The end of the Georgian dream

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Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili's decision on 4 November 2014 to dismiss Defence Minister Irakli Alasania provoked an immediate reaction both in and outside the country.

Kornely Kakachia
12 January 2015

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili's decision on 4 November 2014 to dismiss Defence Minister Irakli Alasania provoked an immediate reaction both in and outside the country.

The sequence of events began on 28 October with the arrest of several high-ranking Defence Ministry officials on suspicion of corruption. Irakli Alasania, leader of the Our Georgia – Free Democrats party (FD), who also happens to be one of the country's most popular politicians, declared his confidence in his colleagues, calling the investigation an attack on Georgia’s aspirations to move closer to Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community. He maintained that his staff members being detained for alleged misspending, had more to do with his having just held successful talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian on the shipment of advanced defence systems to Tbilisi. Alasania hinted that the government had sacked him so as to be able to cancel the contract and please Moscow.

The dismissal of Alasania prompted the resignation of the entire foreign policy team. Georgia’s Foreign Minister, Maia Panjikidze (Mr Alasania's sister-in-law), and the Minister of State for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Alex Petriashvili, strong supporters of Georgia's Euro-Atlantic drive, followed suit. The government responded by strongly rejecting the allegations levelled against it by Alasania, describing them as 'completely irresponsible' and stressing that Alasania’s actions were politicising the Defence Ministry in a most unacceptable way. While Alasania did not provide any additional argument as to why the country’s political course might have been put at risk, the withdrawal of the Free Democrats (FD) from the governing Georgian Dream (GD) coalition put its parliamentary majority in jeopardy.

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Irakli Alasania, former Defence Minister. Image via Shutterstock

Crisis averted

Our Georgia – Free Democrats was one of Georgian Dream's founding members. Its withdrawal from the coalition looked likely to provoke the long-anticipated disintegration of the coalition, and a political crisis seemed inevitable. GD could well have lost its parliamentary majority, as seven out of ten deputies from the FD party had left the GD parliamentary majority group. However, disintegration was avoided because the ruling coalition managed to persuade the Republicans – another liberal member of the ruling coalition – to stay on board. Moreover, to maintain its 'informal majority' in parliament, GD co-opted 12 independent deputies (some former United National Movement members and other single mandate deputies), thus preserving its majority with 87 deputies in the 150-seat parliament. So, although the departure of the FD party certainly weakened the coalition and its public image, in the short term the GD government managed to prevent Georgia from unexpected political destabilisation, which could have led the country into a political crisis.

The Georgian Dream government is out of touch with both the general public and Western governments

This does not mean the end of the problem. The Georgian Dream government is out of touch with both the general public and Western governments, so the abrupt departure of pro-European government ministers responsible for Georgia's integration into the EU and NATO could be problematic internationally. And as doubts remain about the government’s competence to deal with the opposition responsibly, Western officials have issued numerous warnings about selective justice and the persecution of political opponents. But Alasania's departure does not necessarily call Tbilisi’s future political course into question, and fears that it could be at risk appear exaggerated, although Georgia's Western friends will be concerned that an ongoing political feud could slow down, or even threaten, Georgia's move toward the Euro-Atlantic space, especially towards NATO.

Power plays

On the other hand, while Georgian officials portrayed the case against Alasania as an anti-corruption move, many people still believe the main goal of the investigation process was to discredit Alasania, whom opinion polls have repeatedly shown to be the most popular politician in the ruling coalition: the NDI poll in August gave him a 60% approval rating, while PM Irakli Gharibashvili lagged behind at 54%. Despite his cooperation with Georgian Dream, tensions between Alasania, Gharibashvili and the Georgian billionaire ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili go back a long way. Alasania may have supported the creation of GD from the outset, but he had different views on Georgia’s foreign policy trajectory and favoured a presidential system strictly monitored by the legislative body.

During his tenure as PM, Ivanishvili had struggled to secure unchallenged power over each pillar of the political system but most vigorously over the presidency. By favouring (current incumbent) Giorgi Margvelashvili for the post of president he rode roughshod over Alasania’s long-time ambitions in that direction. In addition, he stripped Alasania of the post of Deputy PM, which caused a cooling in relations between the two leaders. Ivanishvili's demotion of Alasania demonstrated that he did not trust him and was seeking to prevent him from gaining more power. Whilst there is still little evidence that Ivanishvili had anything to do with the dismissal of Alasania, the way events have developed makes it clear that Georgian officials are not above taking political decisions aimed at marginalising a potential challenger.

Georgian officials are not above taking political decisions aimed at marginalising a potential challenger.

