On 28 October, a major scandal erupted in Georgia. Five high-ranking officials in the Georgian Defense Ministry were arrested for embezzling 4,102,872 GEL (over $2 million USD) from the state budget. The court ordered a pre-trial detention of the arrested officials.
The scandal sent shock waves throughout Georgia since it has certain political implications for Tbilisi’s current Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania. Regarded as one of the most prominent anti-Russian hawks in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Alasania has been a staunch supporter of Georgian NATO membership. He was abroad when the scandal emerged, on a trip to shore up security ties in Europe.
In the meantime, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office called for Alasania’s deputy, Aleksandr Batiashvili, to be questioned as a witness and has not ruled out the possible questioning of Alasania himself. US Ambassador Richard Norland voiced Washington’s “full confidence” in Alasania.
Upon his return to Tbilisi on 1 November, Alasania gave full support to his employees. “I am confident that my brothers-in-arms and my colleagues are completely innocent,” he told reporters. “I will focus all my attention on them in order not to make them feel that they are oppressed – regrettably there already are elements of this in a way, how the [court] process was conducted behind the closed doors.” Later, the Ministry of Defense officially demanded a declassification of the case.
The embattled Defense Minister maintained that “from the security point of view, a huge blow has already been struck to our country with these [arrests].” He emphasized that he would seek “high-level political consultations” with the President, Prime Minister, and Parliamentary Speaker about the case which he claims has “damaged our country’s security.” When asked about possible political motives, Alasania stated, “whether there are political motives or not, we will talk about it later.”
There is now widespread speculation over whether or not Alasania will resign from his position as Defense Minister. When journalists asked Prime Minister Garibashvili on whether or not Tbilisi would ask for such a resignation, he responded “I think you hurry too much,” adding that “this case is very regrettable. We should all wait for the investigation and we should allow the prosecutor’s office to investigate this case in order not to leave any question unanswered.”
A possible Alasania resignation would not be surprising. His relations with the ruling coalition have been uneasy for some time. After the victory of the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012, Alasania was appointed to two posts simultaneously: First Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister. He hoped to gain the Georgian Presidency and to this end, secure the endorsement of the coalition’s primary leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.
However, there were political disagreements between Alasania and Ivanishvili over whether or not Georgia should have a presidential or parliamentary form of government, with Alasania favoring the former and Ivanishvili the latter. Further, Ivanishvili also did not trust Alasania, especially because of Alasania’s hawkish line toward Moscow with whom Ivanishvili sought to restore relations. Consequently, Ivanishvili demoted Alasania leaving him in the post of Defense Minister, passed him up for the presidency, and instead favored the former Education Minister and philosopher, Giorgi Margvelashvili as the new post-Saakashvili President.
Alasania was upset by the move, but this frustration was not only limited to him and his political circle. He also has backers in the West, particularly in Washington, who wanted him to assume the presidency. Notably, following Ivanishvili’s decision, articles suddenly emerged in Western publications such as The Economist, with fresh criticism of the Georgian billionaire and renewed speculation of his being a pro-Russian puppet. However, again, this is not the case. Ivanishvili is pro-Georgian as opposed to being either pro-Western or pro-Russian.
Regardless, Alasania’s relations with the ruling coalition were also tested by his relentlessly push for NATO membership and his anti-Russian discourse, which became especially prominent after the Ukraine crisis. His total promotion of NATO has, among other things, alarmed the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians. Notably, within the context of Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, Alasania was known as someone willing to compromise with the breakaways. He had especially good contacts with the Abkhaz and earlier sought to build peace with Sukhumi through dialogue. For their part, the Abkhaz liked working with Alasania. Ivanishvili, who made a reconciliation with Georgia’s breakaways a top priority, likely recognized this. Indeed, Alasania’s constructive working relations with the Abkhaz may be part of the reason that he was included in the Georgian Dream coalition initially.
