On November 4, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili sacked Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who enjoys strong backing in Washington. In response to this development, Euro-Atlantic Integration Minister Aleksi Petriashvili vowed to step down the same day, and Foreign Minister Maia Pandjikidze resigned on November 5 (Civil Georgia, November 4, 5). Both ministers were from Alasania’s Party of Free Democrats, which is a member of the ruling Georgia Dream coalition created by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Alasania’s sacking was carried out in response to an alleged corruption related scandal in the Ministry of Defense, which resulted in the arrest of five high-ranking officials. Alasania claimed that the government attacked his ministry to discredit him and prevent Georgia’s admission into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (interpressnews.ge, November 5).
Alasania’s dismissal marks an important development in Georgia’s relations with its Western partners. The president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Alexander Rondeli, told Jamestown that Alasania was partially correct and a “certain degree” of sabotaging of the pro-Western course of the country may be to blame for his sacking. However, the primary reason, in Rondeli’s opinion, was the infighting of people inside the coalition. The Georgia Dream coalition dates back to 2012, “created to resolve specific issues, and was bound to fall apart sooner or later; but it has taken a very bad shape,” Rondeli said (Author’s interview, November 5).
Understandably, a political crisis has now gripped the country. Two years remained until the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for fall 2016. But the constituent parties of the ruling coalition have expressed concerns about their future and the latest political trends, which signify the solidifying power of Ivanishvili’s people. Many suspect that the Georgian Dream party, which makes up the backbone of the Georgian Dream coalition, will reject any further alliance with its primary partners—Alasania’s Free Democrats and the Republican Party of the speaker of the parliament, David Usupashvili. Indeed, the former defense minister has already announced that his party would be quitting the coalition (Civil Georgia, November 5)
The two coalition partners demand that Georgian Dream clarify the rules of the game, signaling that they are not prepared to wait for two years to find out whether their political interests will be taken into account.
An unusually harsh statement by the Republican Party further recently conveyed this message. Its leadership declared that the country’s mounting problems can no longer be explained simply as the “negative legacy of the epoch of [former president Mikheil] Saakashvili” (republicans.ge, October 27). And the Republicans demanded that the Georgian Dream party allow its coalition partners—including the Republic Party—greater opportunity to influence government decisions and to speak out freely on political issues, independently of the opinion of the prime minister, who is simultaneously the leader of Georgian Dream. The Republicans would also like more important positions in the Cabinet. As of now, the only Republican member of the government has been Paata Zakareishvili, the state minister for reconciliation and civic equality.
The Republicans demand a “wide autonomy” within Georgian Dream, but they are clearly not yet prepared to leave the coalition completely. “[O]n their own, they [the Republican Party] are unlikely to receive many votes in the next parliamentary elections. So, their fight is a fight for greater influence within the coalition,” explained analyst Giorgi Khukhashvili, a former advisor to Bidzina Ivanishivili, (Author’s interview, October 29).
The second pro-Western party in the coalition, Irakly Alasania’s Free Democrats, was much better represented in the government. From the outset, Alasania was named minister of defense. However, due to a political conflict, in 2013, with then-prime minister Ivanishvili, he was stripped of the rank of deputy prime minister (1tv.ge, January 24, 2013). Other Free Democrat members of government were Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, Foreign Minister Maia Pandjikidze, and Aleksi Petriashvili, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration.
However, the Free Democrats party suffered other problems. The Office of the Prosecutor General arrested several high-ranking officials in Alasania’s Ministry of Defense, accusing them of conspiring with the private TV and Internet provider Silknet, which recently won a large bid for IT services from the defense ministry (Civil Georgia, October 30).
Some observers in Tbilisi think that the leadership was unhappy with many of Alasania’s recent initiatives, which often went against Prime Minister Garibashvili’s policy of trying to normalize relations with Russia. For example, after a recent meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Alasania reportedly offered to host a training camp for the Syrian opposition in Georgia (Civil Georgia, September 23), causing an outcry in Moscow (agenda.ge, October 2).
Notably, after the criminal case against officials in the defense ministry broke, the Free Democrats broke ranks with Prime Minister Garibashvili for the first time. In particular, Free Democrat parliamentarians spoke out against Garibashvili’s proposal to postpone legislation that would curtail some abilities of the Ministry of Interior to carry out wiretapping of cellular phone signals (tv25.ge, October 31). The prime minister protested that the proposed legislation “went against the fundamental interests of the security of the State” (Civil Georgia, October 30).
Such blatant internal frictions raise doubts as to whether the Georgian Dream coalition can long survive in its present form. The demise of the coalition will become inevitable if the prosecution starts interrogating the former defense minister himself. Alasania is not yet listed among the witnesses or the suspected individuals in the Silknet case.
The opposition is closely watching the processes going on inside the Georgian Dream coalition. Leaders of Saakashvili’s party, United National Movement (UNM), do not rule out the possibility of the coalition’s complete breakdown, possibly resulting in a completely new power configuration in the parliament and the country. “We will cooperate with all factions that are in favor of the pro-Western course of Georgia,” UNM deputy Sergi Ratiani told Jamestown on October 30.
If the Free Democrats and the Republicans do wholly leave the coalition, they might start cooperating with UNM on issues of foreign policy, Ukraine, further integration with NATO, and policy toward Russia. Moreover, President Giorgi Margvelashvili is also close to these political forces, given his political values and views. And he has been quite vocal about his conflicts with Prime Minister Garibashvili and Ivanishvili (see EDM, September 18).
Reacting to this political uncertainty, former president Saakashvili, who now resides in the United States, said in an interview for Rustavi-2 that he wholeheartedly supports the mass protest action scheduled to take place in Tbilisi on November 15. The protesters intend to demand upholding Georgia’s pro-Western course. Yet, he added that the pro-Western forces should not harbor hopes about changing the government through parliamentary elections, since the next elections would certainly be falsified. “Billionaire Ivanishvili abolished elections and privatized the country,” Saakashvili contended (Civil Georgia, October 26).