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No Clear Reasons For Dismissal of Key Georgian Ministers

  • Liz Fuller

Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili

Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili

Just five weeks after his confirmation as Georgia's third prime minister in a year, Grigol Mgaloblishvili announced the dismissal of the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and education.

His stated rationale for the December 5 dismissals was to return to the situation prior to the August war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia, one of the two key priorities he announced at the time of his confirmation by parliament in early November.

At the time of his appointment, Mgaloblishvili, a hitherto barely known diplomat, appointed only two new ministers -- culture and environment -- prompting former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze to wonder aloud if they were the ones most responsible for Georgia's military defeat. Mgaloblishvili explained in early November that he needed time to consider the optimal composition of the new cabinet, and affirmed his readiness to discuss with opposition parties the inclusion of opposition representatives in a coalition government.

The new appointees, however, are all insiders. Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia was named to succeed his former boss, David Kezerashvili. Grigol Vashadze, who served as deputy foreign minister before being named culture minister in early November, succeeds Eka Tkeshelashvili as foreign minister, and Nika Gvaramia, who replaced Tkeshelashvili as justice minister in January, takes over the education portfolio from Ghia Nodia. In a fourth top-level change, former Education Minister Kakha Lomaya relinquished his post as National Security Council secretary.

Meeting with Mgaloblishvili on December 5 after the dismissals were made public, President Mikheil Saakashvili said that secret discussions of the new appointments had been under way for several weeks. Saakashvili highlighted the government's current priorities: improving living conditions and preventing any rise in unemployment due to the global financial crisis. It is difficult, however, to comprehend how replacing the defense and foreign ministers and the National Security Council secretary will impact the economy.

Indeed, the logical inference is that Kezerashvili, who testified at length on November 27 to the interim parliamentary commission tasked with assessing the events that led to the outbreak of hostilities, has been held to account for the lackluster performance of the armed forces during the August war. Meanwhile, Tkeshelashvili has been made scapegoat for the failure to induce NATO foreign ministers to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan at their meeting in Brussels on December 2-3.

State Of Flux

The December 5 cabinet reshuffle is the fourth this year, and the fifth over the past 13 months, since Saakashvili accepted in November 2007 the resignation of Zurab Noghaideli as prime minister and named banker Lado Gurgenidze to succeed him. Vashadze is Georgia's fourth foreign minister this year; Gela Bezhuashvili was named in late January to head a beefed-up intelligence service, and his successor David Bakradze was named parliament speaker after the May parliamentary elections.

Some analysts both within Georgia and abroad have construed the frequent top-level personnel changes as reflecting Saakashvili's impetuous nature and short attention span, and questioned what he thinks ministers can realistically achieve within the space of a few months. His approach calls to mind the situation in Romania during the early 1980s; "The Economist" commented on September 1, 1984, that Communist dictator Nicolae "Ceausescu rotates his ministers so fast that their faces become a blur." Opposition politicians quoted by Caucasus Press on December 5 criticized the reshuffle as illogical and unlikely to herald major change.

It remains unclear whether and how the new appointments will reflect on public perceptions of, and support for, Saakashvili. On November 10, the weekly "Kviris palitra" published the findings of a poll it recently conducted in which 60.9 percent of 510 respondents expressed disapproval of Saakashvili's personnel policy, which they were inclined to believe is predicated on loyalty to him personally, rather than professional ability. In a poll a year earlier by the same paper, 47 percent of respondents registered skepticism regarding the ability of Gurgenidze's new government to cope with the challenges Georgia then faced in the wake of the government's brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Saakashvili's assurance that the new appointments have been under discussion for several weeks is unlikely to dispel speculation that he is seriously disturbed by the number of his prominent former allies who have distanced themselves from him, or unequivocally aligned themselves with the opposition, since the August war. They include Burjanadze, who launched her own political party in November and has called for preterm elections; ombudsman Sozar Subari; former Ambassador to Russia Erosi Kitsmarishvili; and former Prime Minister Noghaideli.

In addition, Irakli Alasania announced his resignation on December 5 as ambassador to the United Nations with the aim of engaging in domestic politics. A spokeswoman for the opposition New Rightists told on December 5 that her party and the Republicans, which plan to cement a formal alliance in the coming week, have held "consultations" with Alasania, whom they consider "the most acceptable" of the senior officials who have broken with Saakashvili in recent months.