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Analysis: Georgian Cabinet Reshuffled For Second Time In Six Months

When President Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled Georgia's new government 10 months ago, he stressed two factors: ministers' relative youth and their extreme professionalism. Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania for his part characterized his cabinet as "a united team of professionals who think alike," according to Reuters on 17 February.

Since February, however, Saakashvili has undertaken not one but two major cabinet reshuffles. The first, in early June, was confined to rotating the ministers responsible for defense, security, and law and order. The second, confirmed by Saakashvili and Zhvania on 14 December after days of media speculation, affects some of the "power ministers" appointed in June, together with some economic and foreign-policy portfolios.

In the June rotation, then Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze was named defense minister, replacing Gela Bezhuashvili, who was appointed National Security Council secretary. Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili took over as interior minister, and was succeeded in his previous position by State Security Minister Zurab Adeishvili. Bezhuashvili's predecessor as National Security Council secretary, Vano Merabishvili, was named state security minister (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 June 2004).

Zhvania predicted that those June appointments "will allow us to make our policy more targeted." But just six months later, a new realignment is under way. The youthful and hawkish Okruashvili has been named to replace Baramidze as defense minister; Baramidze will now coordinate Georgia's efforts to achieve integration into European structures. The Interior and State Security ministries are to be merged into a Ministry for Police and Public Order reminiscent of the early Brezhnev era, when Eduard Shevardnadze headed a similarly named ministry.
Observers have also expressed concern over Okruashvili's appointment as defense minister, which some believe could herald a new offensive against South Ossetia.

Saakashvili stressed on 14 December that the amalgamation of the two ministries will not negatively affect the country's security. "We will keep all the professionals, since various services have waged an attack on our country, plotting thousands of conspiracies, and we need professionals more than ever," he said. "We intend to particularly strengthen our intelligence service to ensure the security of our country," Saakashvili added.

Other commentators proved more cautious, however, recalling endless turf battles over the past several decades between the police and Security and Defense ministries, according to the independent television station Rustavi-2 on 12 December. (The Georgian Security Ministry accused the Defense Ministry of "hostile acts" after an explosion damaged its headquarters in Tbilisi in December 1993.)

Observers have also expressed concern over Okruashvili's appointment as defense minister, which some believe could herald a new offensive against South Ossetia. Okruashvili was born in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and advocates military intervention to reimpose Georgian government control over the breakaway region. He personally commanded Interior Ministry forces during the low-level clashes with South Ossetian forces in July-August.

Saakashvili, however, offered an alternative explanation for Okruashvili's new post. Saakashvili said that as commander-in-chief of the Georgian armed forces he is not satisfied with the pace of army reform, and hopes that Okruashvili will expedite that process. Saakashvili added that he anticipates the reform process will take some time, as it cannot be completed within six months or so. In other words, Okruashvili is being given a specific mandate, presumably in the hope that it will distract him at least in the short term from saber rattling. Okruashvili himself told journalists that his top priority will be to ensure that Georgia receives in 2006 an invitation to join NATO, according to ITAR-TASS on 15 December.

In addition to the "power ministry" appointments, Kakha Bendukidze, whom Saakashvili lured back from Russia to his native Georgia to take on the challenge of kick starting Georgia's moribund economy, has been given overall responsibility for coordinating economic reform, while his deputy Aleksi Aleksishvili will take over as economic development minister. The wisdom of that move, too, has been questioned: the daily "Akhali taoba" on 15 December quoted economic expert Aleksandre Tvalchrelidze as pointing out that Bendukidze's economic strategy is spot-on, but that it was not realistic to expect his efforts to yield visible results within just a few months.

Saakashvili said on 14 December that "on the whole" he is pleased with the government's performance despite unspecified "errors and mistakes," and he told ministers to continue to act "predictably and consistently." Zhvania for his part stressed that the new appointments do not reflect a "political crisis." He also noted that parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze supports the planned changes. Burdjanadze was rumored late last month to be contemplating a break with Zhvania and Saakashvili in order to co-found a new political party.