Georgia's Western Partners Watching Government Shakeup With Concern
The firing of Georgia's defense minister and ongoing shakeup of the Georgian government is the biggest political crisis the country has faced since the coalition led by former President Mikheil Saakashvili left office two years ago. But does it threaten the country's ties with the West?
Many of the headlines in the Western press referred to the "pro-Western" orientation of the departed officials, with the implication that there was a geopolitical significance to the move. "Georgia's premier sacks pro-Western defense minister," wrote Reuters. "Georgia's Pro-West Foreign Minister Quits," reported Voice of America. "Georgian Pro-Western Foreign Minister Announces Resignation," reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Although the sacked defense minister, Irakli Alasania, himself suggested that his firing was "an attack on Georgia's Euro-Atlantic choice," many other top Georgian officials took pains to ensure that that wasn't the case. "Our country's Euro-Atlantic integration is not only our government's, but our people's, choice and this process is and will be unchangeable," Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said after firing Alasania.
Nevertheless, some analysts in Washington suggested that the move portended a lurch toward Russia. "The firing of Alasania is accompanied by greatly intensifying Russian pressure on Georgia," wrote the D.C.-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in an email. "It opens a split within the coalition government and potentially marks a fundamental geopolitical shift in the Caucasus in Moscow’s favor. These events raise obvious parallels with events in Ukraine when Yanukovich abruptly turned toward Moscow. Coming in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it threatens the future of the East-West axis connecting Europe to Central Asia, which both Republican and Democratic administrations have worked hard over two decades to achieve."
Officially, Georgia's western partners issued cautious statements of hope that the shakeup wouldn't change Tbilisi's dedication to Euro-Atlantic integration. "I was glad to see the Prime Minister's clear statement that these developments will not divert Georgia from its Euro-Atlantic path," wrote James Appathurai, NATO's special representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia, on his facebook page. "This, I believe, reflects the will of the Georgian people. NATO, and I personally, will remain committed to helping Georgia take the steps necessary to continue to move closer to NATO membership."
"Obviously the composition of Georgia’s cabinet and government is a matter for Georgians to decide," said Richard Norland, the U.S.'s ambassador to Georgia, in a statement. "However, at a time of regional turmoil and domestic economic challenge what Georgia needs the most is stability, unity, demonstrated commitment to due process and the rule of law, and public confidence in democratic institutions. We urge all parties to work towards these goals and focus on future for the country that is firmly anchored in Euro-Atlantic institutions."
Though Alasania was one of the most enthusiastically pro-Western officials in Georgia's government, most analysts in the West saw the shakeup as a largely internal issue. Michael Cecire, for example, described the potential for a tilt away from the West as a "worst-case scenario":
When the dust settles, the players left standing could very well be a cause for concern. Between DM-UG and the Alliance of Patriots are the makings of a formidable conservative populist bloc with greater skepticism, and sometimes outright hostility, towards Georgia’s pro-West foreign policy. If FD goes its own way, GD’s own conservative factions, such as the protectionist Industrialists or the nationalistic National Forum, would likely agitate for a more “multi-vectored” foreign policy in the mold of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. And the pragmatists at GD’s helm, cognizant of the glacial pace of Euro-Atlantic integration, may be tempted to accommodate them. Looking on the outside would be a fractured pro-West opposition made up of FD, a rump UNM, and a smattering of other parties and independent deputies dedicated to the pro-West path.
This is not the first time the popular, ambitious Alasania has been knocked down; last year he was relieved of his duties as first deputy prime minister after being too open about his presidential aspirations. However this current shakeup shakes out, we very likely have not seen the end either of Alasania's role in Georgian politics, or of Georgia's NATO and European aspirations.