Ex-DefMin's French Arms Deal Claims Reignite Georgian Political Crisis
Georgia's former defense minister has claimed that his firing last year was the result of dispute with other officials, led by former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, over signing an agreement to acquire air defense systems from France. But the prime minister, and France's ambassador to Tbilisi, have denied the claims.
The dispute has reignited the political crisis that blew up last year, when Defense Minister Irakli Alasania -- one of the country's most popular political figures and probably the most pro-Western official then in the government -- was unexpectedly fired. And it again raises allegations that Russia might be exerting pressure on Tbilisi behind the scenes, especially in the sensitive sphere of arms procurements from the West.
Alasania made the claim last week, and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili responded by calling the allegations "immoral" and said that such speculation is "not the business of a real man." The defense ministry also denied that any such agreement with France had been made.
Alasania then said that, since the agreement he signed was valid until the end of March, he would wait until April, when the alleged agreement expired, to provide all the details. And he made good on his promise at a press conference on April 3.
"In October last year, while serving as defense minister, I was supposed to sign a contract for air defense systems in Paris but was forbidden to do so at the last moment at Prime Minister Garibashvili's and former Prime Minister Ivanishvili's demand, and to make it more convincing, five of my subordinates were detained the same day in Tbilisi on a fabricated charge of stealing money from the military budget," Alasania said. "Despite all this, I still signed a memorandum with my French partners, which envisioned the postponement of the contract's signature for six months. This memorandum expired at the end of March this year."
Was this Russia's doing? Alasania "was asked whether the government’s decision was made based on Russia’s possible critical position toward the air defense treaty," Democracy and Freedom Watch reported. "To this, he answered that it would be logical to see ‘cause and effect’ results here."
But the French embassy supported Garibashvili's and the defense ministry's claims. "Some discussions started last year between the government of Georgia and some French industrialists in the normal framework of our defense cooperation. I insist on the term 'discussions' because nothing committing was signed by the Georgian side - no agreement, no treaty, not commitment, whatsoever. The only thing I can say now is that those discussions which started last year are continuing," the Georgian Defense Ministry quoted Renaud as saying, Interfax reported.
So what's going on? Either Alasania is lying about a highly sensitive issue, or the current government is (abetted the French embassy, to boot). And Russia is either plotting behind the scenes to block Georgia's military deals with the West, or someone wants us to believe they are. The plot thickens...
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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