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Has Bloom Faded from Rose Revolution?

As Salome Zourabichvili is dismissed from her ministerial post, observers say the rift is deepening between Georgia’s government and opposition.
By Keti Bochorishvili

The long-standing clash of interests between Georgian foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili and members of the ruling party in parliament has culminated in the French-born minister's dismissal.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has named Gela Bezhuashvili, an official from his inner circle, as the new foreign minister, and appears to have done little to save his protégée Zourabichvili.

As he shaped his new administration back in March 2004, Saakashvili effectively changed the law to bring Zourabichvili, a former French diplomat of Georgian parentage, into the cabinet. He signed a special edict granting her Georgian citizenship so that she could become minister, without requiring her to forego French citizenship.

With years of experience in the diplomatic service, Zourabichvili followed President Saakashvili's foreign policy agenda closely, and many international observers praise her record.

She oversaw the signing of an agreement on the removal of Russian military bases from Georgia according to a timetable that suited Tbilisi but not Moscow, and she deployed her past diplomatic experience to improve Georgian ties with the European institutions.

Despite this, leading parliamentarians from the ruling United National Movement, including speaker Nino Burjanadze, were highly critical of Zourabichvili’s performance. Among the accusations they levelled were that she was responsible for delaying accession to important international agreements, that she appointed ambassadors on the basis of nepotism, and that she showed contempt for parliament.

Zourabachivili’s fall from grace could have been predicted as early as May this year, when she responded angrily to parliament’s refusal to sanction her appointment of deputy foreign minister Gogi Gomiashvili to the post of ambassador to Switzerland. On that occasion, President Saakashvili intervened to smooth things over by praising Zourabichvili’s work at a press conference, thus quietly putting a lid on the growing scandal.

However, the conflict continued, and ended with Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli sacking Zourabichvili on October 19. He reiterated all the complaints that had been voiced against her in parliament.

But this time, Saakashvili was not willing to stick his neck out to save her. When she refused to give in to the pressure from parliament and recant, the president sacrificed her.

Since his foreign minister’s removal, Saakashvili’s only comment has been that he sometimes had to wait months to get documents out of the foreign ministry.

He has also expressed unhappiness with the ministry’s foreign diplomatic efforts to address Georgia’s two territorial disputes, with the self-declared republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "Over this entire period [since coming to power in November 2003], we have failed to raise in the international arena the issues of ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia and regular violations of human rights in the Tskhinvali region [of South Ossetia]," he said.

The president stressed that if the new foreign minister fails to address these problems, he too will be forced out.

Zourabichvili left office saying she had no wish to leave Georgia, and would now prepare to take part in the next parliamentary election.

At a rally attended by between 4,000 and 10,000 supporters at the Tbilisi Hippodrome the day after her resignation was announced, she spoke about her plans for the future, including the creation of a new political movement. She says she has no intention of joining any of the existing opposition parties.

Many at the rally were vocal about their disappointment in the Saakashvili administration.

Physicist Avtandil Dondua said, "They shouldn’t think they can treat people disrespectfully or that their revolutionary credentials give them the right to do whatever they like. Two years down the road, and people have no faith in the country’s stability any more."

Dondua and others believe that what they are witnessing is the fruit of a misguided appointments policy where Saakashvili chooses soulmates rather than professionals to fill senior posts.

Some experts see the crisis in government as symptomatic of Georgian politics. Professor Giorgi Baghaturia of the Georgian Technical University’s department for state administration, believes the main reason why the state is so often in the throes of crisis is that the Georgian leadership is inexperienced.

"The Georgian authorities and above all the president fail to take into account the principle of feedback in the system of state administration. When you’re in power and you act, you need to be able to predict what the outcome of your actions will be and whether they’ll secure the results you want in the prevailing climate," said Baghaturia.

He explained that while it was a good idea to bring Zourabichvili in to be foreign minister, Saakashvili should have foreseen resistance from Soviet-era ways of thinking, including a prevailing hostility to technocrats and outsiders who are not locked into existing political networks.

Few analysts are predicting that Georgian foreign policy will change with the appointment of Bezhuashvili, who is seen as pro-western.

What worries them more is that this appointment has been made from the president’s inner circle rather than from a wider field of possible candidates. Bezhuashvili was at university with Saakashvili, and has been at his side since the latter emerged as a political player in Georgia. He served him first as defence minister and most recently as secretary of the National Security Council.

Experts note that Saakashvili is increasingly reliant on a small pool of people loyal to him. As a result, cabinet reshuffles have often looked like musical chairs, where the same individuals are recycled in post after post.

Political analyst Paata Zakareishvili describes the process as one of "palace reshuffles", which only demonstrate the extent to which the “palace” is out of bounds to outsiders.

Zakareishvili is among those who believe the president may have been damaged by the removal of Zourabichvili.

The ex-minister certainly agrees, saying, "My dismissal… was an attack on the president himself. Unfortunately, Mikheil Saakashvili made a strategic mistake and made concessions, instead of dissolving parliament and thus further increasing his approval rating among the people."

Zourabichvili’s sacking now appears to be polarising political debate in Georgia, rather than making the issue go away.

The end of Zourabichvili’s time in the cabinet does not mean Georgians have seen the last of her in politics.

Keti Bochorishvili is a reporter for the BBC World Service’s Central Asian and Caucasus Service.

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