What Georgia's government reshuffle means

Published 18.09.2019 00:44

Disturbances in Georgia may take another twist with the country's government reshuffled and a new prime minister in office. On Sept. 9, President Salome Zourabichvili signed the order to make Georgi Gakharia the country's new prime minister after parliament voted 98-0 in favor of the move. For the benefit of the truth, we should note the opposition boycotted his vote in parliament.

Thus, Gakharia became Georgia's new prime minister. He was, until recently, the interior minister and the person particularly blamed by the opposition for a disproportionate use of violence to suppress public disturbances last June in Tbilisi that left many seriously injured and sparked the still ongoing public protests and rallies.

Since June, protesters supported by the opposition continued relentlessly calling for Gakharia to resign while promising not to stop until he is out. Their attempts have been futile, now the ex-interior minister is at the helm of power in Georgia, whose recently modified constitution grants the prime minister the broadest ruling authority over the country. On the day of his election, dozens of protesters rallied outside the Georgian parliament blowing vuvuzelas and holding placards reading "Gakharia, go home!"

Gakharia's nomination

Gakharia's nomination was followed by the resignation of Mamuka Bakhtadze, who claims to have accomplished what he set out to do, after little more than a year in office.

According to Bakhtadze, his government laid down and built "strategic foundations for the country's development" and that makes him consider his "mission accomplished." Bakhtadze stepped down saying, "I've been a Georgian Dream party member and a loyal soldier to our country."

That generated a response from Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's informal ruler, who had these choice words of appraisal for Bakhtadze, "He left as a cultured person."

Meanwhile, some Georgia experts believe that the reason behind Bahtadze's resignation was the ruling party's intention to strengthen its grip in the wake of next year's parliamentary elections by putting in charge someone tough and uncompromising.

"I will finish you," promised Gakharia when addressing the opposition United National Movement party, whose founder is Georgia's former President Mikhail Saakashvili.

What results the reshuffling will bring, remains to be seen. The risk of a fresh spillover of unrest is high, while the chances of Georgian Dream to win the 2020 elections are slim. Having come to power on the wave of public discontent with the policies of the Saakashvili government, Georgian Dream has largely failed to deliver on their election promises and to meet its electorate expectations.

Today, the ruling power needs to be particularly consolidated since the popularity of Georgian Dream has further sagged after the brutal dispersal of protests in June. Georgi Gakharia, the newly appointed prime minister, may become the right person to do the job, while the task he faces is demanding.

Consolidating power

If successful, the experienced cabinet reshuffle will give the Georgian Dream party a chance to win the 2020 parliamentary elections and stay in power for another term. Besides Georgi Gakharia, two other changes were made in the cabinet of ministers: Mamuka Bakhtadze's predecessor as the prime minister in 2013 to 2015, Irakli Garibashvili, known as someone close and trusted by Bidzina Ivanishvili, became the country's defense minister.

Vakhtang Gomelauri, the former head of the State Security Service, became Georgia's interior minister. Levan Izoria, who was defense minister until recently, was transferred to the State Security Service under the Cabinet of Ministers. All of them are within the close circle of Bidzina Ivanishvili and are staunch supporters of the Georgian Dream party.

Prime Minister Gakharia, 44, is a Moscow State University graduate where he worked as a visiting lecturer after graduating. He has spent the better part of his adult life in Russia and was a successful businessman there and gave up his Russian citizenship in 2013 upon returning to live in Georgia.

He served as Georgia's economy minister for a year before becoming interior minister and vice prime minister in November 2017. Gakharia is believed to be the most powerful person among the close associates of Bidzina Ivanishvili and is strongly disliked by the opposition, which labels him pro-Russian.

By nominating Gakharia to the prime minister's position, Georgian Dream leader Ivanishvili neglects in the open the National Movement's threat to boost a new massive unrest if the "main person responsible for the bloodshed on June 20" is chosen to head the country government.

Apparently, by doing this, Bidzina Ivanishvili is sending a message to his opponents that Georgian Dream is strong and determined, and ready not to go on the defense but to fight in the course of its 2020 elections campaign.

The October 2020 parliamentary elections may well be pivotal for Georgia because they will be held in line with the 2018 changes that were made to the constitution, granting supreme power over the country to the prime minister and as such making the president's position rather ceremonial.

Of no less importance will be a switch to the proportionate system of elections vowed by the ruling authorities in an attempt to cool down the unrest this June.

Street protests gain momentum

The government of Gakharia was approved amid a rally outside parliament, where young activists were protesting his premiership due to his brutal dispersal of the June disturbances.

Disorganized and spontaneous at their start in June, the protests have transformed into an action against the ruling power, and the national agenda has outweighed the original anti-Russia sentiments by bringing into focus the long-awaited decisions on the issues kept on standby by the party in power.

To appease the protesters, the ruling authorities agreed to introduce a proportionate system for the national elections that is deemed to ensure a multiparty presence at the next Georgian parliament. As well, a zero threshold is to be introduced to provide for the presence of 10-15 parties that will make coalitions and establish a de facto multiparty democracy.

This is a major gain accomplished by the young Georgian democracy that the country's people kept striving for years. Weird as it is, the long-awaited compromise on reforming the election system has finally occurred through the impact of an outburst of the anti-Russia hysteria provoked by the incident at the Georgian Parliament this June.

The rallies have given start to the emergence of a street movement of protest that has continued gaining momentum ever since while progressing aside from either the opposition or the ruling power, though occasionally overlapping with the opposition on the most pivotal issues. Anti-Russian sentiments and considering Russia an aggressor occupying 20% of the Georgian territory are the most crucial of them.

The emerging movement is far from homogeneous or organized, and its demands are occasionally contradictory and conflicting. Still, all in all its emergence is a sign of civil maturity of the Georgian society at large, as well the appearance of a power with potential to impact future development.

Its reaction to the experienced government reshuffle is particularly of importance since it is well in position to change Georgia's fragile equilibrium in favor of either the opposition or the ruling authority.

The Russian factor

For the new government, relations with Russia will be crucial since Georgia's ties with Russia are a politically divisive issue. Dramatically damaged by the August 2008 war, recently Georgia-Russia relations started to improve but faced another setback this June when a Russian national and the president of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IOM) took a chair position at its meeting at the premises of the Georgian parliament. The incident boosted a massive public protest.

External relations are high on the agenda of Gakharia's government. "The most important component of our security is Georgia's foreign policy, the country's pro-Western orientation, and European and Euro-Atlantic integration" while "the United States is our main strategic partner," acknowledged the prime minister.

He stated as well that "when 20% of Georgia is occupied by Russia, we should be clever and rational in our policy against our enemy" for the benefit of the country, its national interests and the people living "across the occupation line," calling for his people to be cool-minded and have a balanced approach.

The followers of Michael Saakashvili keep tagging Gakharia and his team as the "lambs of Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili," while he labels them a "destructive opposition" and voices an opinion that Georgia "shall use all instruments but military power" to restore its territorial integrity while guided by the "cool mind" instead of emotions.

Addressing parliament, Georgi Gakharia stated that Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia are "occupied by Russia" which means that "Georgia is deprived of 20% of its development potential."

According to the prime minister, unemployment is the biggest domestic problem and his government is tasked with establishing an "efficient interaction" with business in order to strengthen the economy and employment opportunities.

Georgi Gakharia believes that Georgians "should compare today with what it was before and where we stood yesterday. The goal should be a better future."

* Freelance journalist living in Istanbul

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