Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Kadyrov Envoy Implicated In Extortion Scandal

Is the Kremlin no longer ready to look the other way on transgressions by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's (center) entourage in Moscow?

The brother of Ramzan Tsitsulayev, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's personal plenipotentiary in Ukraine, and two of Tsitsulayev's bodyguards have been remanded in pretrial detention in Moscow after a fistfight last week with plainclothes police officers who sought to apprehend Tsitsulayev in a sting operation on suspicion of involvement in an illegal cash-withdrawals racket. But the police officer in charge of the operation has resigned after being suspended from duty.

Tsitsulayev reportedly attracted suspicion through his apparent willingness to help an acquaintance, a businessman named Novikov, who had been arrested in connection with an attempt to extort 109 million rubles ($2.37 million) from a Chechen named Zakriyev. Tsitsulayev is said to have told Novikov's wife Maria he could arrange her husband's release in return for a payment of 500,000 euros ($619,534).

Novikova allegedly tipped off the police, who filmed a rendezvous on November 15 at which Novikova handed over to Tsitsulayev a first installment of 50,000 euros. Police arranged to apprehend him at a second meeting with Novikova four days later.

Tsitsulayev, however, tells a different story. The daily Kommersant quoted him as saying he was approached out of the blue by a woman named Maria Novikova who solicited his help in hiring a lawyer to represent her husband, who had been arrested on charges of extortion and kidnapping.

Tsitsulayev gave Novikova the advice she sought, but she insisted on meeting with him personally, and they agreed on a rendezvous at the restaurant of his Moscow hotel. When Novikova showed up carrying a large black parcel, which she tried to present to him, Tsitsulayev says, three men sitting at the next table tried to apprehend him, but were prevented from doing so by Tsitsulayev's brother and bodyguards.

Tsitsulayev managed to evade capture and flee to Chechnya; he has denied the charge of extortion and affirmed his readiness to "provide the necessary explanations" if formally summoned for questioning by the Investigative Committee.

It is conceivable, however, that no such summons will be forthcoming: Kadyrov, who has not yet commented publicly on the incident, may pressure the federal prosecutor's office to have the investigation dropped, especially in light of Tsitsulayev's reported role in negotiating the release by the Ukrainian authorities of Russian journalists Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko, who were apprehended in eastern Ukraine in May.

If, on the other hand, the charges against Tsitsulayev and his brother and bodyguards are not dropped, that would imply a major shift in the Kremlin's attitude to Kadyrov and, by extension, his entourage. Until now, Kadyrov's henchmen have been free to wreak havoc in Moscow with impunity, apparently in light of orders from the highest level not to touch them.

The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta chronicled last year how a group of Chechen policemen who were detained for having kidnapped and tortured a man in Moscow in 2011 to extort money from him were subsequently released, while the investigator who had worked on the case was fired. Federal Security Service (FSB) officers involved in the case threatened to go on strike in protest.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags:Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov


Supporters Demand Release Of Jailed Former Georgian Warlord

Emzar Kvitsiani (right) on his arrival at Tbilisi airport earlier this year.

Several hundred supporters of Emzar Kvitsiani, who was sentenced to 12 years in jail earlier this week for defying Georgia's leaders in the summer of 2006, staged a protest in Tbilisi on November 20 to demand his unconditional release by December 1 and the creation of a parliament commission to review the charges against him. 

The demonstrators warned of renewed protests if those demands are not met.  They also adopted a separate appeal to Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili to pardon Kvitsiani.

Commenting on the verdict, Kvitsiani's sister Nora, who was tried and sentenced in 2007 on charges of forming an illegal armed group and the theft of humanitarian aid, argued that he acted in 2006 as "a Georgian patriot who fought for his country." She maintained that Kvitsiani has become "the current Georgian leadership's first political prisoner."  

Kvitsiani, 53, is a member of Georgia's Svan sub-ethnos whose traditional homeland is a remote mountain district in the northwest of the country. Little is known for certain about his career prior to the 1990s; unsubstantiated reports in the Russian press claim he acquired a criminal record. 

