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Another Round Of Georgian Musical Chairs

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
Late on December 5, Georgian Prime Minister Grigol Mgaloblishvili announced a further round of changes in the Georgian government, dismissing the ministers of education, defense, and foreign affairs.

In addition, the minister of culture, protection of monuments and sports, vacated his post, as did the National Security Council secretary. Those changes were totally unexpected not only to the public at large, but to some of the ministers directly affected.

A further and even greater shock was in store on the morning of December 9, when further changes were announced. Georgian Ambassador to the U.S. Vasil Sikharulidze was named defense minister, parliament deputy Lasha Zhvania -- economic development minister and Nikoloz Rurua, deputy head of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee -- minister of culture. Commenting on those apointments, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili observed tersely that "the focus is now shifting to culture."

It was only one month earlier, on November 1, that the parliament voted confidence in newly appointed Prime Minister Mgaloblishvili and his reshuffled government. Clearly at that juncture no one anticipated further changes after just one month. Grigol Vashadze, the new foreign minister, said at his first press briefing on December 5 that he learned about the unexpected change in his career barely half an hour before Mgaloblishvili's announcement. The newspaper "Alia" reported that Defense Minister David Kezerashvili held an ad hoc meeting just half an hour prior to his dismissal, being totally unaware of the impending changes.

Mgaloblishvili did not bring any new faces into the cabinet, relying exclusively on tried and tested members of President Saakashvili's team. Former Justice Minister Nikoloz Gvaramia was offered the education and science portfolio; former Culture Minister Grigol Vashadze was named to head the Foreign Ministry; former Economic Development Minister Eka Sharashidze was named to head the presidential administration; and former National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia will, according to rumors circulating in Tbilisi, be named Georgia's ambassador to the UN to replace Irakli Alasania.

The outgoing ministers were thanked by both Mgaloblishvili, who said they "managed to meet significant challenges at a most turbulent time," and Saakashvili, who stressed that "we are not discarding any of those people who were dismissed, we should reappoint them to senior posts."

'New Wave Of Democracy'

Experts find it hard to offer a logical explanation for the most recent round of ministerial changes, of which the Georgian public has witnessed several since 2003. On the one hand, after the Russian-Georgian hostilities in August, the dismissal of the defense and foreign ministers would have been a far more logical step than those of the ministers of culture and the environment that took place one month ago. But despite the recent new appointments, nobody has been held responsible for the August war.

For that reason, experts find it difficult to reconcile the government reshuffle with the "new wave of democracy" Saakashvili announced in September, or with any other aspect of his policy. Some experts have suggested that the changes within the Foreign Ministry could help to improve relations with Russia. That hypothesis is based on the fact that Grigol Vashadze lived in Russia for a considerable time, and despite the conflict he has retained both Russian and Georgian citizenship and to this day maintains contact with influential circles in both countries. But those evaluations of the significance of Vashadze's appointment have been overshadowed by the numerous questions about the other ministerial appointments that still remain unanswered.
Georgia's new foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze

By contrast, opposition party leaders have offered a far simpler explanation for the December 5 changes. One day earlier, on December 4, Georgia's ambassador to the UN, Irakli Alasania, reportedly submitted his resignation. Opposition members think that Alasania's resignation was such a serious blow to the president that Saakashvili decided to distract attention from it by announcing the government changes. Those television stations that are loyal to the Georgian leadership declined to cover Alasania's resignation in their main daily news programs and instead focussed on the cabinet changes.

But the continuation of the first wave of changes four days later highlights the superficiality of the opposition's hypothesis. The leadership team is gradually disintegrating and the president's hasty decisions are losing any internal logic. The only way to prolong the Saakashvili administration's tenure is that which Eduard Shevardnadze resorted to in order to remain president after the loss of Abkhazia in 1993: to move closer toward democracy.

But the current government reshuffle means that power is still confined to a small, closed circle. Praising your own team instead of holding them responsible is a long way from seeking to establish the truth. The media response -- to omit from the main news programs one of the day's most important developments -- is tantamount to riding roughshod over the facts.

So far there has been no indication that Saakashvili really intends to change his style of closed leadership, or tell society the truth, or adapt to the changing political situation.

The sole conclusion one can draw from the successive government appointments since December 5 is that genuine, real and broader changes are imperative. And Saakashvili will either have to summon up the resources to initiate that process of renewal himself, or leave it to the opposition to implement those changes.

Ia Antadze is a Tbilisi-based journalist with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL