October – November 2014

First Political Crisis of Georgian Dream: Where is Georgia Headed

On the 4th of November Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili dismissed the Defense Minister Irakli Alasania few hours after the latter had stated that the investigation against high level officials in his ministry was politically motivated and an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The sacking triggered the resignation of entire foreign policy team, Foreign Affairs Minister Maia Panjikidze, her deputy David Zalkaliani (also a Chief negotiator at the Geneva International Discussions) and the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Alexi Petriashvili. Irakli Alasania’s party Free Democrats (FD) abandoned the coalition, which briefly raised the doubts whether the Georgian Dream would maintain the majority in the Parliament. While Georgian Dream managed to still secure the majority by integrating former United National Movement (UNM) lawmakers, saving the country’s pro-European image seems to be a harder challenge domestically as well as internationally.

"Dismissal of Mr. Alasania adds on argument that the former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili still pulls the government’s strings and runs the country’s political life."

The political crisis has very serious implications on Georgia’s political setting and democratic development. Dismissal of Mr. Alasania adds on argument that the former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili still pulls the government’s strings and runs the country’s political life. The tension between Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania was visible since 2013. Alasania lost his post of a Vice Prime Minister over his presidential ambition last year and was consistently cornered by Ivanishvili, who went as far as to even criticize his personal life.

The perception on Ivanishvili as a decision maker was strengthened in this case by Mr. Ivanishvili’s presence at the political council of the Georgian Dream, his extensive knowledge of the details of the classified criminal case and public statements of dismissed Alasania and President Giorgi Margvelashvili.

History of the confrontation between Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili boils down to the reluctance of the latter to be fully controlled by and subordinated to Ivanishvili. The President first upset Ivanishvili when he inquired whether the legislation extending the period for the in-court questioning of the witnesses could be vetoed. Later the disagreement deepened when Margvelashvili moved his residence to the Presidential Palace, built by former President Saakashvili, the idea despised by Ivanishvili. As soon as Ivanishvili made his attitude towards Margvelashvili clear, President became politically ostracized by his teammates.

There could be different reasons why Alasania was sacked, all equally troubling for the political stability and image of the country.
First reason, why Alasania was sacked could be that he was the most popular politician in Georgia, according to a recent public opinion poll, more popular than Ivanishvili’s protégé PM Gharibashvili. This misbalance in popularity could have potentially upset the balance in the Cabinet, especially in the run-up to the 2016 elections.

"It becomes quite clear that the prosecutor’s office is as political as ever and prosecution is used against the political opponents, now even the coalition partners."

Second reason for the attack on Alasania is what Free Democrats claimed was the case – deliberate attack on Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration path. This claim is backed up by a very strange coincidence of facts. In 2012 chief of joint staff was arrested at the eve of the visit of the NATO Military Committee. In 2013 a number of Tbilisi Sakrebulo members were arrested during the visit of the North Atlantic Council (NAC). In 2014 charges were pressed against Saakashvili in the run-up to the high level visits and important decisions on the future of NATO-Georgia relations. Now, Alasania was attacked as he was traveling to Germany and France, inter alia, discussing the possibility of enhanced defense capabilities.

In any case, whatever the reasons behind Alasania’s sacking three things are clear.

1. Prosecution is used for political purposes by the Government. Prosecutor’s actions coincided with the plans of Alasania to retake the chairmanship of the Free Democrats’ Party; the arrests were conducted when the Minister was not in Georgia; several criminal cases were simultaneously publicized, including the cases from 2013; arrested MoD officials were put in the pre-trial detention despite the commitment of the Ministry to fully cooperate with the prosecution. If you add these facts to the clear evidence that Prosecutor’s office has been constantly used against the UNM leadership, it becomes quite clear that the prosecutor’s office is as political as ever and prosecution is used against the political opponents, now even the coalition partners.

2. Georgia’s foreign and security policy, as well as the NATO related reforms are in shackles. The crisis has seriously undermined Georgia’s foreign and security policy. Most European minded political team is out of the coalition. MoD’s independence from political issues is seriously in jeopardy, as all deputy ministers were sacked by the PM. Transparency of defense procurements are seriously questioned because of the investigation. Independence of the general staff is also questioned, as J6 head is arrested and whether the current head of the joint staff will stay (he was a close ally of Alasania) remains unclear. The team, which was implementing the NATO reforms has left, or is leaving the Ministry of Defense. In other words, the damage is significant, if not irreparable.

"The crisis has seriously undermined Georgia’s foreign and security policy."

3. Georgian Dream coalition is falling apart, however still maintaining majority. The impact of the political crisis on the political landscape is yet unclear, but the worrying signs of future constitutional crisis have emerged. Free Democrats will still have to prove their ability to transform into an independent and efficient political party given the financial restraints and highly probable pressure from the government through the prosecution. Another pro-Western group in the coalition – Republican party – though did not abandon the coalition publicly showed dissatisfaction with the Government’s actions. As a sign of support the speaker of the Parliament, Davit Usupashvili (republican) addressed the Free Democrats’ convention sending a strong signal for future cooperation. It is possible that another political shakeup could create the basis for the consolidation of the pro-Western parties in the opposition. While at this stage cooperation among the Free Democrats, Republicans and the United National Movement is highly unlikely due to extremely high polarization and personal problems among the leaders of the parties, future partnership cannot be excluded in a certain political setup, as the political crises reoccur and coalition shows further signs of deterioration. In such a hypothetical set-up the role and aptitude of President Margvelashvili may be instrumental for country’s stability.

4. Informal management of political life is now an uncovered reality. Bidzina Ivanishvili is a de facto head of state and a main decision maker on most important issues. This was not a secret before either, but now it is blatant and the facts are undisputed. This poses a serious challenge for democracy in Georgia. Extra-institutional management is not a luxury a newly independent country with already fragile institutions can afford.

One way or another, November 2014 political crisis produced a new political reality that all actors have to take into account. Political parties will now seek new allies, Government will spare no effort to maintain the coalition and isolate those Cabinet members, who cannot be fully trusted. President will continue to play an increasing role.

Is Abkhazia Following Crimea? The Need for Anti-annexation Strategy

On October 13, 2014 the Russian Federation sent to Abkhazia, occupied region of Georgia a so-called Agreement on Alliance and Integration.

Proposal of this agreement did not come as a surprise, for the groundwork had been in process for several months since Russia orchestrated the rise of a career KGB officer, a pro-Russian Raul Khajimba to the post of the “President of Abkhazia”. During the political crisis as a result of which a former de facto President Ankvab was removed, Khajimba has been actively demanding a closer association with the Russian Federation (see GRASS Brief September 2014, Abkhazia, Georgia: An unnoticed Crisis).
Taking in view the geopolitical context of Russia’s aggressive policy in the region, particularly the annexation of Crimea, the released draft treaty, in our opinion, is a step towards the eventual annexation of a currently occupied Abkhazia. Similar alarming signs are coming from another occupied region of Georgia – Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, which has been demanding integration into North Ossetia for quite a while now.

The draft implies security and defense, as well as social policy amalgamation with the Russian Federation. More specifically the treaty stipulates the creation of a joint military force, which in times of crises will be commanded by Russian military; tighter control of Abkhaz law enforcement through a joint Coordination Center; full “harmonization” of budgetary and tax legislations; full control of Abkhaz borders by Russia, compliance of the customs regulations with the Russian and Eurasian Customs Union requirements. Further on, the agreement envisages abolishing the so-called Russian-Abkhaz border while boosting a military presence at the so-called “Abkhaz-Georgia” border and axing five of six checkpoints at the so-called “Georgia-Abkhaz” border.

"This agreement crystallized the new phase in Georgia-Russia relations as the efforts of undermining Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been upgraded by Russia to a qualitatively new level."

This Kremlin proposal caused major discontent among Abkhaz de facto government and people in Sukhumi interpreting the draft text as an attempt to rip off their individuality and a threat to “sovereignty”. In their response to the Russian proposal, Abkhazia introduced a set of eloquent amendments, which first and foremost offered bringing legislations closer, instead of complete synchronization with Russian legislations. Abkhazia have rejected the idea of the simplified process of citizenship for Russian nationals. Instead of giving control, Abkhazs offered to train local military and raising defense capacity while strengthening local ownership. Last but not least, a particular emphasis has been laid on the commitment of respecting “sovereignty and territorial integrity” taken under the so-called 2008 agreement between the occupied Abkhazia and Russia and the term “integration” is substituted with “strategic partnership”.

The introduced changes reveal Abkhaz discontent and vigilance towards loosing self-identity and “sovereignty”.

Reaction of the Georgian side and international community to the agreement was quite vocal, statements coming from the highest Government authorities publicly as well as in the OSCE. The response, however, created the impression that it was targeted at the proposed treaty and missed the wider picture, that of ongoing process of gradual annexation. We believe that this agreement crystallized the new phase in Georgia-Russia relations as the efforts of undermining Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been upgraded by Russia to a qualitatively new level.

The ongoing process fits the context of Russia’s persistent steps to derail Georgia from its European and Euro-Atlantic Integration track and flesh its Eurasian Union project by dragging Georgia’s occupied regions into it. The calculation is rather easy – with the territorial problems with Russia, neither EU, nor NATO will accept Georgia’s integration. Therefore, annexation could effectively mean the end of Tbilisi’s European vocation. Moreover with coherent and targeted moves, Kremlin continues to efficiently weaken international law. The agreement also comes handy to muddle the confidence-building between Georgian and Abkhaz population and profoundly complicates any attempt to solve even the most depoliticized and humanitarian issues.

"Facing the reinvigorated threats, the government should launch a coordinated, focused and coherent set of actions, which will be included in the anti-annexation strategy."

