Two days after the surprise announcement of a new Georgian prime minister, local analysts are still having trouble explaining the change. Meanwhile, the opposition, headlined by ex-Parliamentary Secretary Nino Burjanadze, says the appointment will do little to foster stability.
When outgoing Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze took office last year after the November 7 clashes with protestors, his background as chairman of the supervisory board of the Bank of Georgia, Georgia's largest private bank, was touted as a critical tool for fostering economic growth and social stability. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In the course of his year-long premiership, Gurgenidze pushed for tax cuts, oversaw the issue of Georgia's first-ever Eurobond and established a strong rapport with foreign investors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some commentators say that credit for averting economic collapse in the wake of Georgia's August war with Russia and of the international financial crisis largely goes to Gurgenidze.
What the 37-year-old career investment banker thinks of Saakashvili's October 28 decision to fire him remains unknown, but there have been no public signs of discord between the president and Gurgenidze. The former premier has not granted an interview since his dismissal.
Pressing ahead with economic growth will remain the chief task for Gurgenidze's designated successor, Grigol Mgaloblishvili, 35, who at the time of his appointment was serving as Georgia's ambassador to Turkey. Parliament is expected to confirm Mgaloblishvili's nomination as premier on November 1. Mgaloblishvili would be the fourth premier since Saakashvili's election as president in January 2004.
Government sources state that other candidates under consideration included influential Tbilisi Mayor Givi Ugulava and United Nations Ambassador Giorgi Alasania.
Saakashvili cited Mgaloblishvili's reported skill in attracting Turkish investment to Georgia as among the ambassador's qualifications for the job, but one political analyst believes that the career diplomat's appointment could mean that the Georgian government intends to put greater policy emphasis on foreign affairs rather than economic development.
"Georgia's biggest challenge today lies in the realm of foreign relations, not domestic problems such as the economy, which was the case when Gurgenidze was appointed," said Tornike Sharashenidze, head of Foreign Relations Programs at Tbilisi's Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.
Saakashvili's frequent changes of cabinet ministers are touted by pro-government MPs as combating administrative stasis, but Sharashenidze, like other analysts, calls the changes "a double-edged sword" that "may stall sustained capacity-building."
Saakashvili's core cabinet members remain unchanged, noted political commentator Zaza Jgharkava. "Even though it looks like the administration is being changing all the time, in fact, the decision-making crowd remains there and mostly just minnows come and go," Jgharkava said.
On October 29, Saakashvili named his administration chief, Zurab Adeishvili, as minister of justice. Adeishvili, a former general prosecutor, will oversee a revamped Justice Ministry that will also include the General Prosecutor's Office. Parliamentarian Koba Subeliani, a former minister for refugees and accommodation, has been renamed to his post. Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Varashadze, earlier touted as a potential candidate for foreign minister, has been named minister of culture. Goga Khachidze, the governor of Samtskhe-Javakheti region and author of Saakashvili's 2008 presidential election campaign theme song "Misha Is Cool" ("Misha magaria"), has been named minister of the environment.
Tina Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, called the premier reshuffle a show that has been going on for years. "What we've seen here for several years is one and the same merry-go-round with essentially the same figures being moved around on the chessboard," said Khidasheli. "People known for their poor judgment ... are still there, largely because of their unwavering loyalty to Saakashvili. As a result, key decisions are made almost unilaterally and there is no room left for alternative thinking."
[Khidasheli is a former board chair of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, a member of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, which is also a part of the Soros Foundations network.]
Echoing that line of argument, independent analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an outspoken government critic, charges that the frequent cabinet changes are a ploy meant to deter political dissent. "High-ranking officials are dismissed before they amass enough political clout and expertise to become a potential challenge to the head of state," Sakvarelidze said.
Mgaloblishvili, the candidate premier, has described job creation as his number one priority.
In interviews with EurasiaNet, officials and analysts acquainted with Mgaloblishvili praised him for integrity, but some say that the diplomat, an Orientalist by education, may not be fully prepared for the job. "He comes from a respected Tbilisi family, but his diplomatic experience is next to nothing," Sakvarelidze said.
Mgaloblishvili, who has a postgraduate degree from Oxford University's Foreign Service Programme, comes from the Tbilisi intelligentsia, where academic pedigree and last names carry lots of weight. He served in Georgia's Embassy to Turkey for four years and spent three years in the Foreign Ministry in Tbilisi before his appointment as ambassador to Ankara in 2004.
"I can tell you that he's a wonderful young man, [a] very decent and good person, [a] good diplomat, but, unfortunately, he's not a man who can do the nation's prime minister's job in today's situation," reads an October 30 statement issued by former Parliamentary Secretary Nino Burjanadze, who recently announced her own plans to create an opposition political party.
Citing government pressure, Burjanadze's husband, Badri Bitsadze, head of the Georgian Border Police, resigned shortly after the statement. The government has denied earlier allegations of special scrutiny of or pressure on Bitsadze, whose post falls under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.