By Eka Janashia (06/10/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In May, Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), lost four prominent members. Since the 2012 parliamentary elections, over a dozen UNM members have broken ranks but this was the first time long-standing and high-profile associates quit the party.
Zurab Japaridze, Pavle Kublashvili, Goga Khachidze and Giorgi Meladze decided “to establish a new, open political center, to attract and engage political process professionals,” in order to counter pro-Russian forces aspiring to win a majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Private consultations with individuals are ongoing and the prospect of cooperation with other political groups is not yet certain, Japaridze said.
According to the former UNM members, the UNM was the only political force capable of challenging oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s “puppet government.” The party peacefully handed over power to the victorious political force after the 2012 parliamentary elections and even survived despite significant pressure from the new government. However, UNM failed to renew itself in order to regain the confidence of the Georgian public. According to a joint statement by the former UNM members, the “Complete renewal and openness of a political force is required for achieving a victory,” implying that the affiliation with former President Mikheil Saakashvili is a major drawback for UNM. In 2013, Saakashvili was re-elected chairman of UNM, apparently putting the party’s ability to renew itself into question.
The four insisted then that they preferred to stay with the party as they felt obliged to contribute to its unity and survival. However, as parliamentary elections are approaching, they now endeavor to “reshape the political spectrum” in order to defeat the “oligarchic rule.”
UNM lawmakers termed the decision an “absolutely irresponsible” move, made at the most decisive moment, and suggested that it was a consequence of the enormous pressure from Georgian authorities. While UNM claims that the party “stands firm” and additional defections from within its ranks is not expected, PM Irakli Gharibashvili asserted that UNM is in a process of disintegration.
Most political analysts say that a new re-grouping among the pro-western parties should be considered normal, given the large number of undecided voters. According to a public opinion survey, conducted throughout Georgia in April by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 27 percent of the respondents were undecided on which political party they would vote for if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow; 6 percent did not intend to vote at all and 12 percent declined to answer. Several political actors are now repositioning to target hesitant voters, who now compose 45 percent of the electorate.
For example, the recently established social movement Iveria, co-founded by former foreign minister and Saakashvili associate Grigol Vashadze, plans to unite people of different professions and to establish the structure for a political party by the fall. It is composed of former high-ranking officials who occupied different posts during UNM’s term in power but were never actual members of the party.
Meanwhile, the Free Democrats, once a part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, did not exclude cooperation neither with the four former UNM lawmakers, nor with Iveria. The re-composition of pro-western political forces could well be a tactical maneuver aiming to introduce a new political coalition detached from Saakashvili’s leadership.
Nevertheless, it is not clear to what extent the moves of these former Saakashvili confidantes will convince potential voters. Japaridze might be an exception in this regard, as he joined the UNM after the recent parliamentary elections and then became the party’s executive secretary in September 2014. In contrast, the remaining three have long been prominent UNM members and Saakashvili allies. Kublashvili was chairman of the parliamentary committee on legal affairs in the previous parliament, while Khachidze was Minister of Environment Protection and Natural Resources in Saakashvili’s government. The same can be said for high-profile officials now converging around the social movement Iveria.
However, rumors about the UNM’s disintegration and its disappearance from the political scene are likely exaggerated. The UNM is a party with great managerial skills and has shown an ability to deal with the challenges it has faced over the last few years. From the Rose Revolution in 2003 to its current role as an opposition party, the UNM has managed to keep a reasonable degree of unity. Despite the vast public discontent in 2007 and the war with Russia in 2008 and its painful implications, the UNM preserved the legitimacy to run the country. After handing over power to the winning coalition, the party was subjected to intensive pressure. Former Prime Minister and UNM Secretary General Vano Merabishvili, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, as well as former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava were arrested and sentenced while pre-trial detention in absentia has been ordered for Saakashvili. Despite these setbacks, the UNM has yet to fall apart.
Given its high disapproval rating, the party has focused on international issues with a focus on Ukraine, and has sent several officials and experts to advise the Ukrainian government. On May 30, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili chairman of the state administration (governor) of Ukraine’s Odessa province.
Apparently, the UNM expects to contribute to Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Russian orbit, in turn helping Georgia to sustain its Euro-Atlantic path, and by extension to regain public confidence in the UNM at home. According to Saakashvili, “If Odessa ever falls, God forbid, then Georgia might be wiped out from the map.”
