Georgian billionaire ex-PM Ivanishvili returns to politics before election

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) – Former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire widely held to wield huge political influence, said on Saturday he was returning to frontline politics after two years, ahead of parliamentary elections in 2024.

According to a speech posted online by the ruling party, Georgian Dream, Ivanishvili said he was coming back because of the “complicated” geopolitical situation and what he said was the opposition’s failure to hold the government to account.

Ivanishvili is widely believed to pull strings in government despite having had no formal position since resigning as prime minister in 2013.

In his speech on Saturday, he said he was in regular contact with Georgia’s leadership and suggested he would take an active role in the election campaign as honorary chair of Georgian Dream.

Opposition parties have long accused Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, of loyalties to Moscow, Georgia’s Soviet-era overlord, which still regards the South Caucasus as its back yard.

Russia is unpopular among ordinary Georgians, having supported armed separatists in the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s and again in 2008.

Both Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili deny leaning towards Russia, and say they favour accession to the European Union and the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

The Georgian Dream government last month achieved its long-standing goal of EU candidacy, even as Brussels restated its demand for “de-oligarchisation” of Georgian politics, a phrase generally believed to refer to Ivanishvili.

The government has also in recent years been accused of authoritarian tendencies. In March, it tried to pass a bill penalising so-called “foreign agents” that critics said resembled a law that the Kremlin has used to crush dissent in Russia.

(Reporting by Felix Light; Editing by Kevin Liffey)