The political crisis that erupted a few months after Georgia (with Ukraine and Moldova) signed an Association Agreement with the EU on 27 June 2014, was originally perceived merely as a struggle over the country’s geopolitical orientation. However, as the sequence of events has shown, there were domestic reasons for the crisis as well. Georgia's political system remains in transition, with frequent adjustments to the balance of power between the Prime Minister, President and Parliament. The adoption of new constitutional changes reinforced the formal framework for democratic statehood, but it has become obvious that at present Georgian society has neither a strong political will nor experience in democratic governance.

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The Georgian parliament building. Spartaky via Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

Democratic political culture is still embryonic, and thus Georgia is experiencing a new political phenomenon. Political processes in Georgia, unlike other post-Soviet states, can be dominated by an unaccountable public figure, like former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is believed still to have a say in government decisions. Ivanishvili, who is outside democratic control and beyond any institutional checks and balances, is ultimately calling the shots, even though he has had no official post since stepping down as prime minister at the end of 2013. This ambiguous situation puts Georgia in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis both its commitment to democracy and its foreign policy orientation, and increases regime and institutional uncertainty for the future.

While Ivanishvili remains the most important decision-maker in the country, his possible part in Alasania's removal is not clear (though widely suspected). Whatever that role might have been, the lack of transparency in the decision-making process poses an additional problem for Georgia's imperfect democracy. Effective and democratic political institutions are essential for a sustainable democracy; the Georgian political crisis has revealed that the consolidation of democratic institutions and a competitive political space in Georgia are still lacking.

Looking ahead

Georgia will soon enter another election cycle, with a parliamentary election set for 2016. This election will be regarded both inside Georgia and abroad as another democratic litmus test, so the key challenge for the Georgian public seems to be how to deal with strong personalities like Ivanishvili and Saakashvili and their controversial legacies. As their political ambitions are considerably greater than Georgia's weight in the international arena, their overwhelming influence (one political, and the other political and financial) hampers the development of strong, rule-based democratic institutions.

The key challenge seems to be how to deal with strong personalities like Saakashvili and their controversial legacies

To complicate the polarised political situation still further, both of them still hope to return to Georgian politics at some point. While Saakashvili impatiently waits for the GD government to fail and Georgian public opinion to change, it is still not completely impossible that Ivanishvili, who does not like losing a political battle, may return to government should his successors fail.

At the same time, a recent (August 2014) opinion poll run by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC) for NDI, showed that there is a desire for a third political force in the country. 42% of respondents identified the GD ruling coalition as the political force 'closest' to them, followed by UNM with 11%. However, 30% chose to answer 'no party', which is not good news for either GD or UNM. There could yet be a chance, then, for other political groups to fill this gap, including Alasania and his party.

The impact of the governing coalition's first major crisis on the Georgian political landscape, and its precise outcome, is unclear. The Alasania affair also highlights Georgia's difficulties in pursuing the twin goals of striking a balance between restoring relations with Russia, and still joining NATO and the European Union. As the consensus in favour of alignment with the West continues to be remarkably broad and resilient, any deepening of the crisis, and break-up of the coalition, may also threaten the continuation of the European and Euro-Atlantic policies of Georgia. This could be a turning point for Georgian party politics: the fact that a parliamentary election looms in 2016 could well provoke a major reshuffle on the Georgian political scene.

Alasania pledged to bring his party to victory in the next parliamentary election, yet the lack of financial resources and a strong political organisation makes it difficult for FD to articulate and harness the views of the electorate. Despite his popular following, especially among liberal Georgians, it is not yet clear how Alasania might translate his personal popularity into nationwide political support, given that his party simply does not have mass backing. FD also lacks experience in the effective organisation of party structures, the formulation of necessary electoral platforms, and, most importantly, in how to build on political consensus, which is an essential ingredient of any democratic system. Predictably, Alasania has rejected any cooperation with the United National Movement (UNM), so it remains to be seen to which political and societal forces he turns, for political co-operation, in the run-up to the election. To become a real competitor to the GD government, Alasania will surely need to overcome the current zero-sum approach to politics, and to prove his ability to become an independent and efficient political actor.

Unlike the last election, which was more or less 'all against one,' the next election will probably be led by political groupings united around values and policies. While it is too early to claim that Georgia's pro-European course is under threat, many commentators on Georgian politics believe that Alasania should base his political campaign on a Euro-Atlantic agenda. However, one should not forget that his party is not the only one pursuing that agenda. Alasania and FD need to offer Georgian voters a clearly defined political agenda, and unite them behind a clear programme for democratic change.

 Standfirst image: The Georgian parliament building in Kutaisi. Spartaky via Wikipedia. Some rights reserved. 

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