An expert's point of view on a current event.

Trouble in Tbilisi

Georgia’s government is falling apart and its most beloved, pro-Western politician is going with it.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s decision to sack the country’s minister of defense, Irakli Alasania, has rattled the fragile Georgian Dream political coalition of six parties that has governed since its October 2012 upset victory over the United National Movement (UNM), the party of ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Over the last two years, the Georgian Dream has cultivated the popular image of a democratic and socially responsive successor to Saakashvili’s ground-breaking but heavy-handed regime, which catered to the West but failed to combat poverty and unemployment. But the Georgian Dream coalition’s benevolent image is now under threat.

The infighting within Georgian Dream should not come as a surprise. The coalition has been an alliance of convenience since it was formed in 2011, united on the basis of a desire to oust the UNM, which had worn out its welcome after nine years of rule.

Forty-year-old Alasania was a leading coalition figure who had been appointed minister of defense by Garibashvili’s predecessor, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Alasania’s Free Democrats party and the Republicans, a second coalition party led by parliamentary chairman David Usupashvili, have been the coalition’s reformist vanguard. Its eponymous party, the Georgian Dream, is the brainchild of Ivanishvili, who made it his mission to rid the country of Saakashvili. After a year as prime minister, however, he preferred to operate behind the scenes, appointing his former employee and minister of internal affairs, 32-year-old Garibashvili, to serve as prime minister in his stead. While still adhering to a pro-Western course that is popular in Georgia, the Georgian Dream is more cautious in its dealings with Russia and caters to a more conservative and nationalist constituency.

The firing was precipitated by Alasania’s vocal criticism of the arrest of 10 Defense Ministry officials (and one former official) in the span of a week in late October and early November. The prosecutor’s office ordered their arrest on charges related to an alleged case of procurement corruption and, curiously, health and sanitary negligence leading to the food poisoning of hundreds of soldiers. Alasania insisted that the charges were politically motivated, calling them a "deliberate attack against the Defense Ministry." Garibashvili called Alasania’s words "completely irresponsible" and said the minister was inappropriately politicizing the issue. Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, who happens to be Alasania’s sister-in-law, resigned in protest, as did the state minister on European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Alex Petriashvili, who comes from Alasania’s party.  

Many foreign observers have been quick to attribute the attack against the Ministry of Defense to the alleged "pro-Russian" leanings of Georgian Dream, said to be susceptible to Kremlin pressure and enticement. Alasania himself threw down the gauntlet by calling the arrests "an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice," an accusation that appeared to especially rile Garibashvili, who is an open supporter of Georgia’s association agreement with the European Union.

The latest developments are indeed worrisome, if less for their putative geopolitical motivations than for the doubts they raise about the government’s commitment to depoliticize state institutions and adhere to the rule of law — the same problems that led the Georgian Dream to victory over the UNM. A failure to reform the state risks jeopardizing Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic leanings far more than Georgian Dream’s efforts to normalize relations with Russia. But keeping Georgian reforms on track could require a change in government, which means either a politically improbable alliance of Georgian Dream reformists with their unpopular UNM rivals, or a gamble on snap parliamentary elections that could return the reformists to power with a mandate all their own.     

While details of the cases that led to Alasania’s sacking are unknown, the possibility of improprieties in procurement and dining services in the defense ministry is, at least, greater than zero. Georgia, like other countries in its neighborhood, battles a legacy of corruption and clientelism. Alasania has a reputation for honesty and integrity, but violations could still happen under his watch. That said, the affair is suspicious. It strains credulity that of all the ministries in Georgia, the Defense Ministry, which has prided itself on promoting transparency and good governance, is the one that turned out to be a hotbed of corruption and poor administration.

Others have said the same. Before Alasania’s firing, Foreign Minister Panjikidze offered an unexpected intervention in the case, stating that she was "confident in the position of the defense minister and that he knows exactly what he’s saying." The U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, concurred, noting that the U.S. government, a staunch supporter of the Georgian military which has served in Afghanistan and pursues close integration with NATO, has "full confidence in Minister Alasania and the leadership team at the Ministry of Defense." The implicated vendor in the procurement case, the Silknet telecommunications company, issued its own defense, insisting that the company won the classified tender to lay a fiber optic cable for the ministry solely thanks to its higher quality and lower-cost bid.  

Even if there were grounds for investigation, it is difficult to understand why the government opted to pursue the cases in an "arrest first, ask questions later" mode reminiscent of the UNM’s modus operandi.

Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani — who comes from Alasania’s party and has championed the prosecution of former UNM officials — slammed the prosecutor’s office for arresting officials while the minister was away on business. It was further difficult to see how justice could be served by arresting medical officers and the managers of three army dining halls rather than by imposing appropriate disciplinary measures or fines for their alleged negligence. In firing Alasania, Garibashvili struck a belligerent tone, noting that the defense minister would "definitely have been dismissed anyway" for failing "to solve the issue of food for soldiers for two years" and for "purportedly awarding his friends with tender and procurement [contracts]." After Alasania’s party left the coalition in protest, Garibashvili shrilly denounced Alasania as a "traitor" and an "adventurer."    

Alasania is a popular official, however, with poll rankings higher than any other minister in the government, including Garibashvili. While there are two years to go before the next parliamentary election, the Free Democrats and Republicans would likely have run separately from the prime minister’s team in 2016 parliamentary elections, in the hopes of establishing firmer control over Georgia’s reformist course.

If the Alasania affair was intended to forestall such a move and keep the coalition together, it could backfire even more than it already has. Thanks to constitutional reforms introduced under Saakashvili, Georgia is now a semi-parliamentary democracy, whereby the prime minister serves at the behest of a parliamentary majority. Georgian Dream has enough seats to remain in power even though the Free Democrats have left the ruling coalition. But if Usupashvili’s Republicans were also to defect, it could trigger the government’s collapse.   

The question for the Free Democrats and Republicans would be how to unseat the government without risking their own political future. Theoretically, their 19 deputies could ally with the UNM’s 51 to cobble together a majority vote of no confidence against the government (which would require just six additional votes). Such an alliance, however, carries the risk of political suicide: Garibashvili and Georgian Dream continue to have high levels of public support, while the UNM is viewed by most Georgians as politically irredeemable. A pact with the unpopular UNM could discredit Alasania and Usupashvili, whose popularity in part depends on their "pursuit of justice" against senior UNM officials (including Saakashvili, who is now living in Brooklyn avoiding arrest).  

The only other option for the Free Democrats and Republicans would be to force early parliamentary elections through a constitutional procedure that would allow Georgia’s directly-elected president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, to dissolve Parliament after a successful vote of no confidence. This too would be risky, given Georgian Dream’s continued popularity and the fact that other more overtly pro-Russian conservative parties are lurking in the wings. But it also contains the potential for great reward. As two of the country’s three most popular politicians (Garibashvili being the third), Alasania and Usupashvili have an opportunity they did not have two years ago to field a successful campaign on their own rather than riding on Ivanishvili’s coattails.  

The Georgian Dream coalition came to power with one mission: to unseat the UNM. Its capacity to shepherd the state through the reforms needed to give its Euro-Atlantic choice a fighting chance has now come under question. The reformers that have served in the government may still be uncertain about their ability to win an election on their own. But if they truly believe the country’s future is at stake, they may have no other choice. Georgia’s reforms could depend on it.

Cory Welt is associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and an associate research professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.