Thursday, October 30, 2008

Out with the old, in with the new Prime Minister

Eds. Note: This post is a few days old. I meant to post it earlier this week, but had technical difficulties and not much free time. Sorry for the delay.

TBILISI, Georgia – Georgia’s president is reshuffling his government two months after war with Russia and less than two weeks before a large protest planned by opposition parties.

President Mikheil Saakashvili on Monday dismissed the current prime minister and recommended as his successor a largely unknown diplomat, Grigol Mgaloblishvili, the current ambassador to Turkey.

Speaking in a live televised address, Saakashvili did not give a reason for the change in government. He had said earlier in October that a reshuffle was planned. Parliament must still approve 35-year-old Mgaloblishvili’s appointment as prime minister.

A few hours earlier, a new opposition party, Democratic Movement-United Georgia, was announced by one of Georgia’s most prominent politicians, Nino Burjanadze, a former Speaker of Parliament. Once a Saakaskvili ally, she has become very critical of the president since setting up a think-tank, the Foundation for Democratic Development, last June.

Critics of Saakashvili’s government have grown louder since August, blaming the government for provoking a needless war with Russia, rolling back democratic reform and stifling a free media. Burjanadze attacked Saakashvili’s handling of the war and accused the government of misleading the country about the true extent of losses. The country’s Public Defender, Sozar Subari, said in a statement in September Georgia was under “authoritarian rule.”

Georgia’s opposition is divided over tactics, though. Some are calling for a large street protest on November 7, the first anniversary of government repression of demonstrators, and the removal of Saakashvili from office. Others want a moderate approach for now.

Burjanadze publicly called for new elections last Friday, but didn’t specify whether she meant presidential or parliamentary elections.

David Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights Party, has called for Saakashvili’s resignation.

“My country has two serious threats, one from Russia and one from Saakashvili,” he said.

He is one of the opposition leaders to have called for a mass protest before Parliament on November 7, a year after riot police turned rubber bullets and tear gas on a large opposition demonstration. Burjanadze was Speaker of the Parliament at the time, and supported the crackdown.

Other opposition leaders don’t want to create instability so soon after the war.

“At the moment Georgia is less sovereign than ever since independence. Part of our sovereignty went to Moscow, and the other part went to the West. So part of our sovereignty is in our enemy’s hands and the other part is in our friends’ hand,” said Dato Usupashvili, a leader of the Republican Party.

Georgia needs free and fair parliamentary, not presidential elections, Usupashvili said. The West will not support calls for Saakashvili’s removal, and Georgia cannot reform without Western support.

If the West makes the $4.5 billion pledged in international aid conditional on democratic reform, and the opposition reaches a consensus on a reform strategy, Georgia’s chances for becoming a democracy are high, he said.

The West turned a blind eye to problems with Georgia’s last parliamentary and presidential elections, but now “they see the danger that an unpredictable Georgia can pose,” Usupashvili said in an interview before the new prime minister was announced.

Large protests on Nov. 7, will only encourage Saakashvili to crackdown more, so the Republican Party will not participate, according to Usupashvili.

Russia might exploit demonstrations as a chance to further destabilize Georgia, he said. In recent weeks, outbreaks of violence have become more frequent along the de facto borders of Georgia’s two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Nevertheless, he is frustrated that Saakashvili didn’t pick a successor to the outgoing prime minister, Vladimir Gurgenidze, who can build bridges to the opposition. The president chose an unknown figure not connected to his inner circle to minimize the negative reaction, but Mgaloblishvili doesn’t have any record of democratic reform, Usupashvili said.

“This is another demonstration that Saakashvili isn’t going to change anything. In the net result, this replacement will be more disappointment for the opposition,” he said.

Giorgi Gigineishvili thinks the choice shows how weak Georgia’s institutions are.

“He wanted to bring in a new guy who didn’t have any baggage, and doesn’t have any real power,” he said.

When Saakashvili came to power after the pro-democratic Rose Revolution of Nov. 23, 2003, Gigineishvili, 28, supported him. Since then, he has become disillusioned with the state of democracy in Georgia.

“Whatever democracy there was has been taken away,” he said. The investment company he works for has been virtually shut down by the government for its supposed connections to a former opposition figure, he said.

Gigineishvili plans to protest on Nov. 7, which he did last year as well. Georgia was on a path to democracy after the Rose Revolution, but self-interest has taken over in the ruling party, he said.

“The country is rudderless,” Gigineishvili said. “If the wind blows one way, it will go one direction, but if it blows another way, it will go in that direction. Georgia’s in a very dire situation right now.”

More Georgians think the country is headed in the right direction than wrong direction, according to a poll conducted at the end of September by the Gallup Organization and Baltic Surveys. Forty-seven percent said it was going in the right direction, as opposed to 41 percent who said the wrong direction. The numbers were nearly the reverse when the same poll was taken in February 2008.

Significantly, people here do not consider democratic reform among the important issues facing Georgia, according to the poll. In the previous poll, four percent considered democracy an important issue for the country.

Burjanadze said she formed her new party because Russian influence has increased, and the country has become more authoritarian rather than democratic under Saakashvili.

In September, she criticized the government’s management of the war. The Georgian Army was defeated in a few days, and separatists gained control of all of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“Not one official was even replaced by the president. Is it normal for a democracy?” Burjanadze asked in an interview.

The cabinet’s reshuffle was planned before the war, Saakashvili said on Monday.

“There will be some changes, but not major changes,” said Giorgi Kandelaki, a Member of Parliament and Saakashvili’s party, National Movement. The changes were not because of any failures on the job.

Will the Defense Minister be changed?

“I cannot comment on that,” Kandelaki said.

He expects the new cabinet nominees to be announced within a week.

Mgaloblishvili is a Western-educated, career diplomat. He has served in Georgia’s Foreign Ministry since 1995, when Eduard Shevarnadze ran the country. After the Rose Revolution he was made ambassador to Turkey.

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