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Georgian Government Carousel

President Saakashvili turns to his closest loyalists in ministerial changes.
By Mikhail Vignansky

Georgia’s energetic president Mikheil Saakashvili has again reshuffled his government in what the Georgian media have already baptised the “government carousel”.

Although most of the same figures remain in office in different jobs, the structure of government now looks very different.

The biggest of the December 14 changes have been in the security portfolios. Irakly Okruashvili, a long associate of Saakashvili’s, moves to the post of defence minister. Formerly Saakashvili’s deputy when the latter was justice minister, he has already served as prosecutor general and interior minister in the new government.

Okruashvili is associated with the series of highly public arrests of officials from the time of former president Eduard Shevardnadze.

A new government structure has been formed with the name “the ministry of police and protection of public order”, incorporating both the interior ministry and the state security ministry. At its head is another close ally of the president, Ivane Merabishvili, who has served as secretary of the security council and state security ministry and who has the reputation of being a loyal and an unambitious figure.

This innovation has provoked the strongest public reactions. Some say the new ministry is a replica of the Stalinist-era NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. While others regard it as a progressive move that draws on western models.

Former defence minister Giorgi Baramidze has now lost his second high-profile job within a year, having formerly been interior minister. He now holds the prestigious but unpowerful post of state minister for integration with European structures.

The moving of Baramidze has sidelined one of the most active members of last year’s “Rose Revolution” and is the most open sign of the continuing rivalry between President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

The two men emerged as the victors of last year’s peaceful ouster of Shevardnadze. Their allies have been given the top jobs in the country and their parties, the National Movement and the United Democrats, have since merged.

Both men still declare their loyalty to one another, but evidence often surfaces of how their supporters are battling one another for influence.

“The latest change of leadership in the Tbilisi mayor’s office and the city sakrebulo [town assembly] prove that there is a Saakashvili team and a Zhvania team, and that the clan of the third leader of the revolution, parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, has claims of its own,” said well-known former member of parliament Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia.

“None of the three engages in open battle; it’s currently easier for them to work together. But over time, the fight may become more open. And then it will be hardest for Saakashvili, who has the least experience of political intrigue.”

The economic ministries have also been changed around. Kakha Bendukidze, the prominent Russian magnate who became Georgia’s minister of economic development in the summer, takes up a new job of “state minister for issues of the coordination of structural and economic reforms”. It is not yet clear what responsibilities will fall to Bendukidze, the author of Georgia’s massive privatisation programme, who famously said that he would sell “everything except the conscience” of Georgia.

David Berdzenishvili, member of parliament and leader of the opposition Republican Party, said of the reshuffle, “I don’t see any systematic approach in this. A rotation is taking place every five or six months. This has already become a style of management. Maybe it stems from the fact that the president does not trust his inner circle. And a frequent change of leaders in the security structures has a negative effect on their work.”

Political analyst Shalva Pichkhadze said,

“The president is choosing people not because of their professional qualities but according to their personal loyalty.

“The circle of people like this is narrow and there is a danger that it will inevitably narrow further in the future. There is no system of checks and balances at the top. That could lead to authoritarianism.”

Appointing Okruashvili to be defence minister, Saakashvili again said that the priority for his first term was to “restore Georgia’s territorial integrity”, in other words to recover the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Saakashvili introduced his new minister in typically theatrical style. At 3am on the night of December 18, the entire Kodori Brigade, stationed near Tbilisi, was put on high alert. The president and the new minister inspected the brigade’s readiness for action and then went on to the ministry to meet its officials.

In the defence ministry, Saakashvili said that Okruashvili would remain in his post “until the territorial integrity of the country is restored”.

The new minister said he would bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Georgian jurisdiction within five years, or else despatch the separatist leaders of those territories “to the other world”.

These statements provoked an angry reaction in the two unrecognised republics. Sergei Bagapsh, who looks likely to be Abkhazia’s next president in re-run elections in January, said he took exception to the tone and content of Okruashvili’s remarks and that Abkhazia would remain separate from Georgia for the next 100 years.

Okruashvili is also an unpopular figure in South Ossetia, where he is accused of having been behind the flare-up of violence there over the summer.

South Ossetia’s defence minister Anatoly Barankevich said that “as a result of the appointment of a new defence minister of Georgia we will be on a permanent war footing”.

His Abkhaz counterpart, Vyacheslav Eshba, said, “I understand the power and level of preparedness of the Georgian army.

“But we have no other solution. We can only defend ourselves. And that’s what we all do.”

Mikhail Vignansky is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.