A reshuffle of Georgia's government has done little to narrow political rifts in the former Soviet republic, which faces economic instability and persistent concerns about Russia's intentions nearly seven years after the August 2008 war over South Ossetia.
Following a protracted and acrimonious debate that dragged on beyond midnight, parliament approved the composition of the new cabinet in an 87-38 vote in the early hours on May 9.
Predictably, the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) faction voted against the new government. So, too, did the Free Democrats -- despite Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's efforts to secure support of the faction that quit the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition after he dismissed Defense Minister Irakli Alasania in November 2014.
The composition of the cabinet remains largely unchanged, with just four new appointees: Tina Khidasheli (Republican Party) as defense minister; Gigla Agulashvili (Republican Party) as environment and natural resources minister; Nodar Javakhishvili as infrastructure and regional development minister; and Tariel Khechikashvili as minister for sport and youth affairs.
The objections of the parliamentary opposition factions to the new line-up focused less on the individual nominees than on the perceived shortcomings of the government's economic policy, as reflected in the ongoing depreciation of the national currency. Since November, the lari has lost approximately 32 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar.
ENM lawmaker Zurab Japaridze accused the government of mishandling the situation and predicted that the situation would continue to deteriorate. He contended that with the exception of Economy Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, "whom nobody listens to," the government "has no idea...how the economy works."
Garibashvili had predicted during a meeting with ENM lawmakers on May 7 that the Georgian currency would "begin to stabilize in the next two-three weeks."
Garibashvili has argued repeatedly that the lari's fall is not the result of flawed economic policy. He has called it the inevitable consequence of the wider strengthening of the dollar and the recession in Russia, which has contributed to a 22.8 percent decline in remittances from abroad during the first three months of this year. But he spread the blame wider during his address to parliament before the vote on the new cabinet, criticizing the National Bank for not having intervened "more actively" to prop up the lari.
The National Bank has intervened five times this year to support the currency, most recently selling $40 million on April 28, when the lari plummeted to a 16-year low against the dollar.
But Azim Sadikov, who heads the International Monetary Fund representation in Tbilisi, was quoted on May 9 as warning against further pressure on the central bank to shore up the lari, arguing that it should be allowed to float. Sadikov added that "this is not the time to allocate blame," and urged the government and the bank to work together to identify and remedy existing "weaknesses."
In his address to parliament, Garibashvili recapitulated the cabinet's achievements since GD trounced the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, sweeping Mikheil Saakashvili's party from power a year before his presidency ended. The prime minister said the time had now come to progress to "a very important stage of development" in which there were new jobs and "each and every citizen can benefit from the results achieved in healthcare, agriculture, economy, education, or in other sectors."
Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili was more explicit, enumerating what he said were the three major challenges Georgia faces.
The first is the security situation: Usupashvili said Georgia faces a persistent danger from an aggressive and unpredictable Russia, enhancing the need to preserve domestic political stability.
The second is to implement -- before parliamentary elections due in the fall of 2016 -- reforms of the prosecutor's office, the Interior Ministry (from which the intelligence and security services are to be decoupled), and the electoral system. Last month, in his capacity as a rank-and-file parliament deputy, Usupashvili endorsed a memorandum drafted by several parties that have no parliament seats calling for changes to the electoral law to reduce the number of parliament mandates allocated under the majoritarian system (currently 73 of the total 150), or even switch to a 100 percent proportional system.
Any move in that direction could, however, exacerbate the long-standing tensions between Garibashvili and President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who issued a statement on April 28 arguing for the transition to a wholly proportional system with the aim of creating what he termed "a pluralistic political environment."
The third challenge Usupashvili listed is the need to create jobs and bolster the economy. According to official data, unemployment among Georgia's able-bodied population of 2.3 million is between 14-15 percent. That figure does not reflect the high percentage of people who describe themselves as self-employed.
-- Liz Fuller