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Georgia coalition in crisis as party, foreign minister quit

By Margarita Antidze

Georgia’s foreign minister quit on Wednesday and one of six parties in the ruling coalition pulled out, depriving it of a parliamentary majority in a rift over the pace of integration with the West.

Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze, who cited threats to Georgia’s pro-Western course, and a junior minister resigned following the dismissal of the former Soviet republic’s pro-Western defence minister by Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili.

Garibashvili said he remained committed to closer ties with the West.

But the defection of the Free Democrats, led by sacked minister Irakly Alasania, from the Georgian Dream coalition increases political instability in the country of 4.5 million crossed by pipelines that carry Caspian oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.

“We have left the coalition,” Alasania declared after his party met other leaders of the coalition to discuss the crisis.

The Free Democrats have 10 of the coalition’s 83 seats in the 150-seat assembly. The coalition will now need the backing of independent deputies for a majority but a confidence vote must be called only if seven or more of the 20 cabinet members are replaced.

The tensions in the coalition highlight Georgia’s difficulties trying to pursue its goals of joining NATO and the European Union without antagonising its former Soviet overlord Moscow, with which it fought a five-day war in 2008.

Alasania had irked Garibashvili by saying the arrests of several officials in his ministry were politically motivated and meant to undermine supporters of better relations with the West.

“Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration is the most important thing for me and my team,” Panjikidze told a news conference at which she said four deputy ministers were quitting with her.

“My team and I cannot hide the threats that our country faces now,” she said, announcing she was quitting Georgian Dream.

Alexy Petriashvili, a member of the Free Democrats, also resigned as the state minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

NO CHANGE IN POLICY

Garibashvili said suggestions by Alasania and his allies that the country’s pro-Western foreign policy was under threat were unfounded.

“Our foreign policy course is unchanged. It is irreversible,” he said in a statement. “Those ridiculous and naive statements of course will have no effect at all.”

Garibashvili said Mindia Janelidze, secretary of a council overseeing security, will replace Alasania as defence minister and said his critics’ statements and actions amounted to sabotage that could harm Georgia’s interests.

President Georgy Margvelashvili says the crisis poses “a threat to the efficient functioning” of state institutions and to Georgia’s quest for Euro-Atlantic integration.

Georgia signed an agreement with the EU in June which deepened political and trade ties and has long been a U.S. ally, but relations with Moscow are strained and Tbilisi has watched carefully as the crisis in Ukraine unfolded.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March and still occupies the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, over which the countries went to war in 2008.

Western countries have expressed concern that the Georgian Dream government, first formed under billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012, has persecuted political opponents and used selective justice against them.

Dozens of ex-officials, including a former prime minister, defence and interior minister and the mayor of the capital Tbilisi, have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power and corruption since the coalition came to power.

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