By Erik Davtyan (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 17, Armenia’s Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan paid a working visit to Batumi, Georgia and met his counterpart Irakli Gharibashvili. The interlocutors discussed the current level of bilateral relations, as well as issues of future economic cooperation. Georgia’s PM also met with Armenia’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Gagik Beglaryan, and the Chair of the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs of Armenia’s National Assembly, Vardan Ayvazyan. The one-day visit was of strategic importance for the future of Armenian-Georgian relations due to a recent diplomatic scandal that engaged the two neighboring countries.
On May 3, the Speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly, Galust Sahakyan, met with Anatoliy Bibilov, the Chairman of South Ossetia’s Parliament who arrived in Stepanakert to attend the parliamentary elections in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) as the head of South Ossetia’s observing group. Though the Armenian authorities emphasized that the meeting had a private, rather than political character, high Georgian officials expressed strong reservations against it. Georgia’s ambassador to Armenia Tengiz Sharmanashvili conveyed this message to Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Manasaryan, who confirmed Armenia’s support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Moreover, Armenia’s ambassador to Georgia Yuri Vardanyan was summoned to Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 4. Deputy Foreign Minister Gigi Gigiadze noted that the Sahakyan-Bibilov meeting was detrimental to the friendly relationship between Georgia and Armenia. Gigiadze said that Georgia “does not accept any kind of meeting between officials of an allied republic and the occupation administration.” In turn, Prime Minister Abrahamyan called his colleague and reaffirmed Armenia’s recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity. At a joint session of some standing committees of Georgia’s Parliament, Georgia’s Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili expressed her firm belief that the Sahakyan-Bibilov meeting must have been organized by “forces that have serious and far-reaching plans.”
Simultaneously, on May 4 Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement, according to which the ministry “reaffirms its support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and does not recognize the so-called ‘Parliamentary Elections’ held in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Although Georgia, along with other states traditionally does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, this statement was a unique response to Sahakyan’s meeting with a high representative of Georgia’s breakaway region. Generally, Armenia’s political parties have not criticized Sahakyan for his informal ties with Bibilov. Moreover, the head of the Heritage Faction, Rubik Hakobyan, stated that Georgia’s reluctance to recognize the elections in Stepanakert and its support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity indicates that Armenia should adjust its position towards Georgia to resemble that of Georgian authorities.
However, Prime Minister Abrahamyan’s short visit to Batumi and the outcomes of the diplomatic negotiations clearly show that the two governments have quickly overcome the tensions caused by the meeting. Armenia and Georgia are currently developing their relations especially in the energy field, and the visit of the Minister of Transport and Communications served to further enhance bilateral cooperation. In December 2014, Minister Beglaryan and Georgia’s Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili signed an agreement on the construction of a new border bridge, the Friendship Bridge, which will bolster bilateral commercial ties.
The two states are also planning to build a fourth high-voltage transmission line connecting their power grids. This estimated US$ 105 million project is projected to enhance mutual electricity supplies. Similarly, trade turnover between Armenia and Georgia is increasing. In 2014, Armenian foreign direct investments (FDI) in Georgia grew by 139 percent, compared to 2013.
Experts believe that Abrahamyan’s recent working visit signaled continuity in cordial relations and high level cooperation between Georgia and Armenia. Johnny Melikian, an expert on Georgian studies, stressed that “this visit was a message to all states that thought there was serious crisis between the two countries.” The expert explained that these kind of incidents always take place in interstate relations, but this one could not affect Georgia-Armenia relations for the worse.
During the working visit, the Prime Ministers agreed to hold the next meeting in Javakheti in order to discuss the problems that exist in the region.
By Eka Janashia (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 8, Georgia’s parliament approved the reshuffled government with 87 against 38 votes. It was the third set of changes impacting the cabinet composition since the breakup of the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition in the fall of 2014.
