The renewed vote of confidence in the Georgian cabinet necessitated by the resignation of three ministers last month has underscored yet again the tensions and disagreements within the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. Some observers have questioned whether the new cabinet, which includes just three new members, will receive the required vote of confidence in parliament.
The former ruling United National Movement (ENM), which holds 50 of the 149 parliament mandates, has already said it will not vote for the new cabinet, as it will be unable to extract Georgia from the current economic crisis. So too have the Free Democrats, who hold eight mandates.
The ENM is seeking a meeting with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has long been at odds with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, most recently over his refusal to vacate the grandiose presidential palace constructed for his predecessor, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Margvelashvili publicly questioned the rationale for replacing Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, who was appointed in early November 2014. Margvelashvili made clear he will submit the new cabinet nominations to parliament for its approval only at the end of the statutory seven-day period for doing so, during which time he hopes "our political leadership will take a balanced decision." The president does not have the constitutional right to block or reject outright ministerial nominees.
The outgoing cabinet had been in power for just nine months. In late July 2014, Garibashvili replaced five ministers and moved two more to different posts on the grounds that following the signing one month earlier of an Association Agreement with the EU, Georgia required "bolder and more efficient" ministers prepared to take risks in order to deliver fully on GD's election promises.
Since then, seven of the total 19 ministers have either been dismissed or submitted their resignation. According to the Georgian Constitution, the departure of seven ministers automatically requires a renewed confidence vote from parliament in the renewed cabinet.
Initially, Garibashvili said he would appoint replacements only for the ministers of sport and of the environment. The announcement of the new cabinet lineup was, however, unexpectedly postponed from April 30 until May 1, and encompassed the nomination of Tinatin (Tina) Khidasheli, a lawyer and Republican Party parliament deputy, to succeed Janelidze as defense minister. Khidasheli is married to parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili.
Garibashvili explained Khidasheli's nomination in terms of ensuring the Republican Party, as a junior partner in the GD coalition, is adequately represented. The party has only six parliament mandates, of GD's total 87, and three ministerial portfolios. New Environment Minister Gigla Agulashvili is a Republican, as is Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili.
Garibashvili said Khidasheli's biography, her track record as chair of the parliament committee for Eurointegration, and her engagement on the part of Georgian servicemen were all well known. At the same time, he said Janelidze, whom he described as a consummate professional, will return to his previous post as head of the state security and crisis management council subordinate to the prime minister's office.
How competent Janelidze, 36, is to address the major new security problems Georgia currently faces is questionable, however. The country has become a transit corridor for insurgents from the North Caucasus en route for Syria via Turkey to swell the ranks of Islamic State (IS) group. Kists (Georgian Chechens) from the Pankisi Gorge in northern Georgia are similarly reported to have headed for Syria to join ISIS, including a female high-school student aged 17. At least 12 are believed to have been killed.
In light of that continuing exodus, the Georgian parliament discussed last month in the first reading, but failed to vote on, legislative amendments criminalizing leaving the country with the intention of joining terrorist or other illegal armed groups.
A lawyer who, like Usupashvili, began her career in the NGO sector, Khidasheli is Georgia's first woman defense minister. (Of the former Soviet republics, only Latvia and Lithuania have ever appointed a woman to that post.) She has already met with Army Chief of Staff General Vakhtang Kapanadze and reaffirmed her belief that "our main goal -- to become a NATO member as soon as possible -- is achievable."
Khidasheli has also solicited advice from those of her predecessors as minister who are not either on trial, serving a prison term, or wanted on criminal charges. Gia Qarqarashvili, who served as defense minister from May 1993-March 1994 under then-State Council Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, praised the invitation but said that health problems precluded his accepting it. Davit Tevzadze, who held the post from 1998-2004, was similarly noncommittal.
-- Liz Fuller