During the 1992-1993 war that culminated in Tbilisi's loss of control over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, Kvitsiani formed the Monadire (Hunter) battalion of several hundred fighters financed by the Georgian Defense Ministry, which maintained control over the Georgian section of the Kodori gorge that straddles Georgia proper and Abkhazia. It is a measure of Kvitsiani's competence as a military commander that when he was arrested on his return to Tbilisi from Moscow in late February 2014, no fewer than 30 generals, including two former defense ministers, offered to stand bail for him.

In 1997, then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze named Kvitsiani his personal plenipotentiary in the region. Following Shevardnadze's ouster in the Rose Revolution of November 2003, Kvitsiani was dismissed as presidential representative at the urging of Irakli Alasania, then head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile. In May 2005, then Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili ordered Monadire disbanded, and subsequently accused its members of engaging in unspecified criminal activity.

Kvitsiani not only refused to comply with the order to disband his unit, in late July 2006, he formally declared civil disobedience and threatened to begin a civil war unless Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was dismissed from that post.  Merabishvili was believed to be implicated in the murders earlier in 2006 of several Svans, including  banker Sandro Girgvliani.  (Merabishvili was sentenced last month to three years' imprisonment for his role in concealing the circumstances of Girgvliani's killing by Interior Ministry personnel.)

Vanished From View

Merabishvili and Okruashvili responded by deploying to Kodori army and Interior Ministry troops backed by combat helicopters, but failed to apprehend Kvitsiani despite offering a 100,000 lari reward ($56,000) for his capture.  In late October 2006, Kvitsiani claimed it was his men who opened fire on Merabishvili's motorcade in Kodori several days earlier. Kvitsiani also sent a missive to the independent Georgian TV station Mze (Sun) branding the leadership  of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "fascist" and vowing "revenge on the authorities for insulting the people of Georgia."  But he failed to deliver on that threat.

After that episode, Kvitsiani vanished from view and, at some point, settled in Moscow, where he lived for several years. In February 2014, he returned to Tbilisi for reasons that remain unclear: either because the Russian authorities refused to prolong his residency, or because he wanted to go public with details of the events of 2006. He was arrested on his arrival and remanded in pre-trial custody, which was extended in April despite an appeal by 32 members of the majority Georgian Dream parliament faction to release him. That level of support suggests that many Georgians believe Kvitsiani was justified in challenging the Saakashili regime.

A court in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi found Kvitsiani guilty on November 17 of mutiny and of forming an illegal armed group -- charges to which he had pleaded not guilty. Seven other charges had been dropped in June. 

Kvitsiani's lawyer Emzar Kakhniauri was quoted by Caucasus Knot as saying that the prosecutor had promised Kvitsiani he would be released if he pled guilty, and pressured the judge to hand down the maximum sentence when Kvitsiani refused to do so. 

Georgia's human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili expressed reservations about the conduct of the trial. Parliamentarian Soso Djachvliani, who participated in the November 20 Tbilisi protest, questioned why Kvitsiani had received a far more severe sentence than either Merabishvili or former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaya, who was jailed for 7 ½ years last month on charges of torture and abuse of his official position.  

-- Liz Fuller


Not All Daghestanis Share Boosted View Of Republican Leader

Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov (file photo)

An opinion poll conducted last month by an influential Russian think tank registered a marked increase in the rating of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. Abdulatipov rose from 20th to 16th place among the 85 federation subject heads to land in the group of local leaders wielding “a very strong influence.”

Not all Daghestanis share that perception of Abdulatipov’s efficiency, however. Albert Esedov, a political commentator and one of the leaders of the Lezgin national movement Sadval, told the news agency Regnum he thinks Abdulatipov’s adroit use of PR was the primary reason for Russians’ enhanced perception of his abilities.

Even less impressed were eight representatives of the opposition party A Just Russia who with the support of NGOs from across Daghestan launched a hunger strike in Makhachkala late last month to demand Abdulatipov’s resignation and measures to combat endemic corruption.