On November 5, 2014, one of the founding members – Our Georgia-Free Democrats (OGFD) party – left the coalition. The party’s leader and then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, along with the OGFD Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Euro-Atlantic Integration, lost their posts instigating subsequent changes in the lineup of the cabinet (see the 11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Shortly thereafter, another regrouping affecting senior and mid-level government officials as well as the GD leadership, took place allegedly due to former Prime Minister and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s loss of confidence in his protégé PM Irakli Gharibashvili. The PM’s trustees – the Minister of Interior, GD’s Executive Secretary, the heads of the Special State Protection and State Security Services, and the Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure (MRDI) were replaced by Ivanishvili’s cadres. On April 21, the Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure, Davit Shavliashvili, left the post reportedly for health reasons and was substituted by his Deputy Minister, Ivanishvili’s close associate Nodar Javakhishvili (see the 01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst).
A week later, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection, Elguja Khokrishvili and the Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs Levan Kipiani also resigned. Republican MP Gigla Agulashvili, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture and Tariel Khechikashvili, co-owner of one of Georgia’s largest auto traders Iberia Business Group, were respectively named for the ministers’ posts.
What came as a surprise was the nomination of the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration, Republican Tina Khidasheli as Minister of Defense. Although Khidasheli allegedly has long been at odds with Gharibashvili, she replaces the PM’s confidant Mindia Janelidze on the post.
Through these alterations, the government lost a third of its members and according to Georgia’s constitution, the new cabinet initially needs the president’s signature and then a confidence vote in parliament. The president is not entitled to block or reject ministerial nominees but on May 1, President Giorgi Margvelashvili used another constitutional lever and delayed the signing and submission of the new cabinet nomination to parliament to the end of the statutory seven-day period.
“As the commander-in-chief, I want to ask a question: how frequently should we replace Defense Ministers?” Margvelashvili said and suggested that the PM and parliament to go through the proposed composition of government members once more. As an immediate response, Gharibashvili defiantly issued decrees of the appointment of nominated ministers. On May 8, the reshuffled cabinet won a confidence vote in the parliament.
The parliament approved a renewed cabinet in late July 2014 and after less than year, the government again needs to restore its mandate through the legislative body. While that reshuffle carried a much more cosmetic character, the regrouping conducted since November 2014 is indicative of the internal contradictions that GD has undergone after OGFD’s exit.
Several factors have contributed to undermining GD. Since fall 2014, Georgia’s national currency, the Lari (GEL) has devaluated, dampening the overall social and economic climate in the country. A considerable share of the electorate has withdrawn its support for GD for this reason. The GEL crisis was coupled with two important events: OGFD’s exit from the coalition and Ivanishvili’s endeavor to introduce new confidantes in the government, allegedly due to his changing attitude towards the once favored Gharibashvili.
OGFD leader Alasania has publicly accused Ivanishvili of departing from Georgia’s pro-western course and thwarting a crucially important defense deal with France, likely as an effect of Russia’s objection to it (see the 04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst).
The coalition was forced to reject Alasania’s accusations and bring to the front the Republican Party (RP), which is aside from OGFD GD’s other founding member with a pro-western reputation. RP holds six out of 87 GD mandates in parliament. Despite its small number of seats in the legislative body, the party after the recent reshuffle enjoys three ministerial portfolios – Environment, Defense and Reintegration. Moreover, Defense Minister Khidasheli is the spouse of Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili.
Through the move, GD hopes to appease Georgia’s western partners and simultaneously mollify the electorate supporting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Ivanishvili’s need to retrench Gharibashvili’s clout has in fact provided RP with an opportunity to increase its sway in the government. Given RP’s partnership and ideological closeness with OGFD, it has previously been speculated that the two parties could unite in opposition. In this scenario, RP and OGFD would form a new coalition at the detriment of GD but at this stage, RP’s leaders have chosen a different course of action.
The recent government reshuffle is part of a continuous internal redistribution of power within the ruling coalition, rather than an attempt to empower the executive team to deal with the collapsing economy.
By Eka Janashia (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In April 2015, youths from the Pankisi gorge a territory in Georgia’s north-east adjoining Russia, left for Syria as a result of the recruitment by the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) of Georgian citizens.
Pankisi’s rugged terrain is mostly populated by the descendants of ethnic Chechens settled there in the 18th, and later in the 20th, centuries during the Russia-Chechnya wars, and are referred to as Kists. They compose 75 percent of the 11,000 people settled in the valley.
