In the past week, the Georgian government has faced a major crisis, as the entire leadership of the country’s foreign and defense structures has been either fired or forced out. The crisis suggests that America’s closest ally in the Caucasus and Central Asia will be mired in instability for the foreseeable future, and that its Euro-Atlantic orientation can no longer be taken for granted.
Since the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition won power in October 2012, there has been intense debate concerning the new Georgian government’s nature and orientation. That was natural, given that GD’s leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, was a political novice—a reclusive business tycoon whose massive wealth (valued at half the country’s GDP) was earned in Russia in the 1990s. The coalition he assembled was eclectic: It included both certified Euro-Atlanticists and ethno-religious nationalists. His own party, the largest in the coalition, was composed mainly of citizens known for accomplishments in a variety fields, few of whom had any identifiable political views. The only common denominator for the coalition was the goal of removing Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvili and his party, the United National Movement (UNM), from power.
When Ivanishvili entered politics in late 2011, his first step was to reach out to those Atlanticist politicians, such as Irakli Alasania and the Republican Party of Georgia, who had grown disillusioned with Saakashvili and moved into opposition against him over his handling of the 2008 war with Russia and allegations of abuses of power and justice. This step was crucial in building Ivanishvili’s domestic political credibility—and, perhaps even more importantly, his international legitimacy. Because he allied with certified pro-Western leaders, Ivanishvili could credibly claim that he had no intention of changing the country’s foreign policy orientation. This neutralized Saakashvili’s somewhat overblown protestations that Ivanishvili was simply a Russian agent. Ivanishvili’s assertion was that a less “reckless” and more conciliatory attitude toward Russia would enable Georgia to normalize at least its economic relations with its northern neighbor, even as it continued on its path to EU and NATO membership. While this circle would prove hard to square in practice, it sounded good to many Georgians.
After Ivanishvili won the election, the Atlanticists occupied central posts in his government. Alasania was made Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, and his closest ally, Alex Petriashvili, became Minister for European Integration. Republican leader Davit Usupashvili became Speaker of Parliament; and career diplomat Maia Panjikidze (who is Alasania’s sister-in-law but had joined Ivanishvili’s party) was made Foreign Minister. Thus, Georgia’s foreign and defense policy was in the hands of reliably pro-Western figures, who successfully allayed concerns in the West over Georgia’s democracy and orientation. Moreover, they emphasized continuity with Saakashvili’s foreign policies, and succeeded in concluding negotiations for an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2013, while lobbying aggressively for closer integration with NATO ahead of the September 2014 Summit in Wales.
Yet elsewhere in the Georgian government, the picture was different. True to post-Soviet form, the Ministry of Interior and the Prosecutor General’s office remained the core power centers of the state. And these appointments were telling: Ivanishvili appointed his closest aide-de-camp, thirty-year old Irakli Garibashvili, as Interior Minister—although Garibashvili had no prior political experience. His only employment had been related to Ivanishvili’s charities and business enterprises. For Prosecutor General, Ivanishvili named his own legal counsel, Archil Kbilashvili. In other words, Ivanishvili essentially tapped his personal associates to fill the most central power structures. Furthermore, senior positions in the two bodies went to figures known for their ties to some of the most corrupt and pro-Russian politicians in the Shevardnadze era.
As a result, in the past two years, the Georgian government has been Janus-faced. While foreign and defense policy has been led by people who engendered a considerable degree of trust in Western capitals, domestic policy has been run according to a very different dynamic.
The Prosecutor’s office faced one major public demand following the coalition’s victory: to seek redress for the thousands of cases of alleged property rights violations, mainly involving forced expropriation of assets in coerced plea bargains, dating back to the Saakashvili era. To date, it has dramatically failed to meet this demand, as the office has simply lacked the will or capacity to investigate these cases. Instead, it has focused its energies on high-profile political cases. These until recently mainly targeted leading Ministers of Saakashvili’s government. And they have done so largely with flimsy cases that failed to build credible evidence against their targets, several of whom have been handed jail sentences on very shaky grounds. Several cases also targeted the government’s own Minister of Agriculture, forcing his resignation in a politically motivated case that never went to court—a foreshadowing of what would happen to Alasania.