By Ariela Shapiro (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In April 2015, Georgia’s Ministry of Energy (MoE) officially presented for review the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Policy Review of Countries in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, which details Georgia’s energy strategy, achievements and recommendations for future policy recommendations. This policy document aligns with the Georgian Government’s updated energy strategy and recommends Georgia to increase its energy security through utilizing its renewable energy potential, upgrading its energy infrastructure and diversifying supply via interconnections with neighboring countries. The document inadvertently highlights existing security gaps in Georgia’s energy sector. Given Georgia’s geopolitical realities and critical reliance on neighboring countries for energy, the current administration faces multiple challenges to building a self-sustaining and secure energy sector capable of meeting both local consumer needs and projected export obligations.
By Eka Janashia (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The EU refused to grant Georgia a visa-free regime at the May 21 Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. The summit’s declaration heralds that Georgian citizens will be granted visa-free access to the Schengen zone as soon as all necessary reforms are in place. Although the Georgian government met only 7 of 15 compulsory requirements – conditional for obtaining an EU visa-waiver – it optimistically hoped to extract a concession. The country’s eligibility will be assessed gain at the end of 2015.
The EU-Georgia visa liberalization (VL) dialogue started in June 2012 and was embodied in a visa liberalization action plan (VLAP) one year later. VLAP demands that certain criteria are fulfilled to grant Georgian citizens a short stay in the Schengen zone without a visa.
In the fall of 2014, the European Commission (EC) reported on Georgia’s successful accomplishment of VLAP first-phase benchmarks, enabling it to move to the realization of the next phase.
The EC’s report from May 8, 2015, report categorized Georgia’s progress on VLAP criteria as “almost,” “partially” or “completely” achieved. The benchmarks regarding document security; integrated border management; fighting organized crime; protection of personal data; freedom of movement; issuance of travel and identity documents; and international legal cooperation in criminal matters were assessed as completely achieved. In the almost achieved category, the report mentioned migration management; money laundering; cooperation between various law enforcement agencies; and citizens’ rights, including protection of minorities. Among partially achieved benchmarks are asylum policy; trafficking of human beings; anti-corruption; and drug policy.
With regard to anti-corruption policy, the report urged Georgia to reform the civil service, drawing on international practice, and modify the civil service law in compliance with the scope and standards of a professional and de-politicized civil service. It also suggests revising the drug policy to confer it more “restorative” than “retribution” connotations.
The report included a comprehensive document elaborated by the Commission’s staff, based on factual analysis and statistics, on the anticipated migration and security implications of Georgia’s VL for the EU.
The document concludes that the EU is an attractive destination for Georgian migrants as well as Organized Criminal Groups (OCGs), triggering a range of potential security challenges. The paper admits that migrant flows would remain limited due to Georgia’s small population, but in case of a new armed conflict the number of Georgian citizens aspiring to settle in EU would increase considerably. In this regard, the VL could become instrumental for Georgian nationals to apply for asylum in EU member states and legalize their protected stay there.
In this perspective, the VL is not merely a technical question for Brussels but also a political one with clear security implications. In contrast, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili stated that the “political decision” to grant Georgia a visa-free regime has already been take and only “technical procedures” remain.
Georgia’s political opposition slammed the government for failing to do its “homework,” depriving the country of free traveling advantages to EU.
Before the Riga summit, the government reportedly highlighted the benefits that Georgia could gain from the VL. In a joint letter, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili, PM Gharibashvili, and speaker of parliament Davit Usupashvili asked the EU to make an “unambiguous endorsement of the visa-free regime … For Georgians, visa liberalization will provide a long-awaited tangible reward for reforms and encourage renewed efforts.” The letter said visa liberalization will promote tourism, cultural proximity, student exchange programs and civil society partnerships. More importantly, the EU visa-waiver will demonstrate to the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions the practical advantages they could gain from reintegration with the Georgian state.
However, in the run-up to the Riga summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Georgia, along with Ukraine, has not made enough efforts to get the VL and “a lot still needs to be done,” meaning that Brussels will overhaul the process of reforming and cogently appraise Georgia’s eligibility, and detach the issue from the sensitivity of Georgia’s territorial integrity or public opinion.
