Heavyweight Premier for Georgia

Vano Merabishvili’s appointment boosts ruling party ahead of election.

Heavyweight Premier for Georgia

Vano Merabishvili’s appointment boosts ruling party ahead of election.

New Georgian prime minister Vano Merabishbili meeting the locals in an area near Tbilisi. (Photo: Georgian government)
New Georgian prime minister Vano Merabishbili meeting the locals in an area near Tbilisi. (Photo: Georgian government)

The appointment of a political heavyweight as Georgia’s new prime minister is being seen as President Mikhael Saakashvili’s response to opposition manoeuvring ahead of a parliamentary election this October.

Parliament has already approved the July 4 reshuffle in which Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was named as prime minister.

The interior ministry, which controls the police, the security and intelligence service, and the border protection force, will now be led by 31-year-old Bacho Akhalaia, one of Saakashvili’s closest allies.

Merabishvili headed the interior ministry for eight years, and even government critics say his policing reforms were among the most successful implemented since the “Rose Revolution” brought Saakashvili to power in 2003.

The president acknowledged this record in announcing the new appointment, saying, “I believe this man can strike a decisive blow against corruption, and defeat it. He has defeated the criminals in Georgia, and achieved much more besides, so I am sure he will be able to handle his duties.”

Merabishvili is the most influential figure to hold the post of prime minister since Zurab Zhvania, who died in 2005.

Together with Saakashvili, he will run the election campaign of the ruling United National Movement, UNM, which will be based on a programme called “More Benefits for the People”, which he unveiled on July 1.

“For me, it is very important that the government has presented the nation with a programme that it will take to the election and pursue for the next four years,” Saakashvili said. “The country has achieved significant successes, and now is the time for this progress to be felt by every citizen.”

Merabishvili said his most important challenge would be to bring down unemployment, and he promised to tackle this problem as effectively as he fought criminality as interior minister.

From next year, he said, pensioners will start receiving monthly pensions worth around 100 US dollars, while three billion lari (1.8 billion dollars) will be spent over the next four years to ensure that every citizen has medical insurance. He also promised to develop the agricultural sector, with investment of four billion laris, and to give every family a voucher for 1,000 laris to spend as they wish.

Analysts say the appointment and the new government programme showed that the president was concerned by the electoral challenge posed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party.

When Ivanishvili moved into opposition politics last October, the only serving minister he singled out as a “good manager and organiser” was Merabishvili. Now though, he said, the changes had come too late.

“These changes prove only one thing – they want to strengthen the police even more, and increase the pressure on their own people. But nothing will come of it,” he said. “I advise Merabishvili and other members of the government to reconsider, and to obey the law and the will of the people.”

Analysts say Merabishvili enjoys greater popularity and public confidence than even Saakashvili.

Paata Zakareishvili of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts says the UNM had been forced to place Merabishvili at the centre of government because of Ivanishvili’s challenge.

“Merabishvili was [already] heading the electoral staff,” said Zakareishvili, who is a member of the Republican Party, part of the Georgian Dream coalition. “The ruling team wanted to keep him in the background until after the election, but Ivanishvili spoiled their plans and forced them to play their hand.”

The appointment has led to speculation about whether Merabishvili is being lined up to replace Saakashvili, whose second and final term as president expires next year.

Constitutional changes made in 2010 strengthened the prime minister’s post and weakened the presidency, raising suspicions that Saakashvili intends to follow the path taken by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who became prime minister after stepping down as president.

This scenario was dismissed by Gia Nodia, director of the International School of Caucasus Studies.

“Saakashvili has a year-and-a-half until the end of his presidential term, and for all that time, the key figure in Georgia will be Vano Merabishvili. Talk of Saaskashvili following Putin’s path will die away,” he said. “Previously, few people doubted that he [Saakashvili] would become prime minister, but now we don’t expect that to happen.”

Levan Vepkhvadze, a member of parliament from the opposition Christian Democrats, agreed, saying, “Merabishvili is not the kind of figure you make prime minister and then, after the elections, tell to resign and give up his position. He’s a figure of a different calibre. If the UNM wins, Merabishvili could be prime minister until 2016. That means the answer to the question of whether Saakashvili will be prime minister after 2013 is no.”

Soso Tsiskarishvili, of the Club of Independent Experts, argues that Merabishvili already effectively controlled the government in his previous post, so being made prime minister was not a step up.

“I don’t think this is a promotion for Merabishvili himself, since he was already bigger than the prime minister,” he said. “It’s a backward step for him in terms of control power, since it makes him more accountable.”

In other changes to the government, Education Minister Dmitry Shashkin became defence minister; Khatia Dekanoidze, formerly head of the police academy, was made education minister; and a new employment ministry was set up, which will be headed by Paata Trapaidze, formerly director of a private-sector construction company.

Nana Kurashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.


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