By Nicolas LANDRU in Tbilisi, translated by Christian Nils LARSON
© Nicolas Landru (Tbilisi, 2006)
In recent weeks, while discourse and ventures remain the same, the only way to publicly display a change in political disposition seems to be rotating the state’s high functionaries. The recent cascade of cabinet shuffling is linked to battles of influence between political factions. But these changes arrive at a strategically fundamental moment and against the resulting background of the three years of the Rose Revolution which was celebrated Thursday November 23, on St. Giorgi’s day.
While the tension in Georgia was at its peak on the eve of the South Ossetian election and the alternative election organized by the Georgian authorities, it was ministerial theatrics that brought about the peaceful evolution of the events. On November 10, two days before the referendum, Irakli Okruashvili, the charismatic and influential minister of defense and advocate of the reestablishment of the country’s territorial integrity, was transferred from his powerful cabinet position to the post of economic minister. In other words, he softly ‘stepped down.’ His popularity would not have allowed a pure and simple eviction from the position.
The course and the confrontation between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali’s separatist authorities had already led to a symbolic replacement: On November 9, the South Ossetian president, Edouard Kokoity, named Boris Atoev as the new chief of security. Atoev is a veteran Russian security specialist who had worked for the Kremlin in Afghanistan, Kabardino-Balkaria and in Moscow, which is both a sign and a warning. Okruashvili, who had made the conquest of Tshkinvali by the Georgian army his mission, and who had declared that he would celebrate the next day of the year in Tskhinvali, is on the opposite side of things. His succession the following day, which was not a mystery for long as he resigned from his new post one week later, curbed the escalation of tensions.
Who is behind this strategic change of direction? Have Moscow and Tbilisi reached a secret agreement? Has the White House made Saakashvili realize that the US will follow him only to a certain point, all the more so after the defeat of the republicans in the US elections? Since the affair of the Russian spies in Tbilisi, the powers in the region seem to be relatively set upon dissipating the rapidly rising tensions. Because the revision of patriotic rhetoric would risk confronting leaders with widespread unpopularity, the sidelining of the conflict’s principal supporter is the strongest message Tbilisi could summon. There were no clashes in South Ossetia