The shakeup of the Georgian government in early November in which one cabinet minister was fired and two more resigned has not, as some thought it might, led to a collapse of the Georgian government. Instead, the political bleeding, for the Georgian Dream (GD) leadership, was quickly staunched. In the days following the departure of Irakli Alasania, Maia Panjikidize, Aleksi Petriashvili and several others from the government, Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiania announced her intention to leave Alasania’s Free Democrats Party and remain in the government; and the Republican Party, led by Chair of Parliament David Usupashvili also remained part of the governing coalition. Thus, the initial events did not spiral out of control or lead to a breakdown of governance in Georgia.
It is also probably true that the final chapter of the story that began with the firing of Irakli Alasania on November 4th, has not yet been written, nor can it yet be known what will happen as a result of these events. Fears have been raised, not always without partisan political motives, that this will lead to a change in the basic foreign policy orientation of Georgia. There is some irony that many of the same people, both foreign and Georgian, who now bemoan the departure of Alasania, Panjidikze and Petriashvili as evidence that the government is moving away from the west, were among those who viewed the ascendance of these same people to leadership positions in 2012 as evidence of the same phenomenon. To some extent, this reflects the extent that accusations of anti-Russian sentiment are part of the discourse or Georgian politics, rather than rigorous political analysis.
Additional questions have been raised about what this shakeup will mean for the stability of the governing coalition, the continuing role of Bidzina Ivanishvili as the unelected power behind the Prime Minister and the government, the future of democracy and the potential emergence of a truly popular opposition. While these questions are difficult to answer now, it is useful to identify some touch points to watch that could reveal much about Georgia’s future.
The first, and probably most obvious, indicator will be what happens to Alasania, Panjikidze, Petriashvili and the others who recently left the government. If the Free Democrats are left alone to organize their political party and compete with the Georgian Dream, although probably against long odds, that will be an indicator of the health of Georgian democracy. It would also be a decisive break with Georgia’s past, demonstrating that, unlike in the previous era, it is possible to oppose the government and still participate in Georgian political life free of harassment and intimidation.
If, however, Alasania and the others confront harassment or even arrest, it will be evidence that concerns about Georgia moving away from democracy should be taken more seriously. The GD government has already been accused by some of using the judiciary for political ends by arresting or indicting its political foes, but the United National Movement (UNM) officials who have been targets of those arrests and indictments had been associated with criminality of different kinds. The same does not appear to be true of Alasania, Panjikidze or Petriashvili. Ultimately, if the prosecutor turns its attention too vigorously to these former government leaders, it will go a long way to substantiating one of the most powerful critiques of this Georgian government.
In the days immediately following the government shakeup, many political observers looked to the Republican Party, particularly its most prominent member, David Usupashvili. Had the Republicans removed themselves from the governing coalition, the damage would have been much greater as the GD would not have been able to rebuild their parliamentary majority as easily without the Republican Party, but also because with the Free Democrats out of the coalition, the Republicans were the most pro-western party remaining in the GD coalition. With Alasania out of government, Republicans like Ususpashvili and Tina Khidasheli, another influential MP, were among the most recognized pro-western faces in the governing coalition.
Usupashvili, Khidasheli, and Tedo Japaridze, who is not a member of the Republican Party, but is the chair of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, now play an even bigger role in the Georgian efforts to convince its foreign skeptics and foes that they are indeed still interested in moving towards the west. If any of these three MPs, or the Republican Party as a whole, break with the government, the GD’s credibility on this issue will be further jeopardized.
The changes to Georgia’s leadership have also led to more visibility for Bidzina Ivanishvili than any time since he left the position of Prime Minister more than a year ago. For most of the past year, it has been broadly understood, both inside and outside of Georgia that Ivanishvili plays a significant role in Georgian politics, primarily through his close relationship with his protege, Prime Minister Garibashvili. During that time, however, Ivanishvili has mostly been a behind the scenes power, rarely speaking to the media or appearing at political meetings or events.
In the days following Alasania’s firing, this changed. Ivanishvili appeared on television and gave what may have been his most extensive interview since leaving his position as Prime Minister. Ivanishvili was also present at an important meeting of the political council of the GD in which Alasania and the Free Democrats formally left the coalition. The Free Democrats walked out of that meeting after only a few minutes, primarily because Ivanishvili’s presence. Perhaps most significantly, Alasania and Ivanishvili had a long private meeting a few days later.
Ivanishvili’s increased visibility this month is evidence of the gravity, or potential gravity, of these political events. Ivanishvili will very likely continue to wield enormous, if informal, power whether he continues to have a more public profile or if he returns to his more cloaked exercise of power and influence. If, however, he continues to be visible, it cannot be ruled out that it is a reflection of a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister. Thus, although Garibashvili seems to be the winner in this shakeup, even his continued role is not guaranteed. If Ivanishvili’s public role expands in coming weeks or months, it will likely not be a good development for Garibashvili and could lead to further changes in the government.
One of the more interesting pieces of the fallout of the events of early November has been the evolving role of Georgia’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili. Due to the limited powers of the Georgian presidency, as well as personal tension between the President and both Ivanishvili and Garibashvili, Margvelashvili had been politically marginalized throughout most of his presidency. That may be beginning to change.
Because Margvelashvili has no strong connection with either Alasania or Garibashvili and is no longer as close as he once was with Ivanishvili, he has the potential to be a rare independent voice in Georgian politics. In the weeks following the cabinet shakeup, Margvelashvili has begun to fill this role. He has, not very subtly, raised the question of Ivanisvhvili’s role in the governing coalition, commenting “I see that Bidzina Ivanishvili has engaged in the Georgian Dream affairs but I have no idea why.” The President also gave a speech in parliament, on November 14th, ostensibly about the composition of the security council, but also touched upon broader issues of democracy and governing institutions.
Margvelashvili has, since the shakeup, played a relatively constructive role in Georgia’s political life. He has deftly leveraged this crisis to both raise his own profile and bring some valuable insight to Georgia’s development. The President, nonetheless, occupies a tenuous place in Georgian politics, having very limited constitutional powers and an even more limited institutional base in the government or parliament. Given that, it would not be hard for Garibashvili and Ivanishvili to again marginalize Margvelashvili. If, however, that happens, it will not be a harbinger of greater democracy in Georgia.
Sometimes the departure of three cabinet ministers is the sign of a dramatic political shift; and sometimes it is just politics. Many in the west initially reacted as if the events of November 4th and 5th were the former, but as the days go by is has begun to look more like the latter. If, in the next months, leaders of the Free Democrats confront legal harassment, the Georgian Dream coalition fractures more with the Republicans leaving and the President is pushed back to the sidelines of political life, there will be reason to think that the cabinet shakeup was a turning point, and for the worse, for Georgia. However, if these things do not happen and the Free Democrats are able to participate in political life, the President continues to play a bigger role and Ivanishvili’s role diminishes, then the fallout from November 4th and 5th will, on balance, have been positive for Georgia.
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