By Eka Janashia (01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The changes taking place in Georgia at the end of 2014 will have crucial implications for next year’s political and economic agenda. In the beginning of December, a bout of reshuffles started both in government and inside the ruling Georgian Dream coalition (GD). It was the second wave of shifts since November, when the Free Democrats, led by the former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania left the GD coalition. This time, the alterations occurred within the GD party itself and affected the senior and mid-level government officials as well as party’s political council.
The party’s executive secretary, and PM Irakli Garibashvili’s relative, Zviad Jankarashvili resigned. Until April, 2014 he was head of the General Inspection of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA). Meanwhile, first Deputy Interior Minister Giorgi Zedelashvili, a distant relative of Jankarashvili and one of the most influential figures in the MIA, was detached from the ministry and moved to the post of Deputy Secretary of the State Security and Crisis Management Council.
The head of the Special State Protection Service (SSPS) – an agency responsible for the security of high-ranking officials, state facilities and buildings – Teimuraz Mgebrishvili, was replaced by Ivanishvili’s former chief bodyguard Anzor Chubinidze. Another close associate of Ivanishvili, Nodar Javakhishvili, replaced Zurab Kopadze on the post of Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure.
The heads of the State Security Service (SSS) and the General Inspection of the MIA, Malkhaz Chikviladze and Irakli Samkurashvili, also resigned. Ivanishvili’s crony, Mirian Mchedlishvili became head of the SSS.
Nearly all opposition parties detect Ivanishvili’s hand behind the recent relocations. Rumors swirled about Ivanishvili’s growing mistrust toward Garibashvili. Allegedly, Ivanishvili appointed his trusted associates to tactically important posts in order to control the PM.
The United National Movement (UNM) accused Garibashvili’s family of bribery long before the reshuffles. At the beginning of this year, the party disclosed an apparent corruption scheme run by Garibashvili and his father-in-law, Tamaz Tamazashvili. The scheme allegedly envisaged the establishment of fake firms and companies to participate in state tenders and accumulate large amounts of money. UNM asserts that the total volume of corrupt deals amounts to US$ 8 million.
The changes in government and GD were accompanied by a drastic depreciation of the Georgian Lari (GEL) which lost around 12 percent of its value against the U.S. Dollar in mid- December. Although Garibashvili’s government insisted that the drop was mainly caused by external factors, economic analysts argue that the government’s inefficient economic policy disrupted the balance between the US$ and GEL.
According to some economic analysts, the toughened visa regulations for foreigners imposed by the government last year have damaged the overall investment climate. The volume of investments has dropped by 10 percent for two quarters in 2014 compared to the same period of 2013. Although another source of external financing – export – has recently increased, the growth rate of imports is still much higher than that of export. Meanwhile, the ongoing economic recession in Russia contributed to a drop in the volume of remittances to Georgia.
As a result, abridged US$ inflows instigated a depreciation of the GEL, especially harmful for those who get their incomes in the national currency but have taken loans in Dollars. Data from Georgia’s National Bank disclose that 60 percent of all loans and 77 percent of mortgages are dollarized, implying that a significant share of the population is affected by the Lari depreciation.
Moreover, the appreciation of USD against GEL connotes that imported goods will become more expensive for Georgians. Taking into account that import comprises 49 percent of Georgia’s GDP while imported products constitute 70 percent of Georgia’s consumer basket, the ongoing depreciation of the GEL appears to be especially troubling.
Economic concerns amplified the uncertainty triggered by the shifts taken place inside the GD party. Several analysts and politicians have discussed Ivanishvili’s changing confidence in Garibashvili, which could end with the PM’s reassignment. Many speculations have also been devoted to the question who might be the next PM and whether Ivanishvili himself may officially return to politics.
Although the expected changes will heighten the political turbulence and economic fluctuations in the country, instability seems to be growing even without further shifts in the government. GD’s pattern of ruling deprives Georgia of institutional development and instead benefits crony networks, clan clashes and personality politics.
Meanwhile, if economic predicaments are not dealt with timely and efficiently by pursuing a more liberal economic policy, the country may face both political and economic crises. Alarmingly, these problems could derail Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic course and seriously slow the country’s democratic development.
In 2015, the Georgian government will have to address the most critical issues to maintain social stability. Thus, this year may present the true litmus test for GD and its ability to preserve its status as Georgia’s dominant political force.