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.
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.
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.
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.