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Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili recently announced a sweeping government reorganization entailing the dismissal of six ministers and a reduction in the number of government bodies from 18 to 14.

Kvirikashvili expressed confidence that the changes will result in “very significant changes in the quality of management,” while parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze predicted they will result in financial savings and the optimization of resources.

Some observers, however, are skeptical, both with regard to the anticipated positive impact of the changes and to several new ministerial appointments.

Many commentators agree with former presidential administration head Petre Mamradze, who explained to the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Georgian Dream had inherited a bloated cabinet from then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. (Mamradze did not speculate why it has taken Georgian Dream five years to address that problem.) Mamradze said he considers 13 to 14 ministries the optimum number; Akaki Zoidze, who is a member of Georgian Dream’s parliamentary faction, opined that the number could have included a further two, but he did not specify which he considered superfluous.

Some of the structural changes, such as the incorporation of the Ministry for Integration into European and Euro-Atlantic Structures into the Foreign Ministry, appear to make eminent sense. Others, however, are puzzling. The Ministry of Energy is to be subsumed into the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, as will the responsibility for management of the natural-resources component of the Environment and Natural Resources Protection Ministry, which is to be abolished. (Responsibility for the environment will devolve to the Ministry of Agriculture.)

The Caucasian Environmental NGO Network has expressed concern at the “hasty, unjustified, and nontransparent” decision to abolish the Environment and Natural Resources Protection Ministry, civil.ge reported on November 16.

In an interview with InterPressNews.ge, independent expert Vazha Beridze suggested it would have been more logical to subsume the Agriculture Ministry into the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development. He further questioned the rationale for abolishing the Energy Ministry as a separate entity, rather than, say, the Ministry for Infrastructure. Doing so, he reasoned, suggests that energy issues are not a government priority.

The Ministry for Sport and Youth Affairs will be abolished and its responsibilities divided between the Ministry of Culture and Protection of Monuments (sport) and the Ministry of Education and Science (youth affairs).

The State Security and Crisis Management Council will be subsumed into the Interior Ministry’s Emergency Management Agency, and the Foreign Intelligence Service merged with the State Security Service.

The opposition United National Movement (ENM) that was in power from 2003-12 dismissed the changes as “an attempt to avoid political responsibility,” the news portal Caucasian Knot reported. Sergo Kapanadze, a leading member of the European Georgia parliament faction that split from the ENM early this year, said it is unclear how the changes will save money if the employees of one ministry are simply transferred to the payroll of another. (ENM parliamentarian Zaza Bibilashvili claims that since its advent to power, Georgian Dream created an additional 15,000 jobs within the government apparatus.)

The reshuffle has entailed naming four new ministers. Finance Minister Dmitri Kumsishvili has been named to head the expanded Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, replacing Giorgi Gakharia, whom Kvirikashvili has appointed interior minister in place of Giorgi Mghebrishvili, who will head the Emergency Management Agency. A former business ombudsman, Gakharia has absolutely no previous experience in law enforcement. Both Kvirikashvili and Mghebrishvili nonetheless stressed his management capabilities and predicted he will cope successfully with his new duties, according to InterPressNews.

Also unexpected was the appointment of former Georgian Railways head Mamuka Bakhtadze to succeed Kumsishvili as finance minister. Bakhtadze, 37, studied microeconomics and management at Tbilisi University and has postgraduate qualifications from Moscow State University and INSEAD. He served from 2010-December 2012 as executive director of the Georgian International Energy Corporation and from March 2013 as head of Georgian Railways.

Both the ENM and European Georgia appear convinced those ministerial appointments were based not on the candidate’s qualifications or professional expertise but thanks to the new ministers’ imputed close ties to billionaire businessman and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s founder, according to Caucasian Knot.

ENM lawmaker Salome Samadashvili declared that the new appointments show that “Ivanishvili is trying to impose tight control over all major state institutions.”

Deputy parliament speaker Tamar Chugoshvili responded by insisting that the changes are needed “to make the cabinet’s performance a lot more efficient and better coordinated” and that “people are tired of the opposition’s endless talk about Ivanishvili’s role.”

Despite Kvirikashvili’s insistence that the restructuring and personnel changes are intended to improve the cabinet’s performance (and, by extension, the well-being of the population at large), some observers suspect they are part of a broader plan focusing on the presidential election due in 2018. According to independent expert Beridze, Kvirikashvili is one of several possible candidates Georgian Dream might nominate to challenge incumbent Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has been accused of doggedly seeking to undermine and sabotage the constitutional reform launched by Georgian Dream. In the event of a Kvirikashvili victory, Gakharia would then succeed him as prime minister, just as then-Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili succeeded Ivanishvili when the latter stepped down in November 2013.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Voters cast ballots in the capital, Tbilisi, on October 21.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting two days before the October 21 municipal elections, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili appealed to all involved to “hold these elections in such a way that it is a further step forward to strengthening truly European democracy in Georgia.”

