TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia's foreign minister and three of her deputies resigned Wednesday, alleging that the firing of the defense minister a day earlier was politically motivated and endangers the ex-Soviet nation's aim of eventually joining NATO and the European Union.
The events highlight growing tensions between the Georgian Dream party and the Free Democrats in the country's governing coalition over corruption and the aim to integrate with the West and fend off the influence of neighboring Russia.
The Georgian Dream party was founded by billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. Even though he has expressed repeated support for Georgia's pro-West course, he has also worked to improve relations with Russia, and has been labelled a Kremlin pawn by foes.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, a Georgian Dream member, has come under fire recently from critics who say he did not adequately react against a proposed integration agreement by Russia and the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia, which declared independence after the countries' brief war in 2008 and is outside Tbilisi's control.
Garibashvili on Tuesday fired defense minister Irakli Alasania — a Free Democrats member — amid an investigation into corruption in the military. Later the same day European Integration Minister Aleksi Petriashvili resigned in protest and on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze and three of her deputies followed suit. They are all members of the Free Democrats.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said "the United States notes with concern the Georgian Prime Minister's dismissal of Defense Minister Alasania and his deputy ministers, and the subsequent resignations of State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Petriashvili and Foreign Minister Panjikidze and her deputy ministers."
"We have greatly appreciated the work of these ministers in service to their country and in partnership with the United States," Psaki said in a statement.
Psaki added that "it is in Georgia's interest to demonstrate stability, unity, commitment to due process and the rule of law.
"We urge all parties to work towards these goals and to focus on securing Georgia's Euro-Atlantic future," she said.
Panjikidze, who is Alasania's sister-in-law, said she resigned because his dismissal was a political attack on pro-Western figures.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili gave a similar assessment of the brewing political crisis on Tuesday, saying political opposition is "creating a threat to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the country."
Political analyst Gia Nodia said the political infighting "doesn't mean that the current government is changing its foreign-policy direction which is oriented toward the West."
"That's a choice made by the Georgian people and the authorities can't go against it," he said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this story.