Infighting Weakens Georgia's Government

5 MINS READNov 7, 2014 | 10:00 GMT
Infighting Weakens Georgia's Government
Newly appointed Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze gives a press conference in Tbilisi on Nov. 5.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

Georgia's government has entered into crisis. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania on Nov. 4 has led to a number of high-profile resignations within the Georgian Cabinet and the exit of Alasania's party from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Although these moves are not likely to shift Georgia's broader Western orientation, domestic political instability could complicate Georgian Dream's position in the government and potentially delay Georgia's EU and NATO integration efforts until the situation stabilizes. Russia, in turn, will strive to use the situation to serve its own interests in undermining Tbilisi's Western integration.

Garibashvili's dismissal of Alasania stemmed from the Oct. 28 arrest of several officials from the Ministry of Defense who had been accused by the prime minister of corruption and misspending of public funds. Alasania spoke out publicly against the detentions, calling them "politically motivated" and representing an "attack on Georgia's Euro-Atlantic choice." Alasania's dismissal on Nov. 4 then prompted the resignation of State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Alexi Petriashvili, who is a member of Alasania's Free Democrats party. The following day, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze — who is not a member of Alasania's party but has family connections to him — also resigned.

A Successful but Fractious Coalition

This shakeup in the Cabinet is symptomatic of long-standing divisions within the Georgian government stemming from Georgia's political transformation with the emergence of the Georgian Dream movement. Launched by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2011, Georgian Dream was a collection of opposition parties that previously competed with each other but were united by Ivanishvili to challenge then-President Mikhail Saakashvili. Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement party in 2012 parliamentary elections, making Ivanishvili prime minister. The following year, Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili defeated Saakashvili's preferred candidate in the presidential election. After nearly a decade of United National Movement control over the government and Saakashvili's increasing unpopularity, Georgian Dream took the reins.

However, differences within the Georgian Dream coalition emerged — an inevitability given the diverse nature of the coalition's member parties. Alasania became a controversial figure within the coalition when he made public his intention to run for president. This decision went against Ivanishvili, who handpicked Margvelashvili as Georgian Dream's presidential candidate. Alasania was seen as an overly ambitious figure within Georgian Dream, contrasting with the relatively inexperienced and more technocratic figures of Margvelashvili and Garibashvili (who became prime minister after Ivanishvili voluntarily stepped down from the post, per his campaign promise). But Ivanishvili is still widely known to maintain power from behind the scenes, and the recent detention of officials connected with Alasania could be seen as an attempt to rein him in, prompting his dismissal and his party's subsequent exit from the Georgian Dream coalition.

This departure has important consequences for Georgian Dream, given that the loss of the Free Democrats' 10 seats will deprive the coalition of its majority in parliament. Georgian Dream now has only 73 seats out of the 150-seat parliament, with the United National Movement close behind at 65 seats and independents holding the rest. Garibashvili has said that he will enter into negotiations with some of the independent parliament members in a bid to retain Georgian Dream's majority. Alasania, for his part, said his party would not enter into a coalition with the United National Movement, thus preventing Saakashvili's party from retaking the parliament. However, he is now likely to go into the opposition in parliament.

Georgia and Russia

Georgia and Russia

As for Cabinet replacements, Garibashvili already has appointed Mindia Janelidze, previously the secretary of the State Security and Crisis Management Council in the prime minister's office, as defense minister. Garibashvili has yet to appoint the new Euro-Atlantic and foreign ministers, but he has said those positions would be filled within days, adding that Panjikidze and Petriashvili's resignations did not surprise him.

Foreign Policy Implications

The removal of Alasania, Panjikidze and Petriashvili — who were seen as some of the staunchest advocates of Georgia's EU and NATO integration — also raises speculation that the shakeup could affect Georgia's broader foreign policy as well. Alasania in particular was known for his anti-Russian attitude and his criticism of Ivanishvili's softer position toward Russia. Indeed, Ivanishvili has had a much less confrontational approach to Russia than Saakashvili's government, and diplomatic and trade ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have grown in the last two years.

However, the shakeup is not likely to affect Georgia's broader foreign policy orientation. Although the Georgian Dream leadership has pursued greater economic ties with Russia, this has not translated into a strategic shift toward Moscow. The government has maintained its pursuit of EU and NATO integration under Georgian Dream, and Georgia recently signed a key association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Garibashvili called Tbilisi's commitment to Western integration "irreversible." In the meantime, Margvelashvili has asked the Georgian Cabinet to convene a session to discuss the political crisis and to make sure the government is implementing its European course effectively.

Still, the domestic political instability is likely to delay Georgia's efforts at closer integration with the European Union and NATO, at least until the situation stabilizes. Moreover, Georgia already faces significant constraints in terms of Western integration, because actual EU and NATO membership is not on the horizon for Tbilisi. More important, Georgia still has to contend with the Russia factor. Any significant military cooperation between Tbilisi and the West is a red line for Moscow, and Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 to prove it. Moscow can tolerate Tbilisi's orientation toward the West as long as it does not produce meaningful results.

At the same time, Georgia's continued Western orientation, as well as lingering differences between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will remain major obstacles to any real normalization of ties between Moscow and Tbilisi. Thus, despite recent developments creating domestic upheaval in Georgia, the country's foreign policy strategy is likely to stay in place. 

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