18.03.2016 | “Georgian Dream” coalition splintering ahead of parliamentary elections

A feud within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition exposes internal divisions over the country’s pro-western stance.

Established by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, at the end of 2011, Georgian Dream won parliamentary elections the following year in the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.  It triumphed on the back of promises to correct rule of law abuses by the government of Mikheil Saakashvili, particularly its attitude towards private property rights and questions over the independence of the judiciary.

But since coming to power, Georgian Dream has been dogged by controversy, culminating in a bout of internal strife that highlights seemingly irreconcilable differences within the coalition over the country’s direction.

Although Ivanishvili stepped down as Prime Minister in November 2013, he appears to still exert influence over the government and some have questioned his treatment of political opponents, with a raft of criminal investigations launched into Saakashvili-era officials, including the former President himself. More recently, a feud  has broken out within the governing coalition between Gogi Topadze, the leader of the conservative Industry Will Save Georgia party, and representatives of the Republican Party. 

Among the swirl of accusations, Topadze has alleged that current Defence Minister Tina Khidasheli made use of members of Georgia’s Special Forces to rig a by-election in October.  He also claimed that two other members of Khidasheli’s Republican Party, Levan and David Berdzenishvili, cooperated with the KGB during the Soviet period.  They, in turn, questioned whether it was appropriate for Industry Will Save Georgia to continue as a member of the ruling coalition, with Khidasheli dismissing Topadze’s contribution as insignificant.

Topadze has additionally caused controversy by criticising Georgia’s NATO membership bid, advocating the country’s accession to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and describing Stalin as “the greatest Georgian”.  His increasingly pro-Russian rhetoric could be interpreted as creating room for his party on the pro-Russian right of the political spectrum, raising the possibility that it could exit the coalition before elections in October. Topadze’s party’s six seats are not inconsequential to the Georgian Dream coalition, especially following the exit of Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats in November 2014. 

New Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has sought to put an end to the coalition partners’ backbiting, criticising both sides, although it remains to be seen whether this will have the desired effect. 

Several political commentators have suggested that the feud is a symptom of a deep division in the coalition that reflects opposing sides of the electorate, with Topadze popular amongst the conservative, elderly, pro-Russian segments of society, while the Republican Party largely draws support from the liberal pro-western elite.

This tension within Georgian Dream has become more pronounced as the coalition's popularity has declined over its failure to address unemployment and the rising cost of living. Tellingly, in October Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili admitted that Georgian Dream had not matched expectations, noting that the alliance was too broad to govern the country effectively.

What does this mean for elections in October 2016?  As opposed to 2012, when the ballot was widely viewed as a choice between the larger-than-life figures of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and then President Mikheil Saakashvili, the October vote will likely see a more diverse parliament with more political parties represented, although the pro-EU consensus that has prevailed since 2003’s Rose Revolution is likely to remain.

So while the perceived lack of economic benefits from the country’s consistently pro-Western stance may persuade some to back conservative figures like Topadze, the EU’s recent decision to lift visa restrictions on Georgia's citizens making short-term visits to Europe could still bolster the prospects of a government that is beginning to run out of steam.