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."
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