As for the Ministry of Interior, it largely stopped its earlier practice of aggressively countering Russian infiltration and subversion. While Russia did take some steps to normalize relations, especially in re-opening its markets to Georgian products, it accelerated the process of subversion, which involved supporting and organizing pro-Russian forces in Georgian society. Thus, Georgians who were suspected of working for the Russian secret services in the 1990s and had been living in exile during the Saakashvili years have now returned, and have been instrumental in setting up numerous civil society groups that reproduce Russian propaganda against Europe, such as the “Eurasian Institute.” Similarly, pro-Russian political parties such as Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement party have been buoyed by what one observer for TAI aptly termed “an enormous influx of vaguely sourced money” that most Georgians assume is of Russian origin. Yet next to nothing has been done to counter this growing Russian “soft power” in Georgia, an issue privately bemoaned by the government’s Atlanticist leaders.
This was the context for the first fallout between Ivanishvili and Alasania, already in early 2013, which was an indication of Ivanishvili’s leadership style. Alasania had behaved much like a European coalition partner would, maintaining his own independence and international network. Moreover, as the coalition was preparing to nominate a presidential candidate to succeed Saakashvili, he expressed interest in running. This precipitated a remarkable public spat, in which Ivanishvili made derogatory public remarks about Alasania’s private life and dismissed him from his post as Deputy Prime Minister. But under the constitution at the time, since amended, only Saakashvili had the power to dismiss the Defense Minister. Under heavy American pressure, Alasania and Ivanishvili temporarily patched up their relationship, and Alasania endorsed Ivanishvili’s nominee for President. But the rift was very much a reality.
Two developments in the past year made the Georgian government’s Janus-faced nature increasingly untenable, precipitating the current crisis. Ivanishvili resigned from politics in late 2013, predictably appointing Garibashvili to succeed him. This left Georgia governed in a remarkable manner: with a President and Prime Minister who were both political unknowns, and who owed their positions to Ivanishvili’s personal support. Few in Georgia doubt that Ivanishvili, though divested of any political office, remains the main decision-maker in the country. This, clearly, was a considerable setback to Georgia’s democratic development, and generated considerable frustration within both the government and the broader public. As a result, the popularity of both Ivanishvili and Garibashvili has gradually declined, rendering Alasania, whose leadership of the Defense Ministry was well regarded, the most popular politician in the country. As such, Alasania has emerged as the clear leader of the country’s Atlanticist forces—and, given the continued public anger at Saakashvili’s party, he is the only credible political challenger to Ivanishvili.
Second, the Ukraine crisis has brought Georgia’s Russia policy to a breaking point. The notion of mending ties with Russia while continuing on a path of European integration was always questionable; but threading that needle became outright impossible in the wake of Moscow’s aggressive response to the EU’s Association Agreements with Armenia and Ukraine. Armenia was forced into submission, opting instead to join the Eurasian Union; what happened in Ukraine when Moscow failed to obtain a similar outcome is plain to see.
Russia’s efforts in Georgia have taken a backseat to its priorities in Ukraine, but Moscow has hardly been passive. Aside from the systematic subversion efforts already mentioned, the Kremlin continued to squeeze Georgia through is efforts to further consolidate control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia in South Ossetia, which were the epicenter of the 2008 war. Russia proceeded to deploy barbed wire fences to separate South Ossetia from Georgia; and last spring, it orchestrated a coup that removed an independent-minded leader in Abkhazia, replacing him with a long-time pro-Russian figure, Raoul Khajimba. This fall, Moscow doubled down by proposing a treaty that would further integrate Abkhazia with Russia. In parallel, all indications suggest that Moscow used various channels to put the squeeze on Ivanishvili as well.
Ivanishvili’s closest associates maintained a low profile even in the face of Russia’s provocations. But Alasania did not: He vowed to respond “aggressively” to Russia’s moves to effectively annex Abkhazia, and in October signed an agreement to build a NATO training center in Georgia, which Russia vocally opposed. While he had failed to secure a NATO Membership Action Plan for Georgia in the September summit, he did succeed in obtaining a green light for Georgia to acquire air defense and anti-tank weaponry from NATO countries—a red flag for Moscow. In early November, he was in Paris to conclude an agreement on procuring those very air defense systems when the crisis broke.
It was during that trip to France that Georgian prosecutors suddenly launched two separate judicial proceedings against the Defense Ministry, arresting several high civilian as well as military officials. Reports suggest that Alasania at the last minute received a phone call from Tbilisi urging him not to sign the air defense agreement—with multiple sources pointing to Garibashvili’s aide Mindia Janelidze as the person who placed the call. After Alasania was dismissed, Janelidze was promptly appointed his successor.
Against this background, what should we make of the crisis in Georgia? It is obvious that it has an important domestic, and even personal component. On multiple occasions, Ivanishvili has made it clear that he tolerates only a very limited degree of independence from his closest associates and instead expects full submission. The careful steps that President Giorgi Margvelashvili has taken to establish himself as an independent figure have brought him public criticism from Ivanishvili; in this context, it was likely only a matter of time before he and Alasania finally parted ways. But the timing and context of his dismissal suggests that other factors, too, were likely at play. The elephant in the room, of course, is the nature and extent of the influence that the Kremlin exercises on Ivanishvili.
Should the crisis be taken as evidence that Ivanishvili is, after all, a Russian stooge? Reality may be more complicated than that. After all, the U.S. and EU have not covered themselves with glory lately; their response to the crisis in Ukraine has been underwhelming, with the West proving utterly unable to prevent the dismemberment of Ukraine in ways that are eerily familiar to Georgians. Everywhere in the former Soviet Union, leaders are facing a choice between appeasing Russia and standing up to the Kremlin. Clearly, either choice comes with risks: Saakashvili’s steadfast resistance ended with a Russian invasion; yet when Viktor Yanukovich tried to appease Moscow, that only projected weakness, and whetted Moscow’s appetite for further concessions.
Georgia’s pro-Western leaders, Alasania chief among them, clearly concluded that further appeasement was no longer an option, and hoped for Western assistance to keep Russia at bay. But Ivanishvili does not know the West, and does not appear to have any particular illusions about it. Whatever his relations with Moscow are, he may simply have drawn a different conclusion: that the only way forward is to appease Putin at any cost.
In any case, the crisis in Georgia is of fundamental importance to the future of Georgia’s democratic development and its Euro-Atlantic choice. The damage done by the unabashedly political persecution of Georgia’s leading supporter of Euro-Atlantic integration is sizable. In the process, it has revealed with full clarity the unhealthy and unaccountable dominance of the country by a reclusive business tycoon with few if any links to the West. Clearly, this state of affairs risks negating all the efforts over the past decade or more at building functioning and accountable state institutions in Georgia.
The Georgian leadership will continue to pay lip service to the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. In a country where three quarters of the population supports EU and NATO membership, they could hardly do otherwise. But in practice, the evidence available suggests that the country is now led by leaders who have no particular affinity for the West, and who are at the very least susceptible to Russian pressure. In terms of an active and effective policy of Euro-Atlantic integration, Georgia may just have been neutralized.
This, in turn, raises enormous implications for the United States. Across Eurasia, America is fighting the perception that Russia is restoring its sphere of influence, and America is adrift, and unlikely to stand up for its allies. If America loses Georgia, the gains of two decades of bipartisan efforts to build an east-west corridor from the Black Sea into Central Asia will be in question.