerful man in Georgia for the past decade, Ivanishvili has tried to stay out of the public eye, rarely speaking in public or granting interviews.
His estimated wealth is $4.8 billion, according to Forbes, largely made by acquiring industrial plants, banks and real estate in the first years of post-Soviet Russia in the early 1990s. He lives in a 108,000-square-foot glass compound, nicknamed “the glassle,” in the mountains overlooking Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. His vast art collection includes works by Picasso and Monet.
Ivanishvili said he will now donate 90 percent of his material assets, worth $1.5 billion, to the Cartu Foundation, which he established in 1995 with the aim of supporting Georgia’s development.
“I leave $200 million for myself and my wife,” Ivanishvili said. “My kids are very smart, and I think they can make more if they want.”
The announcement of his departure from politics comes at a moment of increased scrutiny.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the October vote in Georgia was “competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected,” but it also cited “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state.”
A year ago, in two separate letters, six U.S. lawmakers expressed concerns to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia that some actions by Georgian Dream indicated a “backsliding” on the country’s commitment to democracy, including cracking down on protesters in Tbilisi who called for reforming the electoral system because it unfairly favored Georgian Dream.
Then in May, another letter from U.S. members of Congress and addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called out Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili for “efforts to crowd out legitimate American businesses” in Georgia, adding that “any such activities are motivated by geopolitical considerations, including reported ties between” Ivanishvili and Russia. Ivanishvili has denied that he’s connected to the Kremlin.
Ivanishvili’s chief political rival, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, said that Ivanishvili “is feeling that the ground is shaking under him because the majority of the Georgian population believes that he stole the elections.”
“I think he will continue to control behind the scenes by informal means — he is very well used to it, but I think this time, he is not going to pull the same trick,” Saakashvili told The Post.
Saakashvili has been sentenced to jail twice in absentia, first for three years for seeking to cover up evidence about the murder of a Georgian banker and then for six years for abuse of power and trying to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition member of Parliament when he was president. Saakashvili has called the convictions politically motivated.
Meanwhile, critics have accused Georgian Dream of consolidating near-total control over all branches and levels of government. Saakashvili’s party, the National Movement, has split in recent years and won just 27 percent of the vote in October.
In his letter to Georgians announcing his exit from politics, Ivanishvili said he was “heartbroken that a constructive opposition has not been formed” in Georgia.
“Of course, this is a problem, a big problem,” Ivanishvili said. “One party dominates Parliament, the opposition has very little presence, which is bad. But that one party dominates and received 48 percent of the vote in the elections, I don’t think it’s a tragedy even for European countries. It happens.”
Though Ivanishvili has said he’s passing the Georgian Dream baton to 42-year-old Irakli Kobakhidze, a former speaker of Parliament, it’s unclear how the party will practically move forward without him.
Sulkhan Saladze, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a civil-society group that helped publicize allegations of fraud in the parliamentary elections, said that “Bidzina Ivanishvili is Georgian Dream and Georgian Dream is Bidzina Ivanishvili,” adding that the party is “held together entirely by its creator.”
But Ivanishvili said he’s not a politician at heart, feeling he’s deserved this retirement even if no one believes its real.
“When I got to politics, it was not my choice, rather it was a necessity,” he said. “I love a closed way of life, and I am happy that I am leaving politics now. I am happy that I have been able to make changes in my country. When I came, it was a different country, and I am very proud of what I have accomplished.”
Lazareva reported from Tel Aviv.