In a 90-minute TV interview late on November 8, Bidzina Ivanishvili commented at length on the turmoil within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition that he led to victory against then President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary election.
Ivanishvili characterized the events of the past week -- Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and the subsequent withdrawal of Alasania's Our Georgia-Free Democrats party from the Georgian Dream coalition -- as a crisis within the coalition, not "a political crisis within the government."
Predictably, Ivanishvili took the side of his protege Garibashvili against Alasania, whom Ivanishvili had dismissed as first deputy prime minister in January 2013. Ivanishvili's stated rationale for doing so was that Alasania had raised with his fellow Free Democrats the possibility of running in the October 2013 presidential election without first discussing it with Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili echoed Garibashvili's November 4 criticism of Alasania for "politicizing" the arrest in late October of senior Defense Ministry officials in connection with an allegedly rigged tender for the laying of a fiber optic cable. At the same time, while arguing that the circumstances of the tender justified the arrests and investigation, Ivanishvili criticized Prosecutor-General Giorgi Badashvili (without naming him) for the timing. He said the prosecutor should have waited for Alasania to return to Tbilisi (he was on an official trip to France and Germany at the time) and then given him one hour's advance warning of what was about to happen.
Badashvili was employed by the Finance Ministry's Investigations Unit from 2006 until May 2013, when he was named deputy head of the Interior Ministry's anticorruption agency. It was Garibashvili who selected him in January 2014 for the post of prosecutor-general.
Ivanishvili characterized Garibashvili as "sincere," "efficient," "a strong personality and strong manager," who "works around the clock." At thr same time, he criticized as "absolutely unacceptable" Gharibashvil's denunciation of Alasania as a traitor and adventurer. He attributed that emotional outburst to Gharibashvili's "political inexperience."
Ivanishvili acknowledged nonetheless that Garibashvili periodically solicits his opinion and advice, adding that he now does so less frequently than previously (once in two months, rather than on a weekly basis). But he also categorically rejected as "insulting" and "groundless" the implication by President Giorgi Margvelashvili that he dictates government policy from behind the scenes. Margvelashvili was Ivanishvili's handpicked candidate to succeed Saakashvili last year, but Ivanishvili has apparently been disappointed by his performance so far (or perhaps specifically by Margvelashvili 's ongoing public turf battle with Garibashvili over which of them should represent the country at which international events). Ivanishvili said Margvelashvili's actions are "weakening the presidency."
By contrast, Ivanishvili downplayed the possible long-term negative repercussions of the Free Democrats' withdrawal from the GD coalition, saying the emergence within parliament of a "constructive opposition" (as distinct from Saakashvili's ENM) would not be "a bad thing." At the last count, three of the Free Democrats' 10 parliamentarians remain within the Georgian Dream faction, but one member of that majority faction has defected to the Free Democrats. GD thus controls 75 of the 150 mandates, one short of an absolute majority, the ENM – 51, and the Free Democrats – eight. Those figures may change, however: parliament speaker David Usupashvili was quoted on November 7 as saying some lawmakers who are not currently members of the GD faction are considering joining it.
'Plenty Of Yanukovychs'
Asked whether he intends to return to active politics, Ivanishvili responded "God forbid!" But his revelation earlier in the interview that he plans to launch a weekly one-hour TV program to fill the demand for "objective information and objective analysis" and "help society analyze events properly" raises the question whether Ivanishvili is no longer satisfied with his role as what "The Economist" described as a facilitator "who gives opportunities to others, rather than … a politician in his own right" and now seeks to become, at the very least, an architect of public opinion (if again for the benefit of others).
If that is indeed Ivanishvili's objective, he is likely to find himself in a new verbal confrontation with Alasania sooner rather than later. Earlier on November 7, a congress of the Free Democrats elected Alasania unopposed as the party's leader. (Having surrendered his parliamentary mandate in late 2012 to take up the defense portfolio, Alasania cannot not simply return to parliament because he was elected under the party-list system and not in a single-mandate constituency.)
Tom de Waal has commented that the Free Democrats' withdrawal from GD effectively means that the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in the fall of 2016 has already begun. Indeed, Alasania's address to the congress bore all the hallmarks of an election manifesto, and he told delegates he hopes his party "will celebrate victory together with the Georgian people" after that vote.
Alasania is currently Georgia's most popular political figure, and Independent Experts' Club head Soso Tsiskarishvili predicts that the Free Democrats' "intelligence and professionalism" will secure them the support of the country's intelligentsia.
Praising the achievements of the coalition over the past two years, in particular Georgia's "irreversible" progress towards European integration, Alasania announced that "from now on, we are moving to a new political space."
He said that, as an opposition force, the Free Democrats should work relentlessly to ensure that the government as a whole and its individual agencies do not "turn away from the path of serving their own people." At the same time, he announced his intention of touring every district of Georgia and speaking to every family to discuss and then draft a new plan for differentiated socioeconomic development.
As he had done in a TV interview four days earlier, Alasania again underscored the threat posed by what he termed Russian "fundamental imperialism," which he said Georgia cannot withstand without the help and support of the international community. But he did not repeat his controversial earlier statement that "we have plenty of Yanukovychs in this country," an allusion to the Ukrainian president whose U-turn on integration with the European Union was the catalyst for mass popular protests that culminated in his ouster and Russia's encroachment into Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
-- Liz Fuller