Despite their considerable cultural confluence with Georgians, Kists largely maintain a Muslim confession, having practiced Sufi Islam traditions for centuries. Yet more recently, radical Salafi Islam, also termed Wahhabism, has become increasingly popularity and attracted a growing number of followers among the young generation, gradually supplanting Sufi clout in the gorge.
Religious radicalization in the gorge seems to present a looming menace for the economically weak and insecure Georgia. The exact number of Kists fighting for ISIS is unknown, but could according to some estimates amount to around 100 warriors. Some Kist fighters appear to have been successful in combat operations and achieved leading military positions in the ISIS army. For example, Georgian citizen Umar Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ISIS military emir in Syria from Pankisi, and was added to the U.S. list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2014.
On April 2, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili left their native Pankisi without their parents’ permission. Bagakashvili’s mother was told by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) that her son had taken a flight from Tbilisi airport to Turkey. Bagakashvili verified this information via a message he sent to his family.
Kushtanashvili’s grandmother reported that before his disappearance, the teen had been attending a Wahhabi mosque despite his father’s objection. Although Georgia and Turkey exercise passport-free border-crossing rules, it is unclear how the underage Kushtanashvili was allowed to cross the border without his parents’ consent. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri pledged to investigate the case and punish the responsible.
Meanwhile, Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili sent a photo to their families, apparently taken in Syria, where the teens are sitting behind an ISIS flag, dressed in military fatigues and holding machine guns.
On April 20, the 19-year-old Pankisi resident George Borchashvili reported that unknown Chechens had threatened him with decapitation unless he went to Syria. Borchashvili applied to the police for help.
Local Kists claim that a specific group of radical Muslim recruiters is targeting young civilians in Pankisi for recruitment to IS combat, most likely in Syria, and call on the government to tighten border control.
Aside from the Pankisi gorge, cases of recruitment have been reported in the Kvemo Kartli (Borchali) region, bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, bordering Turkey. Although Muslims compose around 10 percent of Georgia’s population, some Adjarian villages have a Muslim population of over 90 percent. Because these villages are situated along state borders, radicalization can have dire implications for national security.
The ISIS presence in Pankisi is critical in this perspective. The valley edges Russia’s restless North Caucasus, which has made it an easy target and alternative route for Chechen rebels. While Pankisi is unlikely to become a central node of ISIS’ Caucasus network, Russia has historically displayed it as a “hotbed” of Islamist militants. In the early 2000s, Moscow dubbed Pankisi a shelter for Al-Qaeda and has since vigorously sought to place the valley in the media spotlight, diverting attention from North Caucasus where radical Islam has made a much larger imprint. Such accusations potentially provide the Kremlin with another justification for military interference in Georgia’s territory. Whereas this threat is specific for Georgia, ISIS activities on Georgian territory also implies general risks that are familiar to other countries experiencing similar recruitment.
In an attempt to address these risks in January 2015, the Georgian government initiated a package of legislative amendments criminalizing the participation of Georgian citizens in illegal armed formations abroad, their travel overseas for the purpose of terrorism, as well as the promotion of such activities. The bill has yet to be approved by the parliament, and even after it enters into force, it will be difficult to detect militants covertly engaged in terrorist combat operations abroad.
The move is an important measure, but remains a minor step towards addressing the growing threat of radicalization.
The government seems incapable of either strengthening control in villages targeted by ISIS or articulate an integration policy for the Muslim population compactly settled in remote areas. While economic development in border regions should be an urgent question, the problem must also be addressed at a deeper, societal level. The failure of developed European countries to prevent the departure of youth to Syria suggests that the most important reason for the radicalization of local Muslims is their alienation from the rest of society. Without addressing this question, Tbilisi will hardly be able to prevent radicalization and recruitment among Georgia’s Muslims.
In addition, some analysts point out Georgia’s need to pursue strategic dialogue with partner countries to share their experience in fighting IS and to make the country’s participation in the anti-IS coalition more visible.
By Eka Janashia (04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 3, former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania claimed that Georgia’s government thwarted a crucially important defense deal with France likely due to Russia’s objection to Georgia’s enhanced defensive capabilities.
