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Georgia's Nomenclature Still Sitting Pretty

Despite widespread hopes of a radical shake-up in Georgia's ruling cabal, President Shevardnadze once again puts his faith in the old guard
By Ia Antadze

Frail hopes of a new, dynamic government in Georgia have been dashed. When President Eduard Shevardnadze unveiled his proposed cabinet last week, voters were appalled to see the same old faces in the top positions. As ever, the president's personnel decisions leave the nation bewildered.

According to the constitution, the president accepts the resignation of the existing ministers immediately after his inauguration and, two weeks later, presents the parliament with his new cabinet.

Of the 18 ministers on Shevardnadze's list, there were only four new appointments. The remaining 14 are all members of the same government which ran up a $300 million budget deficit in 1999 and wrote off another $200 million in debt in the first four months of this year.

But, if Shevardnadze's fondness for the old guard remains a mystery, his latest cadre choices are no less baffling.

Most astonishing, perhaps, was the appointment of Gia Arsenishvili as Minister of State. A key position in the Georgian government, the Minister of State heads the chancellery and carries out the president's decrees.

Arsenishvili takes the mantle from Vaja Lordkipanidze, an old Shevardnadze ally who was formerly Georgia's ambassador to Moscow and accepted the post in 1998.

It was generally thought that Shevardnadze was then considering Lordkipanidze as a possible political heir and gave him the job to test his mettle. Furthermore, Lordkipanidze was well positioned to throw down a direct challenge to Zurab Zhvania, chairman of the parliament, also a prime candidate for the presidency.

But, entrusted with the impossible tasks of resolving the Abkhazian conflict and rebuilding the national economy, Lordkipanidze's fall from grace was a foregone conclusion. Zhvania no doubt watched in satisfaction as the budget deficit spiralled and his rival's vast sphere of influence became his undoing.

The quiet, solemn Arsenishvili seems an unlikely successor to the hugely influential Lordkipanidze. A far cry from the stereotypical image of a Georgian minister, Arsenishvili is seen as a man of the people, from an ordinary family background, who owns an ordinary car and goes to work in ordinary clothes.

When asked in a parliamentary debate what he achieved in his capacity as Shevardnadze's representative in Khaketi, he answered, "I did many things but what I didn't do was to look after my own interests."

This injection of decency and personal integrity may in some way compensate for the recent resignation of the Finance Minister, David Onoprishvili.

A member of Zurab Zhvania's political cabal, Onoprishvili was one of the few ministers who managed to retain a reputation for honesty amid the web of corruption and deceit which has become associated with the old political nomenclature.

On announcing his resignation, he spoke candidly about the factors which had pushed the former Soviet republic to the brink of economic crisis, pointing the finger at misappropriation of funds, smuggling, cumbersome bureaucracy and deliberate obstruction.

"In these conditions, I feel I have nothing left to give the country," said Onoprishvili.

His proposed replacement has been named as Nugzar Nogaideli, who, like Onoprishvili, is closely associated with Zhvania.

But Zhvania's political team seems to be doomed to frustration. The only force in the country which claims to have the will and the ability to implement reforms, its members are driven out of the political arena with striking regularity.

It reminds one of the Georgian fairy-tale of the fox and the quail. Every so often, the fox approaches the tree where the quail is nesting and demands to be fed one of its fledglings. Otherwise, says the fox, it will take up an axe, chop the tree down and eat them all. The quail duly sacrifices one of its chicks to save the rest - but the fox always comes back for more, its appetite never satisfied. And the fledglings are eaten, one by one.

It is possible that this gradual erosion of Zhvania's team is part of an ongoing plot to engineer the eventual downfall of a man who makes no secret of his presidential ambitions.

Members of the nomenclature are understandably unwilling to adopt any course of reform which might affect their personal interests. And their personal interests are clear enough: $300 million of budget money has vanished into a black hole and the government has made no attempt to stem the haemorrhage.

On the one hand, the MPs listen attentively to a report by the Committee of State Control highlighting the widespread misappropriation of funds and the total lack of accountability. But, on the other hand, they approve the appointment of the same ministers time after time.

And the ministers - who are paid salaries of $75 a month -- have trouble fitting all their property in the space provided on official asset declaration forms. And people stare in bemusement at their vast mansions and the limousines with government plates parked outside the top Tbilisi casinos.

Thus, the cosmetic changes in the ruling cabal are largely symbolic - a political carrot extended to a nation eager for change. But the people are unlikely to expect any positive or decisive moves from Shevardnadze's new government. You can judge a government by its budget, and a budget by its government.

Ia Antadze is a correspondent for the Kavkasioni newspaper in Tbilisi.

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