By Eka Janashia (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On November 5, the Our Georgia-Free Democrats (OGFD) party, led by Former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, quit the ruling coalition Georgian Dream (GD). The departure of one of the founding members of the coalition was the culmination of a political crisis that had been ongoing for a week.
In the end of October, the prosecutor’s office arrested the former head of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) procurements department and two incumbent officials from the same department, along with the head and an official of the communications and IT department of the general staff of the armed forces, on charges of misspending GEL 4.1 million through a state-secret tender that allegedly was a sham.
Another set of charges came in early November when the Prosecutor’s office blamed three army medical officials and three employees of a state-owned food provider company for negligence resulting in foodborne illnesses of hundreds of servicemen last year.
As the charges were raised, Defense Minister Alasania was on a foreign trip, holding high-level meetings with French and German counterparts while the Chief of the General Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Vakhtang Kapanadze was paying a three-day visit to Estonia.
Upon his return, Alasania states his full support for the detained officials and termed the Prosecutor’s move a politically motivated attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic course. The arrests took place while the Defense Minister was making efforts to strike a very important deal enhancing Georgia’s defense capacities, he said. Several hours after this statement, PM Irakli Gharibashvili sacked Alasania and his deputies from their posts in the Defense Ministry.
In response, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Maia Panjikidze – Alasania’s sister in law and his close associate, and the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration Alexi Petriashvili, resigned. Four deputy foreign ministers, Davit Zalkaniani, Davit Jalagania, Tamar Beruchashvili, and Levan Gurgenidze also declared their intention to leave the cabinet, lamenting that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path is in danger. The decision of the Minister of Justice, Tea Tsulukiani – a member of OGFD – was critical in stifling the ensuing political crisis. After she declared that there was no reason to doubt the government’s pro-European stance and opted to retain her post, all deputy foreign ministers except Zalkaliani made a U-turn and kept their posts.
On November 5, at the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition’s council meeting, which was also attended by ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, OGFD announced its departure from the coalition. The step induced Gharibashvili to dub Alasania an “adventurer” and a “stupid and ambitious” politician and accused OGFD of being in a covert alliance with the United National Movement (UNM). Although Alasania initially did not rule out cooperation with any pro-European political force, including the UNM, after the PM’s accusations, he later denied such a perspective.
The U.S. Department of State expressed “concern” over the dismissal of Alasania and his deputy ministers as well as the subsequent resignations of the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and Foreign Minister. It announced its appreciation for Alasania’s work and called on the Georgian government to avoid perceptions of selective justice.
Meanwhile, Alasania, who has resumed chairmanship of the OGFD party, stated at the party congress that OGFD, along with the Georgian people, would celebrate victory in the next parliamentary polls, planned for 2016. He also emphasized that the state “should be based on fair laws and not on the will of one man.” This statement echoed President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s earlier remarks. Commenting on the dismissal of the country’s top three ministers, the president stated that “the country should be ruled by strong institutions and not from behind the scenes.”
Margvelashvili could be among those who will gain from the change in political realities. Being exiled from the coalition, Margvelashvili and OGFD could find common ground for cooperation. The collapse of GD also creates a more favorable situation for the UNM, although the political environment will become more competitive as yet another pro-western party will bid for largely the same segment of the electorate.
In addition, OGFD’s move strengthened the Republican Party’s (RP) positions within the coalition. Before the cabinet reshuffle, RP leaders accentuated the need for GD’s “de-personalization” and “institutionalization,” a position echoed by Margvelashvili’s and OGFD’s recent remarks. In fact, the Speaker of Parliament, RP leader Davit Usupashvili, asserted at the OGFD congress that RP and OGFD will remain partners. It seems that RP can now choose to leave GD at the moment that best suits its interests.
The dismissal of pro-Western ministers could be costly for the ruling coalition. Firstly, it damaged the prestige of GD and exposed its internal fragility. Secondly, it encouraged fluxes in parliament. MPs Tamaz Japaride, Gela Samkharauli and Gedevan Popkhadze quit OGFD and joined GD, while GD deputy chairman of the legal affairs committee, MP Shalva Shavgulidze lined up with OGFD. The reposition left the ruling coalition with exactly 75 seats in the 150-member parliament, one deputy less than needed for a simple parliamentary majority. To avoid failure, GD has absorbed 12 independent deputies who have informally cooperated with GD since 2012. Thus, the coalition will likely attain 87 voices. Nevertheless, three pro-western political forces – OGFD, RP, and UNM, plus president Margvelashvili, now aspire to circumscribe Ivanishvili’s grip on power.
On the other hand, it is unclear what levers Ivanishvili will be able to deploy against the OGDF and RP leaders. In his first public comments about the recent developments, Ivanishvili unveiled secret details of the criminal cases against the MoD officials in an attempt to downplay the political dimension of the charges. Thus, the anticipated pressure on opposition leaders and their ability to resist will determine the distribution of political forces in Georgia prior to the 2016 parliamentary elections.