For several weeks, representatives of two of the five parties in Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition have engaged in an acrimonious public dispute, fueling speculation that the coalition could collapse ahead of the parliamentary elections due in October 2016.
That scenario now appears somewhat less likely following the intervention of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who since his appointment in late December has consistently reached out to opponents with the aim of achieving "the maximum depolarization and unification of society [and] consolidation around our common political objectives."
The current dispute is between the Republican Party, arguably the most unequivocally pro-Western coalition member, and the Union of Industrialists, whose leader, brewery magnate Gogi Topadze, is notorious for his anti-Western public statements tinged with nostalgia for the Soviet era and what the Republicans consider unacceptable veneration of Josef Stalin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In early February, Topadze accused Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, a leading Republican Party member, of manipulating the outcome of a recent by-election to secure a win for GD. He also accused two lawmakers from the 10-member Republican Party faction (the second-largest within GD) who spoke out in Khidasheli's support of having collaborated with the KGB in the Soviet era.
The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched an investigation to determine whether voting by servicemen at a local military base could have changed the outcome of the Sagarejo by-election in October 2015.
Khidasheli in turn construed Topadze's statements as part of a broader campaign by pro-Russian forces out to derail Georgia's pro-Western foreign policy. She further claimed that GD's founder, the reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, told her he regarded the Republican Party as the foremost member of the coalition.
Kvirikashvili first cautioned Topadze on February 19, condemning his criticism of Khidasheli as "totally unacceptable" and "casting a shadow not only on the party but on the government as a whole."
Then on March 3, Kvirikashvili issued a sternly worded statement saying the standoff had taken on "a completely unacceptable form" and that "it is irrelevant who started it and why." He said Khidasheli should bear in mind that she is first and foremost a government minister, and only second a member of a political party, and that it was of paramount importance that the army should not be drawn into politics.
Apropos of Topadze, Kvirikashvili said without naming him that radicalism, pseudo-traditions, and "Stalinist sentiments emanating from the bowels of the Soviet Union" are alien and unacceptable to the state Georgia aspires to become. He reiterated the coalition's commitment to Eurointegration and affirmed GD's readiness to cooperate with all political forces that are prepared to set aside narrow party considerations and work together to make that shared vision a reality.
He went on to warn "our political partners" that unless they desist from public feuding, he will implement whatever changes may be necessary to ensure the stable functioning of the government.
Kvirikashvili met later the same day at their request with leading members of the Republican Party, including Khidasheli and her husband, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, to "discuss the situation." Usupashvili told journalists after that 90-minute meeting, which he described as "businesslike and amicable," that the two parties will "very soon" finalize an agreement on continuing "strategic, not just short-term" cooperation in the run-up to the October parliamentary elections and beyond.
Asked about the implications of that planned agreement for the coalition as a whole, Usupashvili responded that "there was no talk of dissolving the coalition," but also that "everything needs renewal, including the coalition."
At a cabinet session the following day (March 4), Kvirikashvili similarly said "certain agreements will have to be reached" in the run-up to the elections, and that if GD remains a multiparty coalition, any bilateral agreement reached between the Republicans and the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party -- the senior coalition member -- should also be confirmed in a multilateral format by the other three parties.
He went on to stress, first, that GDDG will itself undergo a "significant renewal," and second, that "if we participate in the elections in a coalition format, the team will unite over very clear goals, which are based on our best values and traditions and of course on consensus over Georgia's European and Euro-Atlantic future."
That latter condition raises the question of whether Topadze's Industrialists will be invited, or would agree, to become part of the GD electoral bloc. Some analysts have already suggested that the Industrialists might quit GD and contest the election jointly with the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, whose candidate lost to GD's candidate in the Sagarejo by-election.
On the other hand, as commentator Korneli Kakachia was quoted as pointing out, it would reflect badly on GD's image if one of its members were to pull out of the coalition at this juncture -- and for that reason, it is probable that Kvirikashvili, who is expected to be elected GDDG chairman at a party congress in the next couple of months, will do all in his power to keep the coalition intact. That may prove difficult if, as commentator Zaal Anjaparidze suggests, there are other conflicts within the coalition that have not yet become public knowledge.
Kvirikashvili has not yet met with Topadze, who characterized the prime minister's March 3 statement as "very good...he knows very well who is right and who's wrong."
A second leading Industrialist, Zurab Tqemaladze, similarly expressed approval of every word Kvirikashvili said.