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Jaba Devdariani: 1/03/05

Nearly a year into his presidential administration in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili continues to tinker with his cabinet as he promotes his Westernization agenda. The most recent reshuffle, endorsed by parliament in late December, indicates that Saakashvili in 2005 will focus on overhauling Georgia’s defense establishment and on sharply reducing the country’s expansive bureaucracy.

Two members of the existing Saakashvili team — Irakli Okruashvili and Kakha Bendukidze – stand to wield significant influence over the reform initiatives in the defense/security and economic sectors. Okruashvili, widely considered to be a hawk on national security issues, has become the new defense minister after previously heading the Interior Ministry. Meanwhile, Bendukidze, a former Russian-based entrepreneur who was talked into returning to his native Georgia by Saakashvili, has moved from the Economics Ministry to a newly created post – state minister in charge of coordinating administrative and economic reforms. Former defense minister Giorgi Baramidze was shunted aside to the largely undefined post of state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration. All other government ministers have retained their posts, though the number of state ministers has been reduced from six to four

Some observers see Okruashvili’s appointment as a sign that Georgia will toughen its stand on reestablishing its authority in the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Saakashvili, however, indicated that the new defense minister’s primary task will be pushing through the reforms required for Georgia’s integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On the agenda: establishing closer civilian control over the defense ministry, ensuring that the general staff toes the official line on defense policies, and rooting out widespread mismanagement. Okruashvili is taking charge at the start of two training programs funded by the US and Turkey that will add two fully westernized infantry brigades to the Georgian military. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In a December 27 address to parliament, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania stated that improving the country’s defense capabilities will be the government’s top priority for 2005. The sector has already seen its government budget boosted to $120 million for the year. Zhvania stated that the $200 million expected from the government’s privatization process is slotted to help fund the increase, with remaining funds going to improvements in the country’s derelict energy system and highway network.

Meanwhile, with Okruashvili gone, the Interior Ministry will be merged with the Security Ministry to form a new Ministry for Police and Public Security, headed by former Security Minister Vano Merabishvili, a long-time Saakashvili ally. One of Merabishvili’s first tasks will be to form a new investigative police unit. Human rights advocates have long accused Georgian police officers of torturing suspects in custody in order to coerce confessions. The creation of the new internal affairs unit suggests that Saakashvili’s government is interested in vigorously investigating instances of alleged abuse.

Changes in the economics sphere are less clearly defined. Bendukidze, who headed up Georgia’s controversial privatization drive as economy minister, has been named state minister in charge of administrative and economic reforms – a post that some observers see as ceremonial, while others view it as a sign that a government downsizing effort is in the offing.

Bendukidze’s replacement as economy minister, former first deputy finance minister Alexi Alexishvili, is a non-partisan technocrat, and not seen as likely to challenge the influence of his predecessor. Bendukidze, whose patience for bureaucracy – and foreign aid donors — is notoriously thin, will hold responsibility for slimming down the state apparatus where it touches on economic reforms, and for ensuring that a coherent economic policy is pursued across the board.

The Georgian press has termed the reshuffle, which follows just six months after another major cabinet shake-up, a “government carousel.” Okruashvili will be Georgia’s third defense minister, and Alexishvili the third economics minister, since Saakashvili’s inauguration as president in January of 2004. Keeping peace among the cabinet could boost the influence of Prime Minister Zhvania, who will need to balance the personal ambitions of more image-conscious “super ministers” such as Okruashvili with the needs of less visible cabinet members. One likely area for political tension: competition between Bendukidze, an outspoken proponent for smaller government, and Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli, whose focus on boosting tax revenue collection implies expanded state powers.

Okruashvili is clearly the rising star of the new cabinet. One of the more controversial government members, the long-time Saakashvili associate has already established himself as an iron-fisted trouble-shooter. As prosecutor-general until June 2004, he spearheaded the initial high-profile arrests that kicked off the Saakashvili anti-corruption campaign. Since then, as interior minister, he presided over the dismissal of some 15,000 traffic police and oversaw the recruitment and training of Georgia’s new Patrol Police, a reform widely hailed by voters as successful.

Saakashvili has stated that the 31-year-old Okruashvili will remain Georgia’s defense minister until the country’s territorial integrity is restored – a statement sure to raise eyebrows in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia respectively. In August 2004, Okruashvili, a native of Tskhinvali, personally led Interior Ministry troops in action in South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

So far, reactions to the changes have been mixed. Levan Berdzenishvili, leader of the opposition Republican Party, applauded Okruashvili’s appointment, saying; “There should be a hawk, not a dove at the head of the Defense Ministry.” Another opposition group, however, was more skeptical. The New Rights Party argued that the government was using the “puppet show” of a cabinet shake-up to conceal the lack of real results from its time in office. Pikria Chikhradze, a New Rights politician, called the decision to make Okruashvili the defense chief “a dangerous step.” Together, the Republicans and the New Rights Party supplied the seven “no” votes in the 132-7 vote on December 27 that approved Saakashvili’s reshuffle.

Representatives of Georgia’s non-governmental sector have been more vocal in their criticism. Levan Ramishvili, leader of the influential Liberty Institute and a signatory of the petition to Saakashvili, accused the government of being “hyperactive.” [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The government’s “dynamism borders on chaos,” Ramishvili said, while its frequent personnel changes “discredit serious reforms.” That opinion was echoed by Ana Dolidze, chairperson of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, who argued that the time necessary for new ministers to settle into office only distracted the government from implementing the promised reforms that brought it to office.

Other observers, however, have stated that the shake-up shows that the Saakashvili government has matured and settled down to the task of governing. “It is natural that frequent changes take place,” said Ghia Nodia, head of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD). “This government was far from ‘settled’ and the process of brewing continues.”

Editor’s Note: Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist in Georgia. This commentary does not reflect the views of the OSCE.

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