A scandal over alleged contract-rigging by Georgia’s defense ministry has become the country’s main political intrigue, with some observers increasingly worried that prosecutors could begin circling around popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Some question how bona-fide the reasons for this investigation may actually be, however.
Prosecutors allege that the former head of the defense ministry’s procurement department and four current officials fixed the ministry’s call for bids to award a lucrative contract to major communications company Silknet. They maintain that the ministry agreed to an above-market offer for the bid, thereby defrauding the state of 4.1 million lari or $2.34 million.
Deputy Defense Minister Aleksi Batiashvili, named as a “close relative” of Silknet’s financial director, has been called in for questioning as a witness in the case. He has claimed that he had nothing to do with the tender, which Silknet says occurred before his appointment.
The arrests occurred on October 28, while Alasania was in Germany on an official trip. Fresh back, he immediately spoke up for the detainees. “I am confident of the complete innocence of my employees, as, obviously, I was following the procurements and I know that everything was done in full compliance with the law,” Alasania said on November 1.
That knowledge, though, has prompted a few to wonder whether the prosecutors’ interest will next turn to Alasania himself.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili was expected to meet with Alasania at an evening gathering of the Georgian Dream coalition on Monday and discuss the defense-ministry investigation, Interpressnews reported.
In earlier televised comments, Gharibashvili said that he has questions for the defense ministry and that Alasania “should be motivated” to cooperate with the investigation. Some observers speculated that Alasania may be sacked or even face criminal responsibility.
That could set off a lightning storm. The minister is a bit of a media and diplomatic-corps darling, and his popularity in one poll recently exceeded the approval ratings of all national political figures, including the prime minister.
Media-talk has begun to circulate about the possibility of both Alasania’s Free Democrats and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili’s Republican Party leaving the Georgian Dream coalition to do their own thing. Neither party has confirmed such plans, however.
Ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream and widely seen as the government’s grey cardinal, also factors into the speculation about any possible political motivation for the investigation.
Last year, Alasania received a public dressing-down from then Prime Minister Ivanishvili in what was widely seen as an attempt to clip any of his ambitions to become president. Gharibashvili’s recent observation that the former prime minister “always has a reason” for his criticism has revived recollections of the spat.
In a sign of the growing divisions over these claims, the general prosecutor’s office has issued a statement requesting that namely the defense ministry “stop the political speculation.”
Attorneys for the arrested officials have requested full access to the evidence, which was partly classified because of the purportedly sensitive information involved. US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland supported their motion.
Silknet and the arrested officials deny any wrongdoing.
For their part, Alasania’s fellow ministers sound a bit divided on the case. At a November 3 cabinet meeting, several ministers expressed support for Alasania.
“All prosecutors and investigators should know that when a minister is on a foreign mission, they should wait for his return before arresting his employees, unless it is utterly urgent,” said Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, adding that the Prosecutor’s Office (now separate from her ministry) showed disrespect toward the defense minister.
Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze also threw her support behind Alasania, who is her brother-in-law. “The defense minister trusts in his staff and believes they are innocent. I have confidence in the defense minister’s position and in that he knows what he is saying,” Panjikidze said.
It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will say the same.