The events of November 4-5-the ouster of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania as well as the resignation of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidize and Minister of Euro-Atlantic Affairs Alexander Petriashvili are the most significant events in the Georgian domestic political landscape since the election of 2012 that brought the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition to power. These changes to the Georgian government will have strong impacts on the internal workings of the governing coalition, the potential development of a genuine multi-party system, the perception of Georgia in the west and on Georgia’s efforts to move closer to NATO.
This shakeup in the Georgian government will have an immediate effect on Georgian foreign policy, particularly in the short run. Western allies of the Georgia will begin to question the degree of commitment to the west by a Georgian government that is now without Alasania, who was viewed by many in western capitals as the guarantor of Georgia’s western orientation. It is no accident that defense cooperation between Georgia and many western countries had grown so much during Alasania’s tenure at the Ministry of Defense. The west saw Alasania as charming, dedicated and a true believer in the need to move Georgia towards NATO, but at home he was also increasingly recognized for the good and valuable work he had been doing.
Alasania, Panjikidze and Petriashvili were, of course, not the only pro-western people in Georgia’s government, but they were, along with a few others, the most visible. It is also possible that what happened in Georgia was largely a domestic political issue, but that is not how it is being interpreted in western capitals. This is also partially due to a United National Movement (UNM) that has seized this moment to point at alleged hidden Russian hands pushing out the few pro-west leaders in Georgia.
The dismissal or resignation of the foreign policy team has raised immediate concerns, stoked by both Alasania and Panjikidze, that this signals a shift in Georgia’s foreign policy away from the west. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, however, stated that this is not the case. “I want to reiterate once again what I have said for multiple times already that our country’s Euro-Atlantic integration is the choice of not only of our government by the choice of our people and this process is and will be irreversible.” The test of the Prime Minister’s words will occur in the next weeks and months.
The more likely explanation for the firing of Alasania is centered around domestic politics not foreign policy. Alasania’s poll numbers at home and popularity abroad led to greater tension between the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister, eventually causing the Prime Minister to move to weaken a potential rival. This may not have been a wise move for the Prime Minister, or one that looks good from the perspective of Washington or Brussels, but the motivations for it are reasonably straightforward.
Alasania and Petriashvili are members of the Free Democrats, one of the smaller and, along with the Republican Party, most pro-western leaning parties within the ruling GD coalition. Their party’s departure from the ruling coalition means the government could begin to list away from the west, but at the moment that remains only conjecture. A central, and immediate, question raised by this government shakeup is what will happen to the Republicans. The Republicans had, only days before these events, released a statement describing the need to move towards a more European style coalition politics in Georgia. The powerful and highly competent Chair of the Parliament, David Ususpashvili, is the most visible and powerful member of the Republican Party. If he steps down or removes his party from the coalition, this will rapidly evolve into an even bigger crisis with calls for new elections becoming hard to ignore. If, however, he remains in the coalition, it is quite possible that the GD coalition coalition will simply move forward without the Free Democrats.
Garibashvili, the man who dismissed Alasania, also confronts a political crisis of his own now. The GD coalition could be considerably weaker without the Free Democrats; and if the Republicans leave it will be in even worse shape. Moreover, Garibashvili has lost some of his best and most effective government ministers. Unless he can replace them with equally competent people, something that will not be easy, the government will have fewer foreign policy accomplishments to which it can point.
Equally significantly, Garibashvili has acted in accordance with how his strongest critics have portrayed him. His most pro-western ministers have left his government. The reasons for firing Alasania are seen as either a change in foreign policy orientation or a personal political spat. If it is the former, it feeds the opposition narrative that the GD is pro-Russia. If it is the latter, given the long simmering tension between Alasania and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the powerful billionaire who preceded Garibashvili as Prime Minister, it supports another opposition talking point-that Garibashvili is still doing the bidding of his predecessor. Either way, this is a political problem for the Prime Minister.
Alasania now also faces a difficult series of decisions. He can enter the Georgian opposition as a popular figure. However, it is also worth noting that the last time Alasania was in the opposition alone he quickly squandered his popularity through poor decisions about coalitions and the inability, albeit under extremely difficult circumstances, to build a strong political party. For these reasons, it is likely that Alasania will want to build a coalition either around his party either inside our outside of his government.
The most natural coalition partner for Alasania’s Free Democrats is the Republican Party, but at the moment they remain inside the government. On the other hand, the biggest mistake Alasania could make would be to risk his popularity by having any association with the UNM. Alasania has already dismissed this possibility, but the UNM has indicated that they would welcome the Free Democrats and have sought to express concern about Alasania. This is a smart move for the UNM as any tie to Alasania will help their party, but the reverse is true for the former Defense Minister. Any association with the UNM will weaken Alasania and begin to undermine his support among most of the Georgian population. The UNM is also in a delicate position here because while any connection with Alasania would be a major asset for them, if as seems to be the case, Alasania refuses to work with them, the UNM could become more isolated. Both the UNM and the Free Democrats have a similar pro-west, pro-NATO and liberal economic ethos. If Alasania’s Free Democrats compete with the UNM for that space they would likely win and further marginalize the already weak UNM.
The question of what parties may or may not be in a coalition with each other is further complicated by the issue of where and how the coalitions might be formed. It is possible that if the GD coalition in parliament breaks down further, they could lose their parliamentary majority and either a new government would be formed or new elections would be held, but the dust has not yet settled enough to know if that will happen. The next parliamentary elections are not scheduled until roughly a year and a half from now so if early elections do not occur, it is likely that the coalition will be smaller but remain in power.
The fracturing of the GD coalition is not, in of itself, a bad thing and was probably necessary for further democratization in Georgia. If the component parts of this coalition are allowed to develop and remain involved in politics, a genuine competitive multiparty election in 2016, one that is characterized by competing visions rather than simply a battle of government against opposition, could occur. Getting from here to there, of course, will be very difficult and there are already some reasons for significant concern.
It is also worth remembering that in coalition governments, ministers, even ones who are popular at home and abroad, get fired from time to time. Frequently this happens because of political reasons or internal coalition politics. Therefore, the firing of Alasania cannot be taken as prima facie evidence of a turn away from democracy by the Georgian government. However, the manner in which it was done, specifically the use of legal investigations and arrests in the days leading up to the firing of the Defense Minister, is troubling. Critics of the GD government have accused them of selective prosecution of former UNM government officials. Because the firing of Alasania comes on the heels of criminal investigations of his ministry, the perception that the GD uses legal means for political ends will inevitably be bolstered.
The events of November 4-5 felt like a political earthquake in the middle of year of uncommon political quiet in Georgia. They are, however, more likely the beginning of a process. A lot more will become clear in the next few weeks as some questions begin to get answered. Regardless of what happens it is now clear that the first stage of the post-Saakashvili era, along with the omnibus coalition that defeated him is now a thing of the past.
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