TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili fired his defense minister on Tuesday hours after he criticized the arrests of several officials in his ministry as politically motivated and aimed at those who favor better relations with the West.
The move could trigger a crisis in the governing six-party Georgian Dream coalition, with sacked defense minister Irakly Alasania's Free Democrats party now mulling whether to leave the government and jeopardize its majority in parliament.
Alasania, one of the most pro-Western and most popular ministers, had earlier denounced the detention of one former and four serving ministry officials last week, as well as new charges filed against several army medical officers on Tuesday.
"I want to unambiguously state that this is obviously politically motivated," he told reporters.
"I want to clearly state that this is an attack on Georgia's Euro-Atlantic choice," he said, referring to Georgia's stated interest in joining NATO and its recent trade deal with the European Union.
"This is an attack on the structure, which ... is distinguished by its successful reforms and is distinguished on the path of achieving this foreign policy goal," he said.
Garibashvili called Alasania's remarks "irresponsible."
"Instead of contributing to the investigation in order to help establish objective truth in the case, Irakly Alasania's actions are causing a politicization of the defense ministry and of the armed forces, which is categorically inadmissible for me and which negatively affects our country's security and the efficiency of the government's work," Garibashvili said.
Alexy Petriashvili, State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and also from the Free Democrats, said after the announcement he would tender his resignation by letter to Garibashvili on Wednesday.
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, defense 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.
The defense ministry officials placed in pre-trial detention were from the procurement department and the general staff's communications and IT unit. Prosecutors have charged them with misspending over 4 million lari ($2.3 million) in a suspected sham tender to lay fiber optic cables last year.
Lawyers said their clients denied the charges and planned to appeal against their detention. The defense ministry said in a statement it had carried out the procurement "in full compliance with Georgian legislation".
Garibashvili said Mindia Janelidze, a secretary of the state security and crisis management council at the premier's office and a close ally, would replace Alasania as defense minister.
Alasania said his party would announce on Wednesday whether it would stay in the coalition or bolt. The Free Democrats have 10 of the coalition's 85 seats in the 150-seat parliament, and runs two more ministries - justice and foreign affairs.
"It will be difficult for the coalition in parliament without the 10 Free Democrat mandates," said David Berdzenishvili, a lawmaker from the Republican Party, another member of the coalition.
The Free Democrats also plan to re-elect Alasania as its leader at a congress on Saturday. He quit that post when he was appointed defense minister two years ago.
President Georgy Margvelashvili said soon after Alasania's statement that the coalition crisis posed "a threat to the efficient functioning" of state institutions, as well as to Georgia's quest for Euro-Atlantic integration.
Editing by Mark Heinrich