Zurab Noghaideli (file photo)
Much of the discussion about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's choice of former Finance Minister Zurab Noghaideli to succeed Zurab Zhvania as prime minister has focussed on the balance of power between rival factions within the top leadership. But the choice of Noghaideli also suggests that Saakashvili is aware of the extent to which Georgia's future depends on continued and accelerated economic growth.
Most commentary on Noghaideli's nomination posited the existence within the Georgian leadership of at least two if not three separate factions loyal respectively to the president, the deceased former prime minister, and to parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze. Parliament deputy Elene Tevdoradze substantiated that hypothesis by telling journalists on 7 February that in selecting his candidate to succeed Zhvania, Saakashvili should maintain the balance between his "camp" and those of Zhvania and Burdjanadze. And Caucasus Press on 9 February quoted the independent television station Rustavi-2 as reporting that Zhvania's "team" had threatened to join the opposition to the present Georgian leadership if one of their number was not named as the new prime minister. Veteran Georgian analyst Ghia Nodia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development was more cautious, suggesting to Eurasia View that "I think there was some sort of informal demand from Zhvania's network that one of them would be nominated as prime minister."
Saakashvili's emphasis, both in his address at Zhvania's 6 February funeral, and in his speech on 10 February when he formally presented Noghaideli to parliament, on the need for national unity, could be construed as an implicit acknowledgment of covert competition for the prime minister's post. Burdjanadze for her part admitted on 8 February the existence of three camps, but played down the rivalry between them, stressing that she has never insisted on her supporters being named to influential posts.
It has been suggested that Saakashvili opted for Noghaideli, who was a close associate of Zhvania for over a decade, rather than appoint one of his own proteges such as Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, or Tbilisi Mayor Zurab Chiaberashvili, precisely in order to maintain a balance between the three camps. But why did Saakashvili favor Noghaideli rather than another longtime Zhvania associate, former Interior and Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze, one of the most popular figures in the cabinet?
Saakashvili told parliament on 10 February that Burdjanadze had been his first choice as the new prime minister, but that she had turned down that offer. The very fact that it was made, however, suggests that Saakashvili initially placed more weight on maintaining the existing balance of power within the top leadership than on what has emerged as his second priority -- the economy.
In his 10 February state-of-the-nation address, Saakashvili highlighted Georgia's achievements in the 13 months since his election as president, noting in particular the 300 percent increase in budget revenues, which in turn made it possible to double pensions, increase state-sector wages, and pay off a decade of accumulated pensions arrears -- an achievement for which Saakashvili credited Noghaideli personally; the successful crackdown on smuggling; the financial amnesty; and the streamlining of the government bureaucracy. But at the same time, Saakashvili admitted that "we have been unable to create a sufficient number of new jobs in the private sector," and that "we have not been able to transform our country into a European-style economy."
That latter failure is indeed one of Georgia's greatest weaknesses, and constitutes a major obstacle to two of Saakashvili's stated key objectives: NATO membership for Georgia, and bringing back under the control of the central government the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Speaking in Luxembourg on 11 February, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Washington would like to see both Ukraine and Georgia as a part of the main current in development of Europe, but that although NATO's doors are open to any democratic European state, Georgia and the Ukraine have to make "many practical steps" before they qualify for NATO membership. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld delivered a similar message the following day, telling Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Baramidze at the international security conference in Munich that NATO's doors are open to democracies that meet its conditions for membership, but declining to specify any time frame within which Georgia might be given the green light to apply formally to join the alliance. Zhvania had told the Georgian government on 29 December that Tbilisi would do so in 2006.
According to NATO's website (http://www.nato.int/issues/study_on_enlargement/index.html), "countries seeking NATO membership have to be able to demonstrate that they have fulfilled certain requirements. These include providing evidence that they each represent a functioning democratic, political system based on a market economy; that they treat minority populations in accordance with OSCE guidelines; have resolved outstanding disputes with neighbors and have made an overall commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes; have the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to the alliance and to achieve interoperability with other members' forces; and are committed to democratic civil-military relations and institutional structures."
Of those various requirements, the one that prospective candidates for NATO membership should demonstrate a commitment to resolving problems peacefully is of particular relevance. Saakashvili's pronouncements with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as on many other issues, have been less than 100 percent consistent. Saakashvili apparently envisages two alternative scenarios with regard to the two breakaway republics: either Georgia develops rapidly into a strong and stable state with a flourishing economy, in which case they might decide that there is no point in holding out in the hope of eventual international recognition of their proclaimed but unrecognized independence, and voluntarily agree to autonomy or federal status within Georgia; or, to judge from Saakashvili's 24 January comments to journalists in Tbilisi prior to his departure for Strasbourg to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, he apparently believes that the international community would not condemn the use of military force, at least against South Ossetia, if the leaders of that republic continue to reject all offers of political compromise (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005).
Saakashvili's choice of Noghaideli as the new prime minister could be interpreted as proof that he prefers the "economic incentive" approach to winning back South Ossetia and Abkhazia, rather than what a correspondent for RIA-Novosti termed the "cavalry charge" approach favored by Okruashvili. But sustaining GDP growth at last year's level of 9 percent will not be easy. And the success of the former approach will depend largely on Okruashvili's forbearance, particularly if Moscow chooses to fuel tensions by inciting South Ossetia to violate the cease-fire agreement signed in December.
Noghaideli is widely acknowledged to be intelligent and astute, and to have excellent ties with international financial institutions. At the same time, he is, according to Burdjanadze, stubborn and uncommunicative. In a word, he may be a skilled technocrat, but he is not, as Zhvania was, a statesman and a facilitator of compromise. Eurasia View on 9 February quoted Nodia as suggesting that Saakashvili sees Noghaideli's qualities of discipline and restraint as a valuable counterweight to his own mercurial and inconsistent nature. But again, it is unclear whether Noghaideli can command the respect and support of the "power" ministers, especially Okruashvili.
Finally, Saakashvili's choice of Noghaideli constituted a public slap in the face to Burdjanadze, who reacted on 9 February to the announcement of his nomination by saying that she had discussed a different candidate with Saakashvili and was under the impression that he had agreed to her suggestion. The results of a poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra," published on 14 February, revealed that under 10 percent of its 500 respondents approved Noghaideli's nomination: Burdjanadze was the overall favorite, albeit with only 21.6 percent support, followed by Okruashvili (10 percent).