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Shooting of Opposition Leader Roils Georgia Ahead of Contentious Election

Shooting of Opposition Leader Roils Georgia Ahead of Contentious Election

A prominent Georgian opposition leader, Aleksi Petriashvili, was shot and wounded on February 26 at a cemetery in central Tbilisi. While he is expected to make a full recovery, the attack is likely to aggravate Georgia’s worsening political divides. At the very least, it will raise questions about the government’s ability to maintain pubic security just months before October parliamentary elections. Petriashvili’s attackers, reported as “well trained,” remain unknown and at large.

The attack has prompted a number of theories, most of which assume that the primary motive was not political. The most broadly circulated explanations focus on clan rivalries mixed in with various rumors about personal vendettas and conflicting business interests. Even so, Petriashvili’s prominence virtually guarantees that the attempt on his life will have political ramifications.

A former Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration, Petriashvili is a leading figure in the Free Democrats party, which broke away from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in November 2014 after its leader, Irakli Alasania, was dismissed by then-Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili from his post as defense minister. During their period within the Georgian Dream coalition, the pro-western Free Democrats were outspoken supporters of liberal reforms and deeper ties with Euro-Atlantic institutions.

“Until the investigation is complete and the perpetrators are apprehended, the security of the nation and of average citizens is under threat,” Alasania told Foreign Policy, criticizing the government’s handling of public safety. “We need to take emergency action to start better managing Georgia’s problem of organized crime. Law enforcement simply needs more resources.”

The Free Democrats, though now in the opposition, were a leading proponents of reform within the Georgian Dream government. As defense minister, Alasania was known internationally for introducing a series of urgently needed institutional reforms to the military, which was hard hit by Georgia’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia. Petriashvili, for his part, made a name for himself in Western capitals with his insistent advocacy for Georgian integration with NATO and the EU. During this period, Georgian forces were accepted into a newly created NATO Response Force, and a level of NATO-Georgia cooperation was reached that, in many ways, is unprecedented for a non-member state.

With a hotly contested election looming, Petriashvili’s shooting will likely aggravate already growing pre-election tensions. The Free Democrats and Petriashvili have been angling to boost their presence in parliament as Georgian Dream’s poll ratings continue to decline.

In his response to the shooting, Alasania didn’t hesitate to implicate the current government. “The government needs to convene an emergency response to this attack,” he declared, claiming that law enforcement resources have been used to monitor opposition activity instead of managing public safety. “That’s the kind of thing [ex-President Mikheil] Saakashvili’s government used to do.” Alasania’s pointed critique could sharpen the Free Democrats’ rivalry with Georgian Dream, which is largely rooted in its acrimonious departure from the coalition in late 2014.

Alasania and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgian Dream, had famously frosty relations, which came to a head when Alasania was dismissed from the top post in the defense ministry. In the Free Democrats’ telling, Alasania had almost completed negotiations with the French for the purchase of advanced anti-aircraft systems, only for the prime minister to order a last-minute cancellation of the deal. (Other sources claim that it was Ivanishvili himself who intervened.) Alleging Russian pressure on Georgian Dream, Alasania reportedly decided to sign the document anyway.

Whether it was Georgian Dream’s acquiescence to Russian pressure to halt the buy or Alasania’s defiance and public criticism of his government, the Free Democrats walked from the coalition, becoming the country’s newest parliamentary opposition party. The Foreign Minister, Maia Panjikidze, and Petriashvili also resigned, and the Free Democrats have been eyeing the upcoming parliamentary polls as an opportunity for a major comeback. (Current Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli inked a major air defense purchase in France in June 2015.)

The site of the attack has also raised eyebrows. Petriashvili, who held a leading role in the Free Democrats’ campaign planning, was shot while visiting the gravesite of his friend, the late Levan Mikeladze. Mikeladze, a celebrated Georgian diplomat and political thinker, reportedly died in 2009 from a heart attack, though some of Mikeladze’s family and a number of activists believe he was killed on orders from the then-ruling United National Movement (UNM) government, whose autocratic style galvanized Georgian Dream ahead of its surprise victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

The symbolism of Petriashvili’s attempted murder at Mikeladze’s grave — on the latter’s birthday — is impossible to ignore. But it’s more likely that the cemetery’s relative seclusion and Petriashvili’s ritual of visiting every year on Mikeladze’s birthday had simplified the planning for the would-be killers.

Whatever the motives behind the attack, a high-profile shooting is the last thing the country’s already overheated political scene needs. So far, politicians from the ruling coalition have been swift in their condemnation. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili immediately vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, and Alasania acknowledged the government’s initial response as “positive.” But the shooting will revive longstanding questions about Georgian Dream’s ability to produce results in fundamental areas, not the least being public safety.

Kvirikashvili has enjoyed plaudits since acceding to the premiership in late December. He has been welcomed to the top job by broad swaths of the political establishment, including some from the otherwise reliably combative opposition UNM. But the attack on Petriashvili appears to mark the end of the prime minister’s honeymoon period, signaling a return to the confrontational politics that preceded his rise.

If the attack elevates public security as a key issue in the upcoming election season, that could benefit the UNM, which was known for its excessively hard line on law and order during its time in office.

“Law and order could be an issue, but only as part of a broader critique of the current government,” said Lincoln Mitchell, a political consultant and Georgia expert. “The UNM appears to have reached their ceiling. Petriashvili’s own Free Democrats are poised to benefit from this as they could present themselves as a clean and substantive alternative, but they have not yet done that.”

Beyond the obvious shock of the attack, Georgia’s political parties are already moving into a war footing ahead of the upcoming elections. The contest between Georgian Dream, the Free Democrats, the UNM, and a range of anti-western groups is shaping up to be less predictable than any election recent memory. Fortunately, Petriashvili’s attack does not appear to be an outgrowth of that competition, at least so far. Even so, it is almost certain to be featured in the upcoming political battles.

“In a way, it almost does not matter who is behind the Petriashvili shooting,” Alasania said. “But the incident does show there are people who are unafraid of walking around on public streets with guns.”

In the photo, supporters of former president Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) take part in a rally in Georgian capital Tbilisi on March 21, 2015.

Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images