In the wake of the political crisis precipitated by the summary dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and the withdrawal of his Our Georgia-Free Democrats party from Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, the country's three top officials have undertaken separate attempts at damage-containment both at home and abroad.
All three have categorically rejected Alasania's November 4 allegation that Georgia's unequivocally pro-European and pro-Atlantic foreign policy orientation is at risk. Their diverging foci demonstrate, however, how each of them is simultaneously seeking to turn the situation to his advantage.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, whose criticism of the Defense Ministry was the catalyst for the crisis, today upped the ante by branding as traitors Alasania and two other Free Democrat ministers who resigned in solidarity with him. He characterized Alasania as "stupid," "ambitious," and "an adventurer," and said his departure from the cabinet will ultimately benefit the country. He further threatened to make public further information that would "bring shame" upon Alasania and his team.
Alasania subsequently commented that Gharibashvili has "lost face" by resorting to such language.
At the same time, Gharibashvili sought to downplay the impact and the political implications of his public altercation with Alasania.
"I want to state firmly to our population that we are a strong state, we are a united, strong government and our strength is demonstrated in our democracy; our institutions function properly and there will be no obstacles either in the government or in the parliament. There is no threat whatsoever of a crisis," Gharibashvili continued. He went on to affirm that one or two week's effective work by the government will suffice to "remove all absurd questions" raised by the events of the past few days.
Speaking on national television late on November 5, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili too affirmed that any deviation from Georgia's European course "is impossible.” One day earlier, however, he had warned in a statement that the “political confrontation” and “crisis” within the ruling coalition did pose a threat both to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and to the smooth functioning of state bodies, in particular the armed forces.
Also on November 5, Margvelashvili advocated convening a special cabinet session to discuss implementation of the Association Agreement with the European Union signed in June and also "how efficiently each politician" serves the will the people. It is not clear from reports of Gharibashvili's address to the cabinet whether and how he responded to that proposal.
Whether Margvelashvili was implying that Gharibashvili's track record too should be evaluated is not clear. For months, commentators have been discussing the perceived animosity between the two men, both of them proteges of billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgian Dream three years ago and led the coalition to victory in the October 2012 parliamentary elections. In an allusion to the widely held conviction that since resigning as prime minister a year ago, Ivanishvili has continued to dictate policy, Margvelashvilii recalled in his statement on November 4 that he has warned repeatedly that "the country should be ruled by strong institutions and not from behind the scenes.”"
Margvelashvili further requested on November 5 that the parliament convene a special session to discuss arranging for him to deliver a special address to the nation
Parliament speaker David Usupashvili pointed out, however, that while he personally would welcome the president's presence in parliament at any time, the circumstances in which the president may address parliament are clearly defined by law, and it is not within his competence to rule on the issue. He expressed confidence that Margvelashvili's parliamentary secretary will clarify what he has in mind.
Usupashvili is a former leader of the Republican Party, one of the junior members of the Georgian Dream coalition with nine parliament mandates. Contrary to some Georgian analysts' expectations, the Republican Party did not follow the example of Alasania's Free Democrats and quit the coalition.
At a briefing on November 6, Usupashvili delivered a reasoned, articulate, detailed, and statesmanlike assessment of the events of the past few days in which he distanced himself from Gharibashvili. He stressed that under the Georgian Constitution it is the parliament, rather than the government, that formulates both domestic and foreign policy. For that reason, he said, assumptions that a threat has arisen to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic orientation are without foundation.
At the same time, without mentioning any individual by name, Usupashvili made clear his disapproval of how the controversy triggered by the arrest on suspicion of corruption of senior Defense Ministry officials was handled, saying that all key players acted over-hastily.
Acknowledging that any minister is required to make political decisions, Usupashvili went on to affirm that "of course it was possible" to "investigate a criminal case without such political cataclysms."
Usupashvili said he shares the concern expressed by the U.S. State Department over the circumstances of Alasania's dismissal. He personally appealed to the Free Democrats as "our friends" to continue cooperation in or out of the parliament.
Whether, as some analysts have suggested, Gharibashvili was out to sideline Alasania for having acted too independently, and the corruption allegations were simply a pretext for doing so, is now of little relevance. So too is speculation whether Alasania badly miscalculated the support he could count on. Not only did the Republican Party fail to side with him; Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, a former Free Democrat, announced on November 5 that she will not resign as long as she remains convinced that Gharibashvili's cabinet as a whole is unequivocally committed to its Euro-Atlantic orientation.
On the one hand, Alasania has laid himself open to charges of inconsistency, and possibly of opportunism, by first alleging "a concrete Russian plan" to destroy those Georgian institutions responsible for ensuring Georgia's European integration, appealing to all concerned to close ranks to prevent that scenario, and then rejecting any kind of cooperation with the opposition United National Movement (ENM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. (As Gharibashvili subsequently commented, such scare-mongering has hitherto been the exclusive preserve of the ENM.)
On the other hand, the accusation of endangering Georgia's pro-European orientation by sabotaging the effectiveness of the armed forces was the most damning that Alasania could have brought against Gharibashvili, and the one most likely to secure him international support.
-- Liz Fuller