While the benefits that Georgia may gain from the VL is clear, the EU’s continuous refusal to grant the country such an agreement also exposes Georgia to certain risks. According to the last polls commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI), a majority of the respondents still approved of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Yet the number in support of joining the Russia-led Eurasian Union has steadily increased in recent years. From 11 percent in 2013, it soared to 20 percent in 2014 and to 31 percent in 2015.
This trend simultaneously demonstrates the growing EU skepticism in the country caused by Georgia’s opaque perspective of obtaining EU membership or extracting “tangible” benefits from “political rapprochement and economic integration” with it.
As put by European Council President Donald Tusk, Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau “have their rights to have a dream, also the European dream.” Yet the slow progress in Georgia’s EU integration risks deepening the sense of alienation among Georgians and could contribute to diverting the country from the Euro-Atlantic path on which it has set out. Georgia’s government needs to work diligently to avoid such an outcome.
By Erik Davtyan (05/27/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 17, Armenia’s Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan paid a working visit to Batumi, Georgia and met his counterpart Irakli Gharibashvili. The interlocutors discussed the current level of bilateral relations, as well as issues of future economic cooperation. Georgia’s PM also met with Armenia’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Gagik Beglaryan, and the Chair of the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs of Armenia’s National Assembly, Vardan Ayvazyan. The one-day visit was of strategic importance for the future of Armenian-Georgian relations due to a recent diplomatic scandal that engaged the two neighboring countries.
On May 3, the Speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly, Galust Sahakyan, met with Anatoliy Bibilov, the Chairman of South Ossetia’s Parliament who arrived in Stepanakert to attend the parliamentary elections in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) as the head of South Ossetia’s observing group. Though the Armenian authorities emphasized that the meeting had a private, rather than political character, high Georgian officials expressed strong reservations against it. Georgia’s ambassador to Armenia Tengiz Sharmanashvili conveyed this message to Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Manasaryan, who confirmed Armenia’s support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Moreover, Armenia’s ambassador to Georgia Yuri Vardanyan was summoned to Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 4. Deputy Foreign Minister Gigi Gigiadze noted that the Sahakyan-Bibilov meeting was detrimental to the friendly relationship between Georgia and Armenia. Gigiadze said that Georgia “does not accept any kind of meeting between officials of an allied republic and the occupation administration.” In turn, Prime Minister Abrahamyan called his colleague and reaffirmed Armenia’s recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity. At a joint session of some standing committees of Georgia’s Parliament, Georgia’s Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili expressed her firm belief that the Sahakyan-Bibilov meeting must have been organized by “forces that have serious and far-reaching plans.”
Simultaneously, on May 4 Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement, according to which the ministry “reaffirms its support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and does not recognize the so-called ‘Parliamentary Elections’ held in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Although Georgia, along with other states traditionally does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, this statement was a unique response to Sahakyan’s meeting with a high representative of Georgia’s breakaway region. Generally, Armenia’s political parties have not criticized Sahakyan for his informal ties with Bibilov. Moreover, the head of the Heritage Faction, Rubik Hakobyan, stated that Georgia’s reluctance to recognize the elections in Stepanakert and its support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity indicates that Armenia should adjust its position towards Georgia to resemble that of Georgian authorities.
However, Prime Minister Abrahamyan’s short visit to Batumi and the outcomes of the diplomatic negotiations clearly show that the two governments have quickly overcome the tensions caused by the meeting. Armenia and Georgia are currently developing their relations especially in the energy field, and the visit of the Minister of Transport and Communications served to further enhance bilateral cooperation. In December 2014, Minister Beglaryan and Georgia’s Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili signed an agreement on the construction of a new border bridge, the Friendship Bridge, which will bolster bilateral commercial ties.
The two states are also planning to build a fourth high-voltage transmission line connecting their power grids. This estimated US$ 105 million project is projected to enhance mutual electricity supplies. Similarly, trade turnover between Armenia and Georgia is increasing. In 2014, Armenian foreign direct investments (FDI) in Georgia grew by 139 percent, compared to 2013.
Experts believe that Abrahamyan’s recent working visit signaled continuity in cordial relations and high level cooperation between Georgia and Armenia. Johnny Melikian, an expert on Georgian studies, stressed that “this visit was a message to all states that thought there was serious crisis between the two countries.” The expert explained that these kind of incidents always take place in interstate relations, but this one could not affect Georgia-Armenia relations for the worse.
