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Analysis: Georgian Premier Reshuffles Power Ministers

  • Liz Fuller

Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania announced on 5 June an impending reshuffle of the government officials responsible for defense, security, and crime. That move is apparently intended to serve at least two key purposes: to galvanize Georgia's efforts to achieve NATO membership and to stamp out petty corruption and inefficiency within the Interior Ministry.

Zhvania's plan is for Giorgi Baramidze, a former parliament Defense and Security Committee chairman who has served since November 2003 as interior minister, to become defense minister, replacing Gela Bezhuashvili, who will take over as National Security Council secretary from Vano Merabishvili. Merabishvili in turn was named state security minister, replacing Zurab Adeishvili, who will succeed Irakli Okruashvili as prosecutor-general. Okruashvili will replace Baramidze as interior minister. Zhvania was quoted by Caucasus Press as predicting that "we are sure that the reshuffling will allow us to make our policy more targeted." But the opposition Labor Party on 7 June dismissed the reshuffle as pointless, and branded all the officials involved as corrupt, Caucasus Press reported.

Baramidze's appointment is clearly linked to Georgia's bid for NATO membership. He has consistently been one of the most outspoken Georgian critics of Russia's imputed encroachment into the South Caucasus, and at the same time one of the country's most pro-Western politicians. In December 2000, he argued that Georgia should do all in its power to expand cooperation with NATO, even though doing so would antagonize Moscow. Named as interior minister in the late fall of 2003 in the wake of the "Rose Revolution," the 36-year-old Baramidze enjoys the sort of adulation normally reserved for pop stars and soccer players, according to the "Financial Times" on 11 May. But his tenure at the Interior Ministry has been marked by a series of embarrassments. In mid-January, Baramidze announced that the inauguration ceremony for President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili was in jeopardy after the discovery of a "sniper's nest" close to the presidential residence. That shelter proved to be the work of an 11-year-old boy.

More recently, both Saakashvili and Tbilisi prosecutor Valerii Grigalashvili have criticized the performance of the Interior Ministry. Grigalashvili said on 19 April the police are making little effort to crack down on drug dealing. Commenting in mid-April on Baramidze's radical proposals for reforming his ministry -- proposals that Baramidze estimated in January would cost $10 million to implement -- Saakashvili said that the collective image of the police as overweight, overbearing, and loutish must be changed, and people should respect them. Six weeks later, Saakshvili again criticized the police, alleging on 31 May that traffic cops have begun soliciting bribes again. Responding to that criticism at a press conference the following day, Baramidze said that 60 cases of extortion by traffic police had been registered alone during the preceding week. He pledged a decisive crackdown against that and other abuses. At the same press conference, Baramidze implied that police efforts to crack down on crime are being undermined by judges who accept bribes to acquit people accused of criminal offenses. Gia Getsadze, secretary of the Council of Justice, responded on 2 June by accusing Baramidze of lacking professionalism.

By contrast, new Interior Minister Okruashvili was deemed by 74 percent of the 499 respondents in a poll conducted by the newspaper "Kviris palitra" last month as the most professional member of the Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported on 17 May. Then-Defense Minister Bezhuashvili was also named in that survey as being among the five most professional government officials, as was then State Security Minister and prosecutor-general-designate Adeishvili, despite the latter's lack of relevant experience. Adeishvili is a trained lawyer with no background in security issues.