In a surprise move, Georgia's newly appointed minister of economic development, Irakli Okruashvili, has resigned from the government. During a brief press conference late on November 17, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli confirmed Okruashvili's resignation, saying the whole government was "in shock."
MPs affiliated with the governing National Movement Party seemed surprised and confused by the announcement. "We did not expect such a step and I do not know anything," Noghaideli said, noting that additional details would be forthcoming. The Imedi channel's evening television news reported that Okruashvili had called the prime minister from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to announce that he was resigning. He is expected to return to Tbilisi on November 18.
Okruashvili, long considered one of the most influential members of the cabinet, has been a strong ally of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili since the Rose Revolution in 2003. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Most recently, the 33-year-old former defense minister managed an aggressive modernization campaign to adapt Georgia's military to North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Considerable controversy, however, surrounded comments he made about Georgia's attempt to restore control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- a campaign that has met with strong hostility from the Kremlin, and occasional unease among members of the international community. Since the November 10 cabinet shuffle, Georgian media have widely speculated that Okruashvili's declaration that he would celebrate New Year's 2007 in Tskhinvali -- the South Ossetian capital, and his home town -- sparked his removal from the Defense Ministry.
Government officials have not commented on Okruashvili's case. The former defense minister was replaced in the recent reshuffle by David Kezerashvili, who previously headed the financial police.
In a televised statement on November 10, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Okruashvili's skills were needed to mitigate Russian attempts to undermine Georgia's economy. After a September 2006 espionage dispute, Moscow severed all communication and transportation links with the South Caucasus state and withdrew most of its embassy staff. An embargo on Georgian wine, mineral water and agricultural products has been in place since earlier in the year, with damaging effects on the Georgian agricultural sector. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Okruashvili had served as the minister of defense from December 2004 up until earlier this month. Some observers had wondered how Okruashvili would embrace his new position at the Economic Development Ministry, a post that many Georgians interpreted as a demotion. In a televised meeting on November 11 with Noghaideli and staff members of the Economic Development Ministry, a plainly discontented Okruashvili conceded that he did not want to leave the Ministry of Defense. "I will remain at the Defense Ministry for some time to come in a virtual sense," he said.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.