Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
Never a dull day in Georgian politics of late. When Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s much-loved defence minister, was dismissed on November 5, commentators called it a turning point and the first major political crisis of the governing Georgian Dream coalition. But by November 10, subsequent events had left the coalition stronger, not weaker.
Georgia’s politics are often about drama, and the rhetoric surrounding Alasania’s departure appeared well grounded: two other ministers – Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze and Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Alexi Petriashvili – resigned in protest at his dismissal, and Alasania’s Free Democrats party left the coalition, taking with it Georgian Dream’s 83-seat parliamentary majority. Alasania’s dismissal followed his reaction to two separate investigations into staff at his ministry, which he branded an “attack” on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Following suit, Petriashvili warned of an impending “dictatorship,” while Panjikidze hoped her resignation would clarify “the nature of the hazards faced by our country.”
Irakli Graibashvili, the prime minister, came out fighting. Rejecting the charges, he warned that Alasania’s “completely irresponsible, absurd” comments are “damaging the country” and slammed him as “traitor,” an “adventurer, stupid and ambitious.”
Yet it is unclear how far the rhetoric matches reality. The timing was indeed unfortunate. Georgia is deep into negotiations over the implementation of pledges made at the Nato summit in Wales in September. Alasania is extremely popular both in Georgia and with the country’s Western allies, and had invested far more time than most of his predecessors in building relationships abroad. A survey carried out by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in August gave him a 60% approval rating, while the PM lagged behind at 54%. Georgian social media had been buzzing over the rivalry: a portrait of Garibashvili as the evil queen in Snowwhite with the caption “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has higher ratings than me?” went viral on the web.
However, some of the government’s most pro-Western politicians chose not to follow Alasania into opposition. Tea Tsulukiani, the justice minister who is also affiliated with the Free Democrats, said on November 5: “I have… no reason whatsoever to think that our government is not pro-European.” The next day, Davit Usupashvili, the parliamentary speaker, called Alasania's allegations “groundless.”
And in the end, the Georgian Dream government looks even stronger than it did before, because 12 independent MPs that had once belonged to the opposition United National Movement jumped on the government ship on November 10, giving it an increased majority of 87 seats.
Kakha Gogolashvili, director of EU Studies at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, explains that both Alasania and the Free Democrats were incompatible with the Georgian Dream coalition. “They are independently-minded, not [accustomed] to be dominated,” he says. “The split just happened sooner than expected, and it was an explosion rather than a gradual and step-by-step distancing as it should be in a democratic process.”
The rift began soon after the October 2012 elections won by Georgian Dream. Alasania was once a deputy prime minister until Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and Georgia’s wealthiest man, demoted him in January 2013 over his alleged presidential ambitions. Yet Ivanishvili, who founded the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012, appeared to turn peacemaker, publicly rebuking Garibashvili for his bombast and meeting Alasania twice.
Ivanishvili’s role as “Grey Cardinal” in the whole drama “does raise questions about who are calling the shots in government and whether they represent voters' preferences,” says Michael Cecire, the Black Sea region analyst at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “One way to think of Ivanishvili's role, and perhaps one he sees in himself, is as the [Georgian Dream] ‘venture capitalist’ – the wealthy broker with a tendency to sometimes intervene for certain ends.”
Performing behind the scene is dangerous in any democracy, warns Sergi Kapanadze, a former deputy minister under the Saakashvili administration and co-founder of Georgia’s Reforms Associates, (GRASS), a Tbilisi-based think-tank that is generally critical of the government. “Democracy follows other rules – if decisions are taken behind the scene, who is to be accountable?” he asks.
An uncertain future
How Alasania and his colleagues will handle being in opposition remains to be seen. Ivanishvili expressed his hope that they would form a “constructive” opposition, in contrast to the attitude he detects amongst the main opposition United National Movement, which governed Georgia for over a decade under former president Mikhail Saakashvili. Nor do events necessarily play into the UNM’s hands, as Alasania has already said he does not intend to join forces with them in opposition.
Yet even though the government constitutional majority has increased in parliament, these recent fireworks have done little to strengthen Georgia's rather battered international reputation. This was already under scrutiny amidst repeated expressions of concern by the US and EU over the use of the public prosecutor’s office for political ends. Recent events have only strengthened that perception.
Doubts about the government’s competence in the business sphere are also emerging. “The executive is very prolific in passing bills which please either the right or the left present in the coalition,” says Lebanese-born Fady Asly, chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in Georgia, who is been investing in Georgia since the late 1990s. “This shows a lack of long-term vision. The last couple of years, the business environment has worsened, laws are investors-unfriendly as the new immigration bill has showed.”
The Free Democrats’ departure may underline this. “If rumours are to be believed and Alasania was pushed out for his independence, then it is certainly concerning and speaks to the premium the government places on loyalty even over ability,” argues Michael Cecire.
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