According to Alasania, French President François Hollande agreed during his visit to Tbilisi last year to sell air defense capabilities to Georgia. The move marked the end of an arms embargo informally imposed against Georgia after the 2008 August war as western partners hesitated to sell defensive weapons to the country.
The government worked out subsequent proposals and tasked Alasania with striking an initial deal – a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) – with the French side. He arrived in Paris in late October, but was just before the signing of the document deprived of his mandate to do so. Alasania asserts that Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili decided to prevent the deal under pressure from the Kremlin.
The MoU envisaged the conclusion of a final agreement at the end of March, which would aim to reinforce Georgia’s air defense system and shield the country from attacks of fighter aircraft and even short and medium-range ballistic missiles. The deal also foresaw specific training to familiarize the Georgian servicemen with the system. Importantly, the deal would be paid for through a long-term loan, which would not have been painfully reflected in the state budged, the former minister said.
As Alasania refused to comply with the “illegal instruction,” of the “informal ruler [Ivanishvili],” the ministry’s general staff officials were arrested to raise the pressure on him. Nevertheless, Alasania signed the document in order not to lose the chance that “opened up for Georgia after many years of embargo.”
Shortly thereafter, he was sacked from the post of Defense Minister and his Our Georgia-Free Democrats (OGFD) party left the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition. Yet Alasania has not disclosed the MoU-related sensitive details until now (see the 11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).
The government made efforts to reject Alasania’s allegations. On the same day, PM Irakli Gharibashvili indicted him for exposing state secrets and the Ministry of Defense released an interview with the French ambassador saying that discussions on military cooperation between Georgia and France military, which started last year, were still underway.
However, it remains a fact that the final agreement, allegedly envisaged in the MoU, was not signed at the end of March, 2015. OGFD requests the formation of an ad hoc parliamentary commission with access to classified information to cast light on the issue and confirm or deny the assertions that Alasania made on April 3.
It seems that Alasania has been awaiting the government’s failure to meet the deadline to raise the matter. However, there could be another reason why he raised the criticism at this time.
On April 1, the U.S. NGO International Republican Institute (IRI) published the results of public opinion research conducted throughout Georgia on February 3-28, 2015. The survey mapped the foreign and domestic policy preferences as well as the ratings of political parties and their leaders.
A clear trend unveiled by the polls is the waning popularity of GD. In local elections held in June 2014, the coalition garnered just over 50 percent of the votes, while according to IRI research, the likely number of GD voters has dropped to 36 percent. It is followed by United National Movement (UNM) with 14 percent, OGFD with 10 percent, Labor Party with 6 percent, Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and Democratic Movement–United Georgia with 5 percent each. Alasania’s favorability rating is 57 percent, with a disapproval rating at 34 percent, while the corresponding figures for PM Gharibashvili are 56/39 percent respectively. Alasania is the most favored candidate among the opposition leaders.
In terms of foreign policy priorities, the poll showed that Georgians strongly support their country’s integration with Euro-Atlantic structures. 85 percent of the respondents favor Georgia’s membership in the EU and 78 percent support its accession to NATO. 76 percent of Georgians deem the Russian Federation as a threat to the country while 88 percent think Russian aggression toward Georgia is ongoing or likely to resume.
Another striking trend disclosed by the survey is the apathy and skepticism that has been growing among the population since 2014. People are less optimistic about the future than a year ago. 55 percent of the respondents think Georgia is on the wrong track, and only 25 percent approve the country’s current trajectory.
Although GD, as well as some experts and politicians, expressed skepticism regarding the polls, it might be a mistake to ignore the overall context that the survey has outlined. What is a warning for the ruling coalition might be an opportunity for the opposition parties. Talking about the air defense affair, while most Georgians fear continued Russian aggression, is beneficial to Alasania and OGFD. This shift in opinion is also reflected in the declining support for GD and the growing popularity of Alasania.
By Eka Janashia (04/01/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The struggle for power between the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition and opposition parties, as well as within GD itself, is gradually gaining impetus at all levels of governance against the background of a slowing economy and corruption cases.