In a press release quoted by the independent weekly “Chernovik,” they argued that in the 18 months since Russian President Vladimir Putin first named Abdulatipov acting republic head, the population of Daghestan has been stripped of its constitutional and civil rights and been reduced to “a grey mass of slaves” who risk losing their identity if Abdulatipov remains in his post much longer. They further warn that “the authoritarian regime established in Daghestan is being smoothly transformed into a dictatorship, and this could lead to fascism.”

Senior Daghestani officials, including Denga Khalidov, one of Abdulatipov’s aides, met with the hunger strikers on November 9. But instead of agreeing to the broad measures that the protesters were demanding, including ratification of Article 20 (on “Illicit Enrichment”) of the UN Convention against Corruption, they offered to set up working groups to address the hunger strikers’ individual grievances -- in other words, to buy them off. Khalidov pointed out in an interview that those grievances date back five, seven or in some cases 10 years, implying that they should not be blamed on Abdulatipov. He claimed the hunger strike was orchestrated by former Daghestani officials now based in Moscow with the aim of “destabilizing” the situation but did not identify them by name.

Khalidov’s rhetoric complements Abdulatipov’s personal tactic of claiming the credit for any and all positive achievements while off-loading onto the relevant government agency responsibility for whatever goes wrong. Certainly the argument that it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect Abdulatipov to resolve in 18 months all the myriad problems that have accumulated over the past two decades is a valid one, especially given the existence of powerful political and economic interest groups whose members perceive Abdulatipov’s policies as a threat to their own, diverging agendas and thus seek constantly to undermine him.

But that argument would carry greater weight with the population at large were it not for the way senior officials seemingly continue to bend the rules and turn a blind eye to, or even engage in, blatant violations of the law. That approach is characteristic of the Daghestani leadership’s efforts both to contain the Islamic insurgency and to engineer the dismissal and prosecution of powerful local barons who have ruled their respective regions with an iron hand for years with little regard for orders from the central government and accumulated a fortune in the process.

That perceived cavalier disregard for the law is evident in a string of highly publicized incidents over the past two months.

In mid-September, the entire population (213 households, a total of some 900 people) of the settlement of Vremenny near Gimri were forced to vacate their homes due to the imposition of counter-terror restrictions. The village has since been cordoned off with barbed wire, enabling the military to engage in looting and wanton destruction.

The villagers’ appeal to be allowed to return, even briefly, to collect warm winter clothing for their children, fell on deaf ears, as did an open letter of protest addressed to President Putin in which they charged that the Russian military personnel enforcing the restrictions “have been trained only to rob, to plunder, and to insult and humiliate the civilian population.” They are now demanding that the republic’s leadership provide alternative accommodation, possibly in the form of a tent camp, until the counterterror restrictions are lifted and the military personnel withdrawn.

The situation in Vremenny calls into question the effectiveness of Abdulatipov’s scheme for depriving the militants of popular support by concluding agreements with individual municipalities to provide infrastructure improvements and other material benefits in return for an undertaking to help local police locate and disarm insurgents. The first such agreement, with the local authorities of the Untsukul district that encompasses Vremenny, was signed with great fanfare in February.

In a second counterterror operation, Patimat Nasibova, 34, was apprehended early on October 6 in her home village of Kirovaul in Kizilyurt district after going to drive out stray cattle grazing in the yard of her grandfather’s abandoned house in which security personnel suspected a militant was hiding. She was taken to Makhachkala, placed in solitary confinement, and subjected to electric shocks to induce her to “confess” to abetting the insurgency.

Meanwhile, the head and deputy head of the Daghestan presidential administration were dispatched late last month to the southern Derbent district, whose long-time leader Kurban Kurbanov, an Azerbaijani, had been formally charged in September with exceeding his authority and suspended from office after he declined to comply with Abdulatipov’s orders that he should resign his post prematurely.

