Just as Georgia was about to snooze away the summer, its political scene was jolted wide awake by President Mikheil Saakashvili's June 30 appointment of the country's executive sheriff, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, as prime minister. The move has major implications for the October parliamentary vote and, potentially, for what direction Georgia takes once President Saakashvili steps down from power in 2013.
Until now, the “iron minister” has stayed outside the Saakashvili administration's ongoing game of musical chairs with ministerial appointments. This is the first time since 2005 that a figure with national heft has been chosen for the job, which, in recent years, has been mostly reserved for technocrats fluent in English and business.
Parliament, controlled by Saakashvili's United National Movement, is expected to approve the nomination.
Merabishvili, who presided over the oft-praised clean-up of Georgia’s legendarily corrupt police force, has a reputation as a skilled manager. The government, citing one recent survey, maintains that 87 percent of the population give the police a thumbs-up.
Conceivably, they must be hoping that, with Merabishvili as prime minister, some of that public trust will fob off on the government just in time for the elections.
Concern is growing at the money being spent by billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, a figure who, despite his earlier friendly ties with the Saakashvili government, is now cast as anti-Western, pro-Russian and entirely suspect. Although Ivanishvili already has wracked up tens of millions of dollars' worth of fines for alleged campaign finance wrongdoing, that concern persists.
If Ivanishvili can promise jobs and a chicken in every pot, the thinking seems to go, Merabishvili can make them a reality.
United National Movement parliamentarians and friendly news outlets are busy pointing out that Merabishvili stands for successful reforms and excellent management skills and, hence, can deliver on the United National Movement's campaign promise to address the matters most pressing for the Georgian public -- jobs, medical care and rural development. “Vano is the man” to defeat “our main enemy, unemployment,” said Saakashvili in announcing the appointment.
To that effect, a ministry of employment has been proposed, and is under discussion today in parliament. Paata Trapaidze, the head of a construction firm that's been involved in several major infrastructure projects for the government, including the new parliament in Kutaisi, was given the nod as the candidate minister of employment.
Merabishvili commented that he would present an action plan for the next four years to parliament this evening since "there is no time to lose."
Critics, however, associate Merabishvili less with job creation and more with what they describe as stains on the government's human-rights record -- everything ranging from the harsh crackdowns on anti-government demonstrations in 2007 and 2011, to what the European Court of Human Rights has described as the inadequate investigation, trial and punishment of police officers involved with the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani; a case that involved Merabishvili's wife, Tako Salakaia.
At the same time, some government critics have found Merabishvili likeable nonetheless. Saakashvili’s arch-nemesis, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, earlier praised the interior minister for his achievements -- including "his competence in economic affairs" -- and “many other good traits,” and essentially invited him to cross over to his side.
Ivanishvili now says that Merbishvili’s favorable qualities have been dwindling by the day. Arguably, perhaps because he now understands that those "good traits" can be used against him this campaign season.