The latest shakeup in the Georgian government saw four cabinet ministers replaced, leading some, including President Giorgi Margvelashvili, to express concern that it is difficult to govern effectively when constant changes to the cabinet are being made. Nonetheless, the new government was confirmed by the parliament on May 8th. Although several ministers were involved, the most high profile move Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili made was at the Defense Ministry where he replaced Mindia Janelidze with Tinatin Khidasheli.
Khidasheli is a very familiar face to observers of politics in Georgia. For years she was a mainstay of Georgian civil Society. She was one of the first Rose Revolutionaries to grow concerned about the anti-democratic tendencies of the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, leading her to become active in the Republican Party. Khidasheli was also one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition; and since the election has been a powerful MP. All of this speaks to Khidasheli’s commitment, energy and ability, but she has very little background on military issues specifically, making her, at first glance, an unusual choice for Minister of Defense.
Some might think that Garibashvili’s choice of Khidasheli for this position was, therefore, not a wise one, but there is ample reason to think it is an excellent choice. Khidasheli is one of the leaders of the GD government who is best known in the west and whose pro-western views are strongest. By having her at the Ministry of Defense, the Georgian government sends a very clear message about their western orientation. When the first GD Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, who was also extremely well known and liked in the west, was dismissed, some questioned the ongoing commitment of the Georgian government to NATO and the west. Khidasheli’s appointment should put those concerns to rest.
The messaging to the west behind the Khidasheli’s appointment cannot be ignored, but neither can the reality that the new defense minister has virtually no experience either running a government ministry or with many of the substantive responsibilities of her new ministry. Khidasheli’s management skills will be strenuously tested in her new position; and she will have to familiarize herself with a relatively new set of issues around defense. If she can do these things, she will succeed and make the Prime Minister look very smart. If not, her tenure at defense, like that of her two predecessors could be short.
The appointment of Khidasheli also reveals something about the political environment, at least for now, in Georgia. Khidasheli is a member of the Republican Party. The Republicans are a comparatively small, but very important, component of the GD coalition. After the political shakeup of last fall in which the Defense Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration were replaced, and the Free Democrats left the coalition, the Republicans were the most visible and well known pro-western block remaining in the coalition. Had they left the coalition, the west would have viewed that as an ominous sign about the direction of the GD.
Instead of leaving, the Republicans stayed in the ruling coalition, and with Khidasheli secured another high profile post for their party. In addition to Khidasheli, one more Republican, Gigla Agulashvili, was appointed as Minister of the Enviroment and Natural Resources protection. The powerful Speaker of Parliament, David Usupashvili is also a Republican and is the husband of the new Defense Minister. This new Republican ascendancy comes only a few months after former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely believed to be the informal power behind the current government, had some very harsh words for the Republican Party.
If the Republican influence in the governing coalition continues or expands, it could damage the political goals of former Defense Minister Alasania’s Free Democrats. The Free Democrats will contest the next parliamentary elections, positioning themselves as the leading pro-west voice in post UNM Georgia. Their strategy would be to pick up votes both from one time UNM supporters who are strongly pro-west but wary of supporting the largely discredited former ruling party, as well as from pro-west GD voters who believe the GD is moving in a less western and less liberal direction. Having the Republicans at the center of the GD coalition will make the latter more difficult for the Free Democrats. This is not devastating for the Free Democrats as they have a popular and charismatic leader and are still positioned in a way that makes it possible for them to focus on perceived GD failures of governance while again not carrying the negative political baggage of the UNM.
The UNM although not having as high an electoral ceiling as the Free Democrats will also contest the next elections and charge the GD with being insufficiently pro-west or even of being pro-Russia. These charges have grown tedious, revealing more about the UNM than the GD, but they will be even less potent if Khidasheli becomes a highly visible Defense Minister, aggressively pushing for Georgia to get into NATO.
The presence of the Republicans in such a prominent position in the government thus gives the GD a bulwark against the frequent accusations from their political rivals that they are insufficiently committed to a pro-western position. It also, however, means that the GD has to maintain a balance and high level of internal stability between now and the election that will likely occur in fall of 2016. If Khidasheli, for whatever reason, does not last at Defense, it will be used against the GD government. Dismissing one high profile in the west and strongly pro-NATO Defense Minister like Alasania, can be explained away by domestic politics, which was the driving force there. If it happens twice, many will point to a pattern and call that proof that the government is not really pro-west. The reality that the pro-western course of the government is indeed unlikely to change, and has been consistent since this government came to power, but is not relevant to the GD’s detractors both in Georgia and the west.
At first glance it would seem that the course for the Garibashvili and Ivanishvili, to the extent he is involved in these decisions, is clear-keep Khidasheli in place at least through the elections and seek to rebuild or maintain as much as possible the winning coalition from 2012. There are, however, several challenges involved in achieving this. It should be remembered that one of the political reasons behind Alasania’s ouster was his growing popularity. That should be interpreted as a warning that popular ministers risk being seen as a threat to the Prime Minister. Therefore, ironically, if Khidasheli is too successful or maintains too high profile it is very possible that some around the Prime Minister will seek her ouster as well.
There are several factions within the GD that do not share the Republicans’ liberal views on social and economic issues, leading to occasional substantive policy disputes. These forces may pressure the Prime Minister to limit the growing power of the Republicans within the coalition. Much of this could play out around the construction of the party list as the election approaches, but if tensions between the Republicans and, for example, more socially conservative factions within the GD coalition, come to the forefront, as they have in the past, there will be pressure on Garibashvili for another government shakeup.
Garibashvili would be wise to ignore these pressures and keep Khidasheli where she is. The risks involved in another government shakeup are significant. Although a relatively small party, the leverage that the Republicans have within the GD coalition cannot be ignored. Had they left the coalition last fall, the fallout from the ouster of Alasania would have been much greater, and the charge that the GD was turning away from its pro-west directions have resonated much more strongly in the west. Today, that talk has been quieted once again, not least through the appointment of Khidasheli as Defense Minister. However, in doing that the government has created a situation where if Khidasheli and Usupashvili lead the Republican Party out of coalition, those charges will be even more potent. To paraphrase the former American President Lyndon Johnson, it is better for the GD to have the Republicans inside the tent looking out than outside the tent looking in.
The GD coalition, like most omnibus ruling coalitions, has long been unwieldy; and it remains true that these kinds of ruling coalitions, whether led by the GD and the UNM largely preclude pluralism and deep democracy. However, the short term political cost of breaking up the GD coalition, given the government’s slow but unambiguous decline in popularity, would be grave. Given this, it is easy to understand why Garibashvili, with likely advice from Ivanishvili, made these decisions. Keeping the coalition as much together as possible leading up to the parliamentary elections in 2016 is essential for the GD’s electoral success, but it will not be easy, and more changes cannot be ruled out.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.