The senior officials sought for two days to pressure acting Derbent district head Ali Khazbulatov first, to name as his acting first deputy Yakhya Gadjiyev, and then to step down and appoint Gadjiyev his successor as acting district head in violation of the relevant legislation. Khazbulatov caved in and complied with that demand only after having been summoned to Makhachkala (and presumably bawled out by Abdulatipov personally). He was further induced to deny publicly that any pressure had been brought to bear on him or any of his colleagues, even though police were sent to round up municipal council members who failed to show up for an emergency session to endorse Gadjiyev’s appointment.

However eloquently and persistently Abdulatipov’s spokesmen seek to rationalize such injustices in the name of eradicating corruption, inefficiency, and Islamic extremism, such behavior is seemingly bound to deepen the rift between the republic’s leaders and the mistrustful and alienated population. As long as Abdulatipov can count on President Putin’s unswerving support, however, his “official” approval rating is unlikely to suffer.


Former Georgian Premier Downplays Political Upheaval

In an extensive interview, influential Georgian tycoon and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (center), has sided with his successor Irakli Garibashvili (far left) regarding the dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (far right). Ivanishvili also said he was disappointed with the performance of President Giorgi Margvelashvili (second left).

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


Georgian Leaders Assess Repercussions Of Defense Minister's Dismissal

Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania

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 


Former Georgian Defense Minister's Party Quits Ruling Coalition

Former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania speaks to members of the Georgian media in Tbilisi on November 5.

The Our Georgia--Free Democrats party headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has withdrawn from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition of which it was the second-largest member. The loss of its 10 lawmakers leaves the Georgian Dream parliament faction with just 73 of the 150 mandates, three short of a majority. The opposition United National Movement of former President Mikheil Saakashvili has 51 mandates.

On November 4, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili dismissed Alasania as defense minister following the arrest one week earlier of five senior Defense Ministry and General Staff personnel in connection with a controversial Defense Ministry tender. Gharibashvili implied that Alasania turned a blind eye to the rigging of the tender in favor of a company in which a relative of one of his deputies served as finance director.

Gharibashvili also held Alasania publicly responsible for a widespread outbreak of food-poisoning among military personnel last year. Three army medical officers and three employees of a company that provides food for the armed forces have been charged with negligence in connection with the incident, which Gharibashvili adduced as evidence of Alasania's "inefficiency"  and unsuitability to continue serving as minister.

Speaking earlier on November 5 prior to a session of Georgian Dream's political council that Alasania attended, Gharibashvili said he hoped that the Free Democrats, whom he characterized as including "many dignified and good people," would remain part of the coalition and continue to support Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic integration. He again slammed as "reckless," "irresponsible," and "insulting" Alasania's claim that the arrests of senior Defense Ministry and General Staff personnel were "politically motivated" and intended to sabotage Georgia's pro-Western orientation.

"But if they [the Free Democrats] choose one person over the state, that is their choice," Gharibashvili concluded.

Khatuna Samnidze told journalists after the political council session that the Republican Party of which she is chairwoman will remain in the coalition.

The website Caucasus Knot had earlier quoted veteran Republican David Berdzenishvili as not ruling out the possibility that the Republicans would also leave, and their nine parliamentarians would form a new parliament faction with the Free Democrats.

Despite his November 4 appeal to all who uphold Georgia's pro-Western orientation to close ranks, Alasania categorically excluded the possibility of the Free Democrats aligning with the ENM, although ENM faction head David Bakradze has signaled his readiness for such an alliance.

Meanwhile, Gharibashvili has appointed the little-known Colonel Mindia Djanelidze to succeed Alasania, predicting that that "he will be a much better Defense Minister than his predecessor." Djanelidze, 36, is a qualified lawyer whom Gharibashvili, then interior minister, had named in late 2012 to head the ministry's counterintelligence department. One year later, he was appointed to head the ministry's newly created Security and Crisis Management Council.

-- Liz Fuller


Sacked Georgian Defense Minister Predicts 'Political Crisis'

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (file photo)

The cohesion of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition is in jeopardy following Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania on November 4. So too, Alasania predicted shortly after his dismissal, is the country's pro-Western foreign policy orientation.

