News Analysis: Crisis Upsets Georgia's Political Balance, Perhaps For The Better
November 05, 2014
by David Kakabadze
The political crisis in Georgia has been fast and bloody, with the Western-leaning defense minister sacked November 4 and the foreign minister, plus the minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, walking out in sympathy.
One result: 10 deputies have left the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, costing it its parliamentary majority and putting all of Georgia's parties in a position where they can make new alliances.
But if the crisis is dramatic, it is neither surprising nor necessarily alarming. Instead, it may be the shake-up Georgian politics needs if it is to give voters a clearer range of choices in the future.
The immediate spark was a government inquiry into alleged corruption in the Defense Ministry. When the minister, Irakli Alasania, defended his employees against the charge, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed him on November 4.
But behind those immediate events is the fact that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has long been a time bomb waiting to explode. The coalition is an alliance of parties that came together in 2012 mainly because of their shared determination to drive then president Mikheil Saakashvili from power.
The coalition -- funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s -- provided them a vehicle for doing so but no larger platform. Now, two years later, some of the parties don't belong together and they show it.
Alasania and those who resigned in sympathy with him represent the most vocal camp within Georgian Dream for rapidly forging closer ties with NATO and the European Union.
By contrast, Garibashvili also publicly backs European integration but balances his remarks with efforts to improve relations with Moscow. Those efforts -- backed by Ivanishvili, who stepped down as Georgia's prime minister in 2013 saying his mission was accomplished -- include promoting trade with Moscow.
Today, six years after the Georgia-Russia war when trade was entirely cut off and Georgia lost 20 percent of its territory, Russia is Georgia's fourth-biggest trading partner. At the same time, Georgia has not joined the international sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine.
Yet despite such real differences of approach, the political crisis in Georgia today is not just about how fast Tbilisi moves West. There are still strongly Western-leaning politicians within Georgian Dream, notably the Republicans led by parliamentary speaker David Usupashvili.
Instead, the crisis appears to be more about political leaders finally deciding they can no longer work within an amorphous coalition of unlike-minded parties under the godfather-like shadow of Ivanishvili.
One measure of Ivanishvili's continuing dominance of Georgian Dream, despite his no longer having an official position, was his unexpected presence at a meeting of the political council of the coalition on November 5 when deputies from Alasania's Free Democrats came to say goodbye to their former partners. Unpleasantly surprised, the Free Democrats walked out of the meeting in protest.
Now, the loss of the Georgian Dream's parliamentary majority could open the way for new political options.
Reduced to 73 deputies after the walkout of the 10 deputies of Alasania's Free Democrats, the rump Georgian Dream must find new allies if it is to regain a parliamentary majority of 76 seats in the 150-seat legislature. That means defining some core values and trying to attract independent deputies to their standard.
Similarly, though less likely, the shake-up offers the possibility for a stronger opposition bloc to emerge -- and possibly even a new ruling coalition. That could happen if Alasania strikes a deal with the United National Movement formerly led by Saakashvili and which still has 51 seats. If joined by the 10 deputies of Alasania's Free Democrats, the new bloc would be just 15 seats shy of a parliamentary majority.
All this could bode well for a country whose next general elections are fast approaching in 2016. Parliamentary democracies thrive best when they offer voters clearly defined choices, and now Georgia's parties may have the chance to do so.
David Kakabadze is director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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