While Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has downplayed any hint of instability in the government in Tbilisi, his spotty record with prime ministers is causing analysts to raise questions about the chain of command in Tbilisi.
Speculation about the inner workings of the government has flared in the aftermath of the January 31 resignation of Grigol Mgalobashvili as prime minister. Mgalobashvili cited "health problems" for guiding his actions. His departure opens the way for Finance Minister Nika Gilauri to become the country's fifth prime minister in five years.
Mgalobashvili became prime minister only last November, following the sudden departure of Lado Gurgenidze. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A career diplomat, Mgalobashvili was persistently hounded by rumors about his relations with Saakashvili, and about the reasons behind his appointment as premier. In December, he left the country for medical treatment in Germany.
During a live address to the country on January 31, Mgalobashvili said Georgia cannot "afford" to have a prime minister who is sick for prolonged periods of time. "The country needs a cabinet and a prime minister capable of working round-the-clock," Mgalobashvili said, adding that he requires at least "two more months" of intensive medical treatment to care for an undisclosed problem with his kidneys.
According to Saakashvili, this will be the last change in the government for the foreseeable future. "Today we have no time for experimenting," Saakashvili said during a televised address on January 31. "[E]xcept for this change, no other changes at this stage -- and probably for a long time -- will be carried out in the government because now we need stability."
Gilauri, one of the longest serving ministers since the 2003 Rose Revolution, has spent most of his time in government as energy minister. He is credited with orchestrating the reorganization of the country's energy system, diversifying the country's natural gas sources and building Georgia's role as an electricity exporter.
He was named finance minister in 2007, and deputy prime minister in 2008. Most recently, he represented Georgia at the Nabucco pipeline summit in Budapest in late January. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In nominating Gilauri, Saakashvili praised the 33-year-old minister's accomplishments. "The fact that people in cities or villages can watch TV" is thanks to Gilauri, the president said.
In two weeks, the Georgian parliament is expected to vote on Gilauri's nomination -- as well as on the appointee for finance minister, Deputy Finance Minister Kakha Baindurashvili, and on the creation of two new ministries. It is widely anticipated that the legislature will quickly confirm all the presidential nominations.
Despite Saakashvili's comments, analysts note that the constant shuffle of prime ministers could be indicative of fundamental problems with the government's structure. Giorgi Khutsishvili, a political scientist and founder of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation, sees the recurring change in the prime ministerial post as an indicator of its insignificance.
The position of prime minister was created by Saakashvili in February 2004 in a bid to divide power with fellow Rose Revolution leader Zurab Zhvania. Since then, the separation of power within the executive branch has never been properly "defined," according to Malkhaz Matsaberidze, a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University. Matsaberidze noted that while Zhvania was a strong politician, every prime minister since him has been a "manager" with no political ambitions.
Following Zhvania's sudden and mysterious death in 2005, Zurab Noghaideli, a finance minister under both Saakashvili and ex-President Eduard Shevardnadze, served as prime minister until November 2007. Banker Lado Gurgenidze replaced him, and lasted just under a year, resigning in October 2008.
Noghaideli has since joined Georgia's opposition, but Gurgenidze maintains close ties with the government. He was recently named as Georgia's envoy for Nabucco pipeline discussions, and as head of a commission identifying ways to bolster investment and work economic stability.
While Georgia's constitution mandates that the prime minister's and president's roles should be balanced, Matsaberidze said no legal mechanisms exists to "regulate the relationship" between the two. This specific shortcoming is responsible for the relatively rapid turnover. "The team changes but the politics remain the same," he said. "There are real problems facing the government and they need to be resolved. But if the prime minister . . . is strong, he will be removed."
Analyst Khutsishvili commented that low expectations explain why Gilauri's nomination has elicited such little reaction from the general public. Media coverage has been scant. "[Politicians] don't expect too much from the prime minister because the president decides everything," he said. Khutsishvili named Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, Parliamentary Secretary Davit Bakradze, State Chancellory head Kakha Bendukidze as the three individuals, aside from President Saakashvili, who are the government's "stable decision-makers, an internal court."
"Gilauri has never been one of those," he continued. The new prime minister "is expected to be both competent and less engaged in the political scene."