At the end of 2014, the coalition underwent serious changes affecting senior and mid-level government officials, as well as the cadre of the party’s leadership. The alterations were allegedly due to Georgia’s “Grey Cardinal” Bidzina Ivanishvili’s loss of confidence in his protégé PM Irakli Gharibashvili, and an ensuing attempt to replace the PM’s trustees with those of Ivanishvili at tactically important positions, including the GD’s Executive Secretary, the Minister of Internal Affairs, the heads of the Special State Protection and State Security Services, and the Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure. The latter post was taken by the billionaires’ close associate and former head of his Cartu Bank, Nodar Javakhishvili.
Javakhishvili recently confronted his boss, Minister David Shavliashvili, over the failure to deal with disorders in road tenders and financial fraud schemes. While opposition parties have frequently pointed out the corruptive involvement of Gharibashvili’s cronies in state tenders, the indictment aired by the deputy minister cast the case in a different light and could be perceived as another attack on the PM.
This trend is coupled with GD’s loss of majority in a regional legislative body – the Supreme Council (SC) of Adjara Autonomous Republic. Since the October 2012 parliamentary elections, GD has held 13 seats versus the opposition United National Movement’s (UNM) 8 in the 21-member SC. In November 2014, the GD lost two seats in the SC after the Free Democrats’ (FD) departure from the coalition, leaving GD with 11 seats – still sufficient to override the oppositions’ votes. However, in February, the chairperson of the SC’s human rights committee, Medea Vasadze, quit and deprived the coalition of a clear majority.
Moreover, on February 20, two GD members supported the UNM’s initiative to sack the SC’s vice speaker Davit Batsikadze and the chairperson of its financial and economic committee Alexandre Chitishvili, both GD members.
The proponents of the initiative accused the officials of failure to carry out their duties. In turn, GD accused UNM of “revanchism” and termed the support from its own members for the proposal a “traitorous action.” PM Gharibashvili said the two SC members had been covertly cooperating with UNM and the move would be rebounded “very strictly.”
While GD has failed to keep a steady majority in Adjara, it has locally become involved in scandalous corruption cases. In February, the head of Tbilisi City Hall’s supervision service, Jokia Bodokia, was detained on bribery charges. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, Bodokia received a US$ 50,000 bribe from a construction company in exchange for a hotel construction permit in Tbilisi. The opposition asserted that vice Mayor Alexander Margishvili and even Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania were involved in the deal.
Prosecutors claimed that an employee of the mayoral office, Mikheil Kviria, also accepted a US$ 10,000 bribe from Indian and Iraqi citizens in return for a land purchase permit near Tbilisi. Meanwhile, Margishvili resigned without any explanation, and in March, the administrative head of the mayoral office, Reno Chakhava, and his deputy Mariam Shelegia also quit their posts.
Narmania abruptly announced the establishment of the Tbilisi Entrepreneurship Support Center (ESC) and appointed Margishvili head of the agency, which will be tasked with fostering investor activities and developing entrepreneurial skills.
Transparency International Georgia (TIG) slammed the initiative, arguing that a number of other structures with the same tasks and functions are already operating across the country. Also, the two million GEL envisaged for the agency’s budget exceeds the funding for the Business Ombudsman’s office by a factor of four and is at odds with the “tighten belts” policy announced by the government. According to TIG, Margishvili’s appointment raises doubts as his reasons for resigning from the post of vice-mayor remain unclear.
These episodes add to the coalition’s trouble in strengthening its political power attain credibility for its policies. One of the most apparent reasons is Ivanishvili’s rule behind the scenes, coupled with his changing attitudes towards previously favored persons. Ivanishvili’s criticism against President Giorgi Margvelashvili, PM Gharibashvili, and Mayor Narmania, indicates that he is no longer satisfied with their performance. His endeavor to introduce new trustees in the government ramps up the competition for influence, thus enlarging rifts within the coalition and creating space for inefficiency and corruption. GD’s retreat in a major regional legislative body and the murky business in Tbilisi City Hall might reflect GD’s incapacity to coordinate its heterogeneous coalition to cope with Georgia’s political and economic situation.
Finally, GD’s partition gives the opposition forces a new window of opportunity, which the UNM has already started to exploit. At the March 21 demonstration, the party’s leaders declared permanent protest rallies in order to achieve the government’s resignation and possibly even early parliamentary elections. Although the party does not enjoy much popular support, it seems determined to fight for regaining public trust.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.