A New Political Era for Georgia
The departure of popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has shaken Georgian politics and thrust it into yet another era.
The sudden and unexpected dismissal of popular Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania from Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition has, in a matter of hours, completely reframed the parameters of Georgian politics. Alasania, whose tenure as Defense Minister was by many accounts a success, had been fighting a rear-guard action against a corruption probe of Defense Ministry officials by prosecutors. Alasania, who was overseas when the first arrests were made, blasted the investigation and claimed they were tantamount to an attack of “Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice.”
The pink slip did not take long to follow.
GD insiders are already telling me that Alasania’s notice has little to do with Euro-Atlantic principles and more to do with the former defense minister’s independence. Contradicting Alasania’s insinuations, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili was quick to declare that the country’s pro-West foreign policy was not at stake. But this is not necessarily good news. GD’s decision to punish Alasania for his outspokenness underlines a loyalty-first management style that borders on domineering. And if GD sources’ speculations are correct, it was an order rendered from the cliffside eyrie of billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Alasania and Ivanishvili’s troubled relationship is well-known to Georgian political observers, which boiled over in early 2013 when then-PM Ivanishvili publicly attacked and demoted Alasania from his vice-premiership role. But while Alasania and his allies took Ivanishvili’s chastening in stride in 2013, Alasania now appears to be more forcefully reassessing his options. Meanwhile, State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Alasania ally Alexi Petriashvili has also offered his resignation. (Updated) Foreign Minister (and Alasania’s sister-in-law) Maia Panjikidze has also resigned. And rumors are rife that Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani may also be eyeing the exit door.
Alasania and Ivanishvili’s troubled relationship is well-known to Georgian political observers.
While it is still early on, the fallout from Alasania’s sacking has already disrupted the Georgian political landscape to a degree not seen since the end of GD-UNM political cohabitation in late 2013. Alasania, who once served in the previous UNM government before defecting to the opposition, has already suggested that he is open to working with the UNM. And UNM leader and party moderate Davit Bakradze, in response, has been understandably keen on an alliance with the enormously popular Alasania. Such an entente is hardly unthinkable given the two factions’ foreign policy complementarity, but Alasania may have more to lose by associating himself with the politically hemorrhaging UNM, whose 51 seats in the country’s parliament likely vastly overstate their actual political support.
But even if Alasania and his Free Democrats (FD) party do not join with the UNM’s battered brand, FD’s ten MPs are a crucial bloc on the Georgian parliament for GD, which skates by with 83 seats in the 150-member chamber — a svelte eight-seat majority. If FD walks from the coalition, GD’s government could genuinely be in jeopardy, particularly if any other factions within the fractious GD coalition also decide to go their own way. Under the new constitution, the formation of a new government, likely to look very different as a result of parliamentary wrangling, is a distinct possibility if FD leaves. And even snap elections would not be an impossible outcome.
Elections could trigger the greater shakeup. The UNM’s overrepresentation in parliament would likely be severely cut. FD, should it leave the coalition, would likely remain stable or pick up a few seats from disaffected GD or even UNM voters. And GD itself, though shorn of one its most popular leaders, may actually pick up some seats at the UNM’s expense. But the biggest shift could be the re-entry of ex-Speaker and pro-Moscow personality Nino Burjanadze and her Democratic Movement-United Georgia (DM-UG) coalition to parliament. Having garnered approximately ten percent in the June 2014 local elections and the 2013 presidential elections, Burjanadze’s party is eligible for public funding and would be likely to send at least several deputies to parliament. Meanwhile, the rising conservative-populist Alliance of Patriots could also make an appearance.
When the dust settles, the players left standing could very well be a cause for concern. Between DM-UG and the Alliance of Patriots are the makings of a formidable conservative populist bloc with greater skepticism, and sometimes outright hostility, towards Georgia’s pro-West foreign policy. If FD goes its own way, GD’s own conservative factions, such as the protectionist Industrialists or the nationalistic National Forum, would likely agitate for a more “multi-vectored” foreign policy in the mold of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. And the pragmatists at GD’s helm, cognizant of the glacial pace of Euro-Atlantic integration, may be tempted to accommodate them. Looking on the outside would be a fractured pro-West opposition made up of FD, a rump UNM, and a smattering of other parties and independent deputies dedicated to the pro-West path.
This is likely the worst case scenario. It is no foregone conclusion that FD will even leave GD. Alasania, though smarting, may decide it best to lick his wounds and plan for the long term from within the coalition. The irony of this option is that while it would help preserve a modicum of political stability, such an act could make GD an even more unwieldy, ineffectual vehicle for policymaking. (Updated: Alasania and his Free Democrats have quit the GD coalition.)
GD, having been formed primarily as a united opposition front against the UNM, lacks a coherent binding ideology and includes factions with varying and sometimes sharply contradicting positions.
The best case scenario is that Alasania’s exit prompts an outbreak of pluralism in Georgia’s calcifying political space. Until now, Georgian politics had begun to lean towards intra-coalition jockeying as the political arena of first resort; the UNM, though vocal and still armed with steady funding and sympathetic allies in the West, played a minimal role in actual policymaking. The political furor unleashed by Alasania’s dismissal, meanwhile, will likely force GD to contend with its contradictions or see the formation of rival blocs that can capably challenge GD’s erstwhile political dominance.
In the shorter term, however, rocky shoals lie ahead. The UNM has already planned for anti-government protests on 15 November, and the timing suddenly looks impeccable. Given the tense political situation, the protests have the ability to quickly spiral out of control. Considering previous allegations made by Interior Minister and GD loyalist Alexander Chikaidze over UNM “coup” fears, the potential for rapid escalation look uncomfortably plausible.
Another major data point to watch are the movements of the Republican Party. A core GD coalition party, the Republicans are solidly liberal and strongly advocate for Western integration. This puts them closer ideologically to FD than much of the rest of the GD coalition. And their nine MPs could be decisive over what becomes of the GD parliamentary majority. While multiple sources do not expect the Republicans to leave GD, the situation is sufficiently fluid that a departure is well within the realm of possibility.
The next few days should prove to be interesting. There is always a chance that consultations within GD can find some kind of resolution to the crisis, and GD — along with the political status quo — will remain intact. But even this is likely to only delay the inevitable; battle lines have already been drawn and the players have already begun to dig in. Even a withdrawal from the brink will do little to erase the hard feelings and mistrust sown within GD over the past several days.
Either way, for good or ill, Georgian politics appears to be entering a new era. This is not necessarily a bad thing — growing pains such as these are pro forma in nearly all nascent democracies — but the shadows cast by the geopolitical climate are certainly hard to ignore.
Michael Cecire is a Black Sea regional analyst and the co-editor of “Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security.”