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Georgia’s Garibashvili becomes Europe’s youngest government chief

by Max Delany

AFP-JIJI

Georgia’s new Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who was on Wednesday confirmed as the youngest current head of government in Europe, is a Paris-educated protege of his mentor and predecessor, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

After his confirmation by parliament, Garibashvili, 31, will replace Ivanishvili once President Giorgi Margvelashvili — another Ivanishvili loyalist — has officially ratified the decision.

Garibashvili — a political nobody until Ivanishvili named him interior minister in October 2012 — has spent almost his entire decade-long working life employed by the enigmatic tycoon, who calls him his “beloved boy.”

The dapper graduate in international relations from the Sorbonne University in Paris has headed Ivanishvili’s charitable foundation and worked at his bank as well as run his rap-star son’s record label.

Now his close ties to Ivanishvili — Georgia’s richest man, with a fortune of $5.3 billion, according to Forbes — see Garibashvili catapulted into what has become the Caucasus nation’s most powerful job since constitutional changes shifted a raft of key powers from the president to the prime minister last week.

Opponents have ridiculed his meteoric rise, criticizing Garibashvili for a lack of experience and describing him as pawn that Ivanishvili will control from behind the scenes.

But Ivanishvili — who claims he has no intention of ruling from the shadows — has praised Garibashvili as a “good manager” whose talents he first noticed when Garibashvili helped him negotiate the purchase of his first private helicopter from a French firm.

“The French company that sold me the helicopter was asking me who is this man … and where he learned to bargain so well,” Ivanishvili said when he presented Garibashvili as his successor.

For his part, Garibashvili has said he will “always be open to advice” from Ivanishvili and has pledged to carry on his superrich predecessor’s policies.

That will see him push on with Georgia’s attempts to join NATO and the European Union while trying to improve ties with Russia, which were left shattered by a brief 2008 war between the two countries.

At home he has pledged to bolster Georgia’s flagging economy but will face a tough time trying to tackle high unemployment rates.

In an eventful year as interior minister, Garibashvili oversaw the arrests of several top allies of Ivanishvili’s archfoe, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, that sparked fears of selective justice among Tbilisi’s Western backers.

Garibashvili rejected the claims of a witch hunt and said that he was spearheading attempts to “de-politicize” Georgia’s security agencies after accusations that Saakashvili’s government — which he has denounced as “neo-fascist” — used them to pressure his opponents.

As part of that drive, Garibashvili in September publicly shredded some 100 DVDs that allegedly included sex tapes of prominent figures recorded by the previous government for blackmail purposes.

Garibashvili will be working with new president — a former academic — after he cruised to victory at presidential polls last month.

Able to speak French, English and Russian according to his official autobiography, Garibashvili reportedly worked as a waiter in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne.

Although Garibashvili is Georgia’s youngest-ever premier, the mountainous republic is no stranger to youthful leaders after Saakashvili claimed the presidency in 2004 at the age of just 36.

Garibashvili — a married father of two — will not be the youngest person around the Cabinet table after he nominated 28-year-old former policeman Alexander Tchikaidze to replace him as interior minister.

The youngest European premier in recent history is Albania’s Pandeli Majko, who became prime minister in 1998 at age 30. He is, however, comfortably beaten to the crown of youngest ever by Britain’s William Pitt, who became prime minister in 1783 at the age of just 24.