These recent steps by the Russian Federation clearly elucidate the strategy of annexation, which needs to be met with the counter-strategy of anti-annexation by Georgia and international community. This strategy should be complementary to the already existing non-recognition and anti-occupation policies and should aim at countering the whole annexation process rather than simply stopping the agreement or responding to other isolated cases.

Facing the reinvigorated threats, the government should launch a coordinated, focused and coherent set of actions, which could include, but not necessarily be limited to the following:

  • Reassessing the relationship with Russia with the view of limiting Georgia’s economic, energy and political dependence on Russia;
  • Preparing legal and political grounds to raise a case against Russia in international courts, such as ICJ and ECHR;
  • Working with partners in a coordinated, focused and active manner in order to ensure sanctions against RF to prevent or punish annexation;
  • Enacting dispute resolution mechanisms within the WTO. This however requires launching in practice the Agreement “on the basic principles for a Mechanism of customs administration and monitoring of trade in goods” signed by Georgia and Russia in 2011, the implementation of which has been unduly delayed for two years;
  • Using multilateral political, diplomatic, humanitarian and other tools within the international organizations to increase the pressue on Russia to reverse the course of annexation;
  • Revising the strategic documents related to the security and defense systems, such as the Foreign Policy Strategy, National Security Concept, Threats Assessment document, etc.;
  • Intensifying work with international media in order to raise public awareness on the threat of annexation in the country and among the international partners;
  • Developing new realistic status-neutral initiatives towards the population and authorities of Tskhinvali and Abkhazia regions, with particular focus on status neutral approach.

Ignoring the given development as “just another unfriendly act” will only accelerate the process of annexation from Moscow and create new dangers for Georgia and Eastern Europe. By continuing to unilaterally change borders in Europe, Russia dangerously amends international law and challenges the post-cold war order. If this is allowed, set of larger disruptive security challenges will await Europe.

Georgia Tightens Visa Regulations

On September 1, 2014 the government of Georgia adopted a new law on “the legal status of the foreigners and the stateless people in Georgia”, changing the simplified visa regime, exercised from 2012 to 2014 that had contributed to the increased number of foreign visitors in the country and establishment of investment friendly environment. It also created favorable environment for foreign students to pursue their studies in Georgia, the number of which had increased on annual basis.

The new law requires foreigners to apply for the visa in a diplomatic mission and consular department of Georgia, instead of the previously exercised simplified procedures of visa issuance at the border, If Georgia doesn’t have diplomatic mission and a consular in the home country, a foreigner has to address the consulate in the nearest country for the VISA application. Moreover, a number of Visa-free regime countries have been reduced from 118 to 94. Georgia has visa regime with 29 countries, in 23 of which it doesn’t have the diplomatic mission and consular offices. The law also affected the duration of stay for foreigners in Georgia limiting it to 90 days out of 180 instead of 365, including for the citizens of the EU member states.

visa001

The introduction of stricter regulations of entry has caused widespread public discussions in Georgia and revealed number of complications for tourists, temporary residents, foreign businessmen and international students, including for the citizens of the EU member states.

One of the justifications voiced by the Government relates to the harmonization of the Georgian migration legislation with the EU regulations. Overall, for a country, which is in the process of implementing EU Association Agreement and aspiring to eventually join the EU, this is a valid argument. Though, there is no formal EU requirement for Georgia to apply Schengen type regulations to its migration policy. Moreover, the EU gives freedom to determine own migration policy to the states based on their economic, security and other interests. Considering that Georgia is in the visa liberalization process with the EU, which is based on the principle of reciprocity the decision to worsen conditions for the EU member states citizens, through limitation of the time of their stay in Georgia, is further questionable. There is also a mismatch in the lists of the countries with visa requirement of the Council Regulation (EC) 539/2001.

visa002The next question would be how the changes correlate to Georgia’s economic interests. For Georgia tourist inflow represents one of the key declared economic goals. At the same time since Georgia is still in the process of establishment as a tourist destination, among other measures trough openness and simplified visa regulations. The enactment of the law may have negative effect on attracting foreign visitors as it reduces motivation to come. Since only 23 of 29 visa regime countries host consular representations of Georgia and visa no longer can be obtained at the border, we can assume that less will be willing to take costs and invest additional resources into traveling to another country in order to obtain visa and visit Georgiavisa003

The drop of Iraqi visitors constitutes a good example of negative implication caused by the new law. The law caused termination of increasing number of flights from Iraq to Georgia 16 flights a week. It’s rather difficult to grasp the rationale on introduction of visa regime with Iraq being among a top 10 largest tourist origin country.

There has been no evidence of criminal activities, illegal migrant transition or any other data implying security threats proposed by the government.

The new law also affected international students and employees who are required to leave the country and reapply for visa with the new regulations. In many cases they had to suspend their activities and suffer additional costs. The law didn’t envisage transitional period or exemptions for foreigners residing in Georgia which caused major outburst of dissatisfaction and forced government to start working on adjustments.

The new law is one of the demonstrations of political decisions taken without a comprehensive vision, coherent goals, clear calculations and impact analysis.