Merabishvili in turn has named his controversial protege, Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, to succeed him as interior minister. Education Minister Dmitry Shashkin, a Tbilisi-born ethnic Russian, takes over the defense portfolio.
Observers in Tbilisi differ in their assessments of Saakashvili's rationale for reshuffling the cabinet less than four months before the parliamentary elections due in October in which his United National Movement faces a serious threat from the new Georgian Dream alliance headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili.
But whatever the motivation, the promotions of Merabishvili and Akhalaia are perturbing given the long-standing persistent rumors that the former condoned extrajudicial killings, and linking the latter to brutal reprisals in the penitentiary system.
Merabishvili, now 44, was first elected to parliament from then-President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia in 1999. Eighteen months later, he made headlines by telling "The Washington Post" that Shevardnadze was "tired" and incapable of taking a firm stand against the endemic corruption for which Georgia had become a byword.
Following Shevardnadze's ouster in the November 2003 Rose Revolution and the election as his successor of former parliament speaker and Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili, Merabishvili was named first National Security Council secretary and then, a few months later, minister of state security. That ministry was soon subsumed into the Interior Ministry, and Merabishvili was named to head the "super-ministry" in December 2004.
In that capacity, Merabishvili presided over the much-publicized reform and purge of corruption within the police force. But at the same time, speaking in 2008, the then human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, maintained that Merabishvili had condoned the formation within the ministry of "a punitive group that stands above the law and that can liquidate any given individual if doing so is considered expedient."
Speaking at a press conference this week, Merabishvili admitted that there had been "many cases," including the murder by Interior Ministry personnel in January 2006 of banker Sandro Girgvliani, that did not reflect well on the Interior Ministry.
A Take-Charge Guy
Merabishvili has long been regarded as the second-most powerful Georgian official after Saakashvili, eclipsing successive prime ministers whose responsibilities center primarily, if not exclusively, on the economy.
In his rare interviews, he comes across as arrogant, brash, and supremely unconcerned with detail and nuance. Answering questions on his new government program during an emergency parliamentary session on July 4, Merabishvili said that "statistics are of no significance," and that all that mattered for him was improving the popular mood.
Opposition parliament deputies voted against that program, which is titled "More benefit for the people." Like numerous earlier programs announced with great fanfare by Saakashvili over the past eight years, it aims to reduce unemployment, especially in rural areas, and revive the moribund agricultural sector. Specifically, it aims to attract investment to create 80,000 new jobs, and envisages a reduction in taxes, swift economic growth, and macroeconomic stability.
"The government's goal is to create conditions for a successful, wealthy and unified state, to devote constant attention to ensuring that every citizen has the chance to live a worthy and comfortable life," it reads. As a first step in that direction, Merabishvili announced the planned distribution to every family of a voucher for 1,000 laris ($604), to be used to pay for municipal services or purchase medications or fuel.
Paata Zakareishvili, who heads Georgia's Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts, dismissed that latter initiative as "sheer populism."
No Georgian Dreams
Some Georgian analysts link Merabishvili's appointment as prime minister and the selection of Akahalaia and Shashkin to head the "power" ministries to the October parliamentary elections. Given that Merabishvili's new government program is unlikely to yield a tangible improvement in the economic situation in just three months, the inference is that Saakashvili wants to intensify control over the country to counter the perceived threat posed by Ivanishvili and his new Georgian Dream coalition.
In a bid to contain that threat, in recent weeks the Georgian authorities have fined Ivanishvili 126.2 million laris ($77.5 million) for distributing thousands of satellite dishes free of charge and a further 90 million laris for allegedly violating the law on funding political parties by selling 239 cars at "preferential terms" to the parties aligned in Georgian Dream. When he refused to pay, they impounded his shares in his Cartu Group and two banks affiliated with it and put them up for auction, albeit without success.
Speaking on behalf of European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton in the European Parliament, Cypriot official Andreas Mavroyiannis "noted with concern the perception that the government is trying to hinder the participation of opposition leader Ivanishvili, that resources are being deployed against him and that laws on party finance and vote-buying are being applied in a one-sided way."
Like Merabishvili, Akhalaia, 31, is regarded as a law unto himself. As head of the penitentiary system, he has been accused of mistreating prisoners on more than one occasion and that this mistreatment apparently triggered prison riots in 2005 and 2006, which were forcibly repressed. Opposition Republican Party leader David Usupashvili described the appointment of Akhalaia as defense minister three years ago as the most dangerous personnel decision Saakashvili ever made.
Shashkin, 36, is the son of a former Constitutional Court judge. He worked for several years for the International Republican Institute in Tbilisi, gaining a reputation as a competent negotiator and manager. He served briefly, from February to December 2009, as minister for penitentiaries before being named minister of education.
In a July 10 interview with the daily "24 saati," Shashkin reportedly said Georgia's defense policy priorities (cooperation with the U.S. and integration into NATO) would remain the same, but that he would develop and promote a new strategy aimed at providing greater benefits for servicemen and their families.
With characteristic hyperbole, Saakashvili has lauded Shashkin as "one of the greatest Georgian patriots." But some may question precisely what message the appointment of an ethnic Russian as Georgian defense minister sends, especially to the Chechens and other naionalities who are the object of the "State Strategy on Relations with the Peoples of North Caucasus" adopted by the Georgian parliament last month. The aim of that strategy is to expedite the alienation of the region's population from Moscow and promote Georgia as the polity best able to protect their interests.
*This article has been amended since it was first published in order to clarify certain points.