Georgia's stern-faced Education Minister Dimitri Shashkin, often depicted as a Georgian-style Agatha Trunchbull, can finally let his ardor for discipline go wild. The country’s top schoolmaster has been penciled in as minister of defense in an ongoing makeover of the Georgian cabinet.
Depending on which side of Georgia’s political divide you're standing, the 36-year-old Shashkin, who installed police supervisors in public schools, is either criticized for turning educational institutions into one big guardhouse or praised for reducing school violence and truancy. But everyone, including his critics, agree that he is well-placed as the taskmaster for Georgia's men and women in uniform.
The no less strait-laced Bacho Akhalaia, defense minister since 2009, has been tagged to hop over to the interior ministry.
On July 4, parliament is scheduled to vote on the changes, including President Mikheil Saakashvili's June 30 appointment of longtime Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili as prime minister.
Per tradition, the top nominations in the so-called power ministries are reserved for members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s inner circle.
But the proposed cabinet will not be without some new faces. Two additional women will bring some gender balance to the predominantly male 20-member group as well.
Khatia Dekanoidze, a former police academy rector, is slotted to replace Shashkin as education minister, while the education minister from Abkhazia's government-in-exile, Dali Khomeriki, has been proposed to head the IDP ministry.
Some observers have suggested that Merabishvili, the Georgian leader's longtime political comrade-in-arms, has outgrown the police and security sphere and may have significant political ambitions for when Saakashvili leaves office in 2013.
Others believe that Merabishvili is stepping up to the plate for the team ahead of the October parliamentary vote with a pledge to tackle unemployment, the economy and healthcare with the same resoluteness with which he did battle with Georgia's corrupt police force. To do the trick, he proposes use of a hefty stash of cash -- over the next four years, 4 billion lari (over $2.43 billion) for rural development (everything from Internet access to running water), 3 billion lari (over $1.82 billion) for a universal health insurance scheme, and 1,000-lari (over $608) vouchers for families.
The apparent goal is to help voters resist the temptations of the promises of opposition billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is raising an army of Saakashvili opponents under his Georgian Dream coalition. While Ivanishvili is spending millions both in Georgia and abroad to zero in on Saakashvili, the opposition leader’s supporters say that the government is trying to drain the billionaire of fire power by imposing fines in the mega-millions for alleged campaign-finance violations.
The government on July 2 put the Ivanishvili-founded Cartu Group and the businessman's minority shares in Progress Bank under the hammer after he refused to pay 74.32 million laris (about $45.2 million) in fines. (Ivanishvili says that his elder son, Uta, is the actual owner of Cartu Group.)