Garibashvili said that Alasania's firing was necessitated by the latter's "politicization" of the circumstances surrounding the arrest last week of several Defense Ministry officials on corruption charges and his refusal to cooperate with the investigation that has been launched.

Alasania for his part construed what he termed the "concerted attack" on the Defense Ministry as "politically motivated" and "a campaign against the main driving force for achieving our Euro-Atlantic aspirations." Garibashvili dismissed the latter argument as "completely irresponsible."

The catalyst for the crisis was the arrest on October 28 of one former and four current Defense Ministry and General Staff officials in connection with a tender for the laying of a fiber-optic cable that was awarded in December 2013 to SilkNet, one of Georgia's largest telecoms companies, whose financial director is reportedly a close relative of Deputy Defense Minister Aleksi Batiashvili. According to the Georgian prosecutor's office, the agreed price to be paid to SilkNet was 6.7 million laris ($3.83 million), 4.1 million laris more than the actual cost of the goods and services to be provided. SilkNet said its bid was 2.4 million laris lower than that submitted by the runner-up.

The Defense Ministry responded on October 28 to the arrests with a statement saying the procurement process was undertaken in full compliance with the relevant legislation. The ministry further offered to make public details of the tender, which had been classified as "secret."

Ousted Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (right) arrives for a meeting with members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in Tbilisi on November 5.Ousted Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (right) arrives for a meeting with members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in Tbilisi on November 5.
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Ousted Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (right) arrives for a meeting with members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in Tbilisi on November 5.
Ousted Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (right) arrives for a meeting with members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in Tbilisi on November 5.

The five officials involved were remanded in pretrial detention at a closed hearing on October 30, even though a group of senior officers had offered to stand bail for them.

Speaking to journalists on November 1 on his return from a visit to France and Germany, Alasania similarly affirmed that all ministry procurements are carried out in full compliance with the law and expressed confidence that the five arrested officials are innocent. Alasania argued that the arrests have already damaged the country's security.

In an interview with the TV station Rustavi-2 just hours after his dismissal, Alasania went even further, linking the arrests to a Russian plan "to destroy those state institutions that stand for Georgia's integration with Europe and NATO" and to create "a Georgian Yanukovych," an allusion to the pro-Moscow Ukrainian president ousted in February 2014 in the wake of months of mass protests.

Alasania appealed in that interview to all pro-Western forces in Georgia to close ranks to thwart the imputed Russian scenario.

Alasania, 40, served from 2006-08 as Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations. He has thus had greater international exposure and experience than any other member of the present leadership and enjoys considerable respect abroad. U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi Richard Norland commented on October 30 that "we have full confidence in Minister Alasania and the leadership team at the Ministry of Defense and we commend the way they have responded to this investigation." Norland also said the United States "continues to have full confidence in Georgia as a military partner and a defense partner with United States, bilaterally and with NATO."

In addition, a poll conducted in late July-early August on behalf of the U.S. National Democratic Institute found that Alasania was the most popular political figure in Georgia, with an approval rating of 60 percent. Garibashvili was second with 54 percent, followed by parliament speaker David Usupashvili (51 percent).

The impact on Georgian domestic politics of Alasania's dismissal will not be clear until after a scheduled meeting on November 5 of the ruling council of the six-party Georgian Dream coalition. The coalition currently controls 83 of the 150 parliament mandates. Alasania's Our Georgia-Free Democrats have 10 mandates. In the event that the Free Democrats quit the Georgian Dream majority parliament faction, that faction would lose its absolute majority.

Alasania said following his dismissal that he sees "absolutely no chance" that the coalition will participate in the parliamentary elections due in October 2016 in its current format.

Meanwhile, Minister for European Integration Aleksi Petriashvili and Foreign Minister Maia Pandjikidze, both of them members of Our Georgia-Free Democrats, have resigned in solidarity with Alasania. It is not clear whether Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who is close to Alasania's party, will do likewise.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.