Three weeks into Russia's embargo on Georgian wine, the Georgian government is scrambling to find new markets for one of the country's most lucrative export commodities. In a surprise move, President Mikheil Saakashvili has appointed Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to lead the development of a new wine export strategy, stressing that all government ministers must now promote Georgia's economic interests. Meanwhile, some local analysts question why the administration did not earlier anticipate Russia's wine ban.
Russian officials have claimed that the ban, which means the loss of Georgian vinters' largest market, is due to "unacceptable" levels of dangerous chemicals in Georgian wines. The Georgian government has labeled the embargo a political act, retaliation for ongoing squabbles over the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, among other disputes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Since the March 27 announcement of the ban, the Georgian government has engaged in a frenzied attempt to head off a potential catastrophe for the Georgian wine industry. In appointing Okruashvili on April 12 to head the crisis-management effort, Saakashvili cited the defense minister's previous business experience as the motivation for his choice. Before beginning his government career in 2000 as deputy minister of justice, Okruashvili was a partner in a private law firm.
"Okruashvili has always been successful in everything he has done," Kavkaz Press reported Saakashvili as saying at a Georgian-Chinese Business Forum in Beijing, where the Georgian leader was on a state visit. "All of us, including myself, are commercial agents of our country. We should promote Georgian products. For the next three months, Irakli Okruashvili, as a successful business manager, will be busy promoting Georgian wine."
The defense minister, currently in Brussels for talks with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, will begin his wine duties with trips to Ukraine, the Baltics "and other European countries," the president said.
The opposition has ridiculed the appointment. "So, what tasks should the agriculture minister be given now? Maybe repairing howitzers?" asked New Rights Party member of parliament Irakli Iashvili, Rustavi-2 reported. Others have characterized the assignment as another example of Okruashvili's alleged ambition to become prime minister.
Okruashvili, however, has downplayed the criticism. "We discussed the issue before the president's departure to China and my proposals regarding [the embargo] were welcomed [by government members]
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.