International observers’ assessments of the October 21 vote and the run-offs three weeks later for the mayors of six towns were not, however, as unequivocally positive as Kvirikashvili had clearly hoped. Instead, they noted that the dominance of the entire election process by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party “poses a challenge to democratic governance going forward.”

In many respects, the elections followed the same pattern as the previous ballot in the early summer of 2014. On both occasions, Georgian Dream won a majority of seats on municipal councils across the country, polling 50.82 percent of the proportional vote in 2014 and 55.65 percent in 2017. In the first round of voting, its candidates won four out of five mayoral races, including in Tbilisi, and in the second, five of six. (Candidates from the former ruling United National Movement [ENM] withdrew from the run-offs in Kutaisi and Martvili.)

Apart from GD, of the 22 individual parties and five blocs that registered to participate, only the ENM (17.07 percent), its offshoot European Georgia (10.49 percent), and the Alliance of Patriots (6.56 percent), all of which are represented in parliament, polled the minimum 4 percent of the proportional vote to qualify for representation on municipal councils.

As in 2014, so again this year opposition parties alleged that GD’s strong showing, both on October 21 and on November 12, was the result of malpractice and systematic electoral violations, including multiple voting. Over 500 formal complaints of malpractice were submitted to the Central Electoral Commission (TsSK) after the October 21 vote. The ENM and the recently created Council of Leaders representing 16 nonparliamentary parties called separately on the TsSK to annul the results of the ballot, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported. The ENM plans to appeal the TsSK’s rejection of that demand. The TsSK likewise rejected demands for recounts in several polling stations.

International observers were less categorical and generally positive in their assessments. The U.S. National Democratic Institute noted “several cases of serious procedural violations, errors, and delays resulting from lack of officials’ understanding of the procedures, as well as instances of involvement of self-declared party-affiliated observers in the count,” but nonetheless concluded that overall “polling procedures were generally followed throughout the day and in most observed Precinct Election Commissions, the counting process was reported to be generally calm and orderly.”

The joint observation mission fielded by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, for its part, similarly noted “instances of pressure on public sector employees to support the ruling party that are at odds with OSCE commitments, “cases of misuse of administrative resources,” and procedural irregularities at some polling stations. At the same time, it acknowledged that “fundamental freedoms were generally respected and candidates were able to campaign freely” in the October 21 vote, with election day proceeding “in an orderly manner.”

Voter turnout was slightly higher on October 21 than three years earlier (46.65 percent compared with 43.31 percent), but lower in the second round runoffs (33.24 percent compared with 36.63 percent in 2014).

The one major difference in 2017 compared with 2014 was the number of independent candidates or those representing tiny parties who gave GD a run for its money. Independent candidate and former TV journalist Aleko Elisashvili placed second of 13 candidates in the Tbilisi mayoral election, polling 17.49 percent. (The winner, with 51.3 percent, was former soccer star Kakha Kaladze, who served from October 2012 as Georgia’s energy minister.)

A second independent candidate, Konstantine Sharashenidze, defeated GD’s Beglar SIoridze with 50.11 percent of the vote in the runoff mayoral vote in Ozurgeti, while a third, Ramaz Nozadze, placed second in the runoff in the second round in Khashuri.

Tamaz Mechiauri, a former lawmaker who quit GD in May 2016 to form his own party, For a United Georgia, was acknowledged the elected mayor of the Tianeti district after a recount that showed he defeated GD’s candidate by a single vote.

The Development Movement launched in the summer of 2017 by former parliament speaker and Republican Party chairman Davit Usupashvili placed second in one southern district.

That overall pattern suggests two incipient trends. First, at least some voters disenchanted with or alienated by GD are turning to candidates not associated with any of the other political parties or political figures that have dominated Georgian politics since the November 2003 Rose Revolution that first brought the ENM to power.

And second, European Georgia, which split acrimoniously from the ENM in January of this year, has succeeded in attracting a sizable proportion of the ENM electorate, placing second in nine districts. (The ENM polled 22.4 percent in 2014.) Buoyed by its showing, European Georgia leader Davit Bakradze went so far as to define his party’s primary objective as defeating GD in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, as noted by the NDI, “Georgia appears to have reinforced governance marked by one party’s dominance at all levels of elected office.” Or as constitutional expert Vakhtang Dzabiradze explained to InterPressNews.ge, GD has parlayed the constitutional majority it received in the October 2016 parliamentary elections into one-party rule, in which the dividing line between the party and state structures is being progressively eroded, with all the dangers that entails. As the NDI concluded, “With the further consolidation of power in one party, prospects for vibrant and pluralistic democracy are at risk.”

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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