Georgia Gets Fresh-Faced Government

Saakashvili nominates non-party figures for key roles in new cabinet.

Georgia Gets Fresh-Faced Government

Saakashvili nominates non-party figures for key roles in new cabinet.

Wednesday, 30 January, 2008
President Mikheil Saakashvili is kicking off his second term by seeking to put together a new, more diverse government in an attempt to reach out to disaffected Georgians.

In a cabinet reshuffle still to be finalised, the narrowly re-elected president has removed supporters from key roles and has brought in outsiders in what is being seen as an attempt to engage voters ahead of an important parliamentary election in May.

The Georgian parliament is expected to confirm the new ministers when Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze presents it with the list of names at a specially-convened session on January 31.

Saakashvili has already set out his long-term priorities for the new government – reducing poverty, improving relations with Russia and “re-integration” of the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

However, the president’s immediate political priority is to make sure that the governing National Movement party emerges as winner from the parliamentary election. The new government is seen as a gesture of goodwill towards voters.

In contrast to his landslide victory in 2004, Saakashvili won by only a slight margin on January 5, suggesting that the electorate was split down the middle.

Before the election, he had appointed banker Gurgenidze, a man from outside his immediate circle, as prime minister. Gurgenidze said the authorities had got the “people’s message” and would make it a priority to tackle social issues and fight poverty.

In the new cabinet list, several outsiders replace Saakashvili loyalists.

Some of the president’s closest allies such as foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili and prosecutor general Zurab Adeishvili are out, as is economic development minister Kakha Bendukidze, who was unpopular because of his controversial policies for attracting foreign investors.

David Bakradze, formerly minister for conflict resolution, has been nominated as foreign minister. His old ministry, meanwhile, has been renamed the “ministry for reintegration”, and the top job offered to Temur Iakobishvili, vice-president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

Another prominent figure from the non-governmental sector, Gia Nodia, is to be appointed minister of education and science.

Saakashvili said that while the previous government contained many friends of his, personal friendships and long-standing relationships were “secondary to state interests”.

The composition of the new government was a “result of broad consultations”, he said.

“State interests and patriotism are now being put to the fore so that all the promises made to the people can be fulfilled,” said the president.

The opposition - which still maintains that the presidential election was rigged and that Saakashvili is therefore not the legitimate head of state - has criticised the creation what it calls a “temporary government” which it suspects will be changed once the May election is out of the way.

It is also indignant that the two leading security officials in the country - Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Defence Minister David Kezerashvili - have retained their posts.

On January 29, a group of leading opposition politicians announced a list of 17 demands to the authorities, which mainly concern the fair conduct of the parliamentary election but also called for the removal of Merabishvili, whom they blame in large part for the police crackdown against the opposition on November 7.

They are calling for street protests to take place in February if their demands are not met.

Opposition politicians also disapprove of the candidate for the post of prosecutor general, Eka Tkeshelashvili, who was hitherto minister of justice.

“She is an active political figure, and the appointment means the post of prosecutor general is viewed by the authorities as a political position,” opposition member of parliament David Zurabishvili told IWPR.

The opposition says it is not mollified by the appointment of non-party figures to the government.

“Gia Nodia may well be a good political analyst, but he is hardly a better education professional than the former minister [Kakha Lomaia],” said Zurabishvili.

Both Nodia and Iakobashvili have come under fire for their part in an exit poll arranged by a number of NGOs which came out on January 5. The poll, which gave Saakashvili 52 per cent of the vote, was dismissed by the opposition as a sham.

Iakobashvili told IWPR that his involvement in the exit poll probably contributed to his nomination, in a good way.

“When the decision was made to carry out an exit poll, we took a firm position without thinking about the accusations and criticism we might face. This was a civic position, and the president recognised it,” he said.

Iakobashvili said he had not planned a ministerial career, and the president’s offer had come as a surprise to him.

“But I think that it necessary to try to do something myself at this stage, instead of just sitting back in a comfortable armchair as an expert and saying wise things,” he said.

David Darchiashvili, a political analyst who heads the Open Society Georgia Foundation disagrees that these appointments are pointless, and said the new government “marks serious changes in Saakashvili’s policy”.

“I cannot agree that the [ministerial] candidates are part of a PR campaign,” he said. “For instance, Gia Nodia is not a PR stunt for [those] who know about his activities and experience.

“Compared with the previous government, this one will be more diverse and more inclined to dialogue with people holding different views, including those from non-governmental organisations.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a reporter with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

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