During the working visit, the Prime Ministers agreed to hold the next meeting in Javakheti in order to discuss the problems that exist in the region.
By Eka Janashia (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 8, Georgia’s parliament approved the reshuffled government with 87 against 38 votes. It was the third set of changes impacting the cabinet composition since the breakup of the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition in the fall of 2014.
On November 5, 2014, one of the founding members – Our Georgia-Free Democrats (OGFD) party – left the coalition. The party’s leader and then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, along with the OGFD Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Euro-Atlantic Integration, lost their posts instigating subsequent changes in the lineup of the cabinet (see the 11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Shortly thereafter, another regrouping affecting senior and mid-level government officials as well as the GD leadership, took place allegedly due to former Prime Minister and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s loss of confidence in his protégé PM Irakli Gharibashvili. The PM’s trustees – the Minister of Interior, GD’s Executive Secretary, the heads of the Special State Protection and State Security Services, and the Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure (MRDI) were replaced by Ivanishvili’s cadres. On April 21, the Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure, Davit Shavliashvili, left the post reportedly for health reasons and was substituted by his Deputy Minister, Ivanishvili’s close associate Nodar Javakhishvili (see the 01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst).
A week later, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection, Elguja Khokrishvili and the Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs Levan Kipiani also resigned. Republican MP Gigla Agulashvili, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture and Tariel Khechikashvili, co-owner of one of Georgia’s largest auto traders Iberia Business Group, were respectively named for the ministers’ posts.
What came as a surprise was the nomination of the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration, Republican Tina Khidasheli as Minister of Defense. Although Khidasheli allegedly has long been at odds with Gharibashvili, she replaces the PM’s confidant Mindia Janelidze on the post.
Through these alterations, the government lost a third of its members and according to Georgia’s constitution, the new cabinet initially needs the president’s signature and then a confidence vote in parliament. The president is not entitled to block or reject ministerial nominees but on May 1, President Giorgi Margvelashvili used another constitutional lever and delayed the signing and submission of the new cabinet nomination to parliament to the end of the statutory seven-day period.
“As the commander-in-chief, I want to ask a question: how frequently should we replace Defense Ministers?” Margvelashvili said and suggested that the PM and parliament to go through the proposed composition of government members once more. As an immediate response, Gharibashvili defiantly issued decrees of the appointment of nominated ministers. On May 8, the reshuffled cabinet won a confidence vote in the parliament.
The parliament approved a renewed cabinet in late July 2014 and after less than year, the government again needs to restore its mandate through the legislative body. While that reshuffle carried a much more cosmetic character, the regrouping conducted since November 2014 is indicative of the internal contradictions that GD has undergone after OGFD’s exit.
Several factors have contributed to undermining GD. Since fall 2014, Georgia’s national currency, the Lari (GEL) has devaluated, dampening the overall social and economic climate in the country. A considerable share of the electorate has withdrawn its support for GD for this reason. The GEL crisis was coupled with two important events: OGFD’s exit from the coalition and Ivanishvili’s endeavor to introduce new confidantes in the government, allegedly due to his changing attitude towards the once favored Gharibashvili.
OGFD leader Alasania has publicly accused Ivanishvili of departing from Georgia’s pro-western course and thwarting a crucially important defense deal with France, likely as an effect of Russia’s objection to it (see the 04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst).
The coalition was forced to reject Alasania’s accusations and bring to the front the Republican Party (RP), which is aside from OGFD GD’s other founding member with a pro-western reputation. RP holds six out of 87 GD mandates in parliament. Despite its small number of seats in the legislative body, the party after the recent reshuffle enjoys three ministerial portfolios – Environment, Defense and Reintegration. Moreover, Defense Minister Khidasheli is the spouse of Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili.
Through the move, GD hopes to appease Georgia’s western partners and simultaneously mollify the electorate supporting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Ivanishvili’s need to retrench Gharibashvili’s clout has in fact provided RP with an opportunity to increase its sway in the government. Given RP’s partnership and ideological closeness with OGFD, it has previously been speculated that the two parties could unite in opposition. In this scenario, RP and OGFD would form a new coalition at the detriment of GD but at this stage, RP’s leaders have chosen a different course of action.
The recent government reshuffle is part of a continuous internal redistribution of power within the ruling coalition, rather than an attempt to empower the executive team to deal with the collapsing economy.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.