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19 July, 2012  ▪  Vakhtang Kipiani

Merabishvili is Appointed Prime Minister of Georgia

The appointment gives President Mikheil Saakashvili his biggest trump card in his confrontation with the Kremlin

After attending a briefing together, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili announced sensational news: Merabishvili had been appointed head of the government. The president shook hands with his comrades in arms, gave them friendly pats on the back, and together they disappeared into the presidential palace.

With this unexpected move, Saakashvili foiled all the strategies being used against him in the election campaign that is de facto under way in the country. This is not simply moving a significant piece on the board — it is a part of an intriguing game which will end not in autumn 2012, when the parliamentary election is held, but in January 2013, when Saakashvili’s second and last term under the Constitution expires.

I happened to be in Tbilisi about two weeks ago to record an interview with Merabishvili for the TVi channel. I waited for three days and returned empty-handed: he was busy, always on business outside his office in the modern, glass building of the Interior Ministry.

Deprived of my interview, I asked politicians, journalists and experts who would succeed Saakashvili. Even the very well-informed with whom I spoke frankly admitted: “We don’t know. You’ll need to ask him personally.” The president is not giving any promises to anyone. He knows that turning into a “lame duck” six months before the elections means stalling reforms and opening a Pandora’s box of populism. And this is something he will forgive neither his friends nor his foes.

Saakashvili is 44 — a child’s age for a politician. Of course, he will step down from the presidential office. He will not try to bend the law and seek a third term. Parliament amended the Constitution two years ago, and these rules of the game will stay: Georgia will have a strong prime minister and a president with limited authority. This decision was not, in fact, part of any “exit scenario”. Both the opposition and European bureaucrats were intent on curtailing the authority of the “dictator”, and that is what they got. The “usurping” party did what the West expected. Now, however, critics say that Saakashvili has cheated and outplayed everyone by handing over all authority to the government.

He may become an MP or later even speaker of parliament. Or he may simply remain the leader of the ruling United National Movement or head the government. But in the latter scenario, comparisons to the manoeuvres by Putin and Medvedev are inevitable. The press has floated one outlandish scenario, saying Saakashvili could take the top office in the Supreme Court, and from there exert real influence on the life of Georgia.

Be it as it may, the names of Tbilisi Mayor Giorgi Ugulava, Speaker Davit Bakradze and Secretary of National Security Giorgi Bokeria are being mentioned in the context of the looming presidential election. Can Merabishvili become the number one candidate? Now he can.

The new Georgian prime minister is 44, and he is Catholic, which is something this country with its more than 1,000 years of history has not seen. He graduated from Tbilisi Polytechnic Institute by the mid-1990s and did not dream of politics as he worked as a lab engineer in a university. In 1995, he established and headed the Society for the Protection of Landowners’ Rights. Four years later, he was elected to parliament. Together with Saakashvili and other representatives of NGOs he was in opposition to Eduard Shevardnadze, an influential  politician and diplomat of world renown whose rule was, however, horrible.

Famine, civic conflict, insurgencies among prisoners and servicemen, total corruption and a lack of electricity, gas and any future is how Georgia under Shevardnadze is remembered now. But officials, judges and politicians did not suffer those hardships. Everything was for sale in Georgia then. The most influential criminals were common figures in society, on par with doctors, priests and teachers.

The government falsified the parliamentary elections in 2003, leading to the Rose Revolution. After the revolution was won, Merabishvili was appointed to the most difficult post – the Interior Ministry where he has been the minister for almost eight years now. Search for the words “Georgia” and “police” online, and you will see for yourself what the taciturn Interior Minister of Georgia has been able to accomplish. A lot has been written about his efficient and successful reforms. Let me mention only two fundamental accomplishments: he was able to implement zero tolerance for crime and achieve an unprecedented level of trust for law enforcement officers (90 per cent).

As he introduced Merabishvili, the president gave him a specific objective: overcoming unemployment, a mental and social problem inherited from predecessors. This is a challenge upon which the future of the reformist project hinges.

Another important aspect is that Merabishvili is an answer to the pro-Russian opposition and its new cult figure, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Using the special services and budget policies, Merabishvili will be able to prevent the Russian protégé, who has a stake in Gazprom and looks like a cross between Leonid Chernovetsky and Boris Berezovsky, from buying the votes of the poorest citizens en masse. Georgia has a different symbol of “purchasing souls” than Ukraine: it is not buckwheat but satellite dishes which Ivanishvili has been “selling” voters at the token price of 1 lari (around UAH 6). His financial power is almost limitless. He founded the Georgian Dream party and has very ambitious goals for the future. He has already declared that Saakashvili in fact started the 2008 war with Russia. This is a point of no return: the Kremlin now has a figure on whom to place its bets in the campaign.

Pragmatic and, at the same time, idealist, Merabishvili is the biggest trump card  Saakashvili and his team hold. And this trump card is already in the game in which the prize is Georgia’s independence.

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