However, in his position as Defense Minister, Alasania’s total advocacy for NATO has only created greater distrust with Sukhumi and Tshkinvali. Both view potential Georgian NATO membership as “proof” that, despite the rhetoric, “Georgia is really not interested in dialogue” and that “nothing has changed.” Other Georgian leaders, such as President Giorgi Margvelashvili, have sought to allay Abkhaz and Ossete fears, emphasizing that NATO membership is not intended to be against them. Pragmatists within the ruling coalition likely see the pursuit of NATO as more of a negotiating chip with Moscow in return for a future peace plan with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However, such reassurances did little to assuage fears in Sukhumi and Tshkinvali, especially given the history of conflict between these two regions and Tbilisi both in the early 1990s and again in 2008. Instead, as they have done traditionally, both regions have sought greater security ties with Moscow, which shares their disapproval of a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus. To this end it was reported immediately before the September NATO summit in Wales that Moscow intended to bolster ties with both regions.
At the NATO summit, Georgia was granted a “NATO aid package” which would establish a NATO training facility in Georgia and allow for the “occasional” holding of NATO military exercises on Georgian soil. Moscow, already faced with a crisis in Ukraine, was understandably alarmed and even more so when individuals such as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO commander Philip Breedlove, began to appear in Georgia. It is likely that Alasania and the Defense Ministry played an instrumental role in organizing such visits, irritating Moscow and testing the Russo-Georgian reconciliation process.
On October 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed fresh concern over plans to place “NATO-linked infrastructure” in Georgia. Defense Minister Irkali Alasania immediately retorted that the only “big threat” to the region is Russia itself, given its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and what he deemed was “ongoing aggression carried out by Russia against Ukraine.” He also told reporters that Russia cannot stop Georgia from establishing NATO training facilities on its own territory. “We will never bow to the Russians,” he said “to a ‘diktat’ from Russia on what is better for Georgia.” Predictably, his controversial remarks sparked anger in Moscow. They also must have embarrassed Tbilisi, and seemingly contradicted efforts by Margvelashvili and Garibashvili at pursuing a more pragmatic approach toward Russia.
Alasania’s statements also came amid rumors that he may even leave the ruling coalition to pursue his own political ambitions in Georgia in the 2016 parliamentary elections. If he does leave the ruling coalition, it is unlikely that he will join Georgia’s foremost hardliners, the United National Movement (UNM), due to his bitter relations with his rival, former President Saakashvili.
The tipping point for Tbilisi must have been Moscow’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. The text of the proposal called for deepening ties with the breakaway republic, so much so that it would have integrated Abkhazia’s military and economic structures almost entirely with Russia’s. It would also enhance the number of Russian troops along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border.
The reaction to the treaty was negative in both Abkhazia and Georgia. Though the Abkhaz support the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union, they viewed the treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the newly-elected Abkhaz President Khajimba, known for his close ties with officials in Moscow, voiced his disagreement with it. In Georgia, the proposed treaty caused more alarm, with some decrying it as an attempt by Russia to “annex” Abkhazia.
In reality, the proposed treaty was likely intended by Moscow to communicate to Tbilisi how seriously it regards a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus. It also signaled to Tbilisi that, while it still has a chance at reconciliation with the Abkhaz, it could lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO.
The Abkhaz issue dominated the discourse at a subsequent meeting in Prague between Georgia’s Russia envoy, Zurab Abashidze and his counterpart Grigory Karasin. At the talks, Abashidze beseeched Karasin to have Moscow reconsider the proposed treaty. Karasin retorted that the treaty only concerned both Moscow and Sukhumi, and that nobody could determine the relations between Russia and Abkhazia. He also gave Tbilisi some blunt advice from Moscow: tone down the rhetoric.
Whether or not the recent scandal in the Defense Ministry has anything to do with Alasania’s hawkish posturing remains to be seen. However, his departure would no doubt be a welcome relief for pragmatists in Tbilisi, eager to reset ties with Moscow and to explore realistic solutions to the protracted Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. The scandal also comes amid a greater backlash across Europe against anti-Russian hawks, such as Poland’s Radosław Sikorski and Sweden’s Carl Bildt, in light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
UPDATE (4-5 November 2014): On 4 November, Irakli Alasania was officially dismissed from his position as Georgia’s Defense Minister by Prime Minister Garibashvili. In Alasania’s place as Defense Minister, Tbilisi appointed Mindia Janelidze. Subsequently, Aleksei Petriashvili, the State Minister for Euro-Atlantic integration and a member of Alasania’s Free Democrats stepped down from his post. More resignations followed, including that of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, Alasania’s sister-in-law, on 5 November. That same day, Alasania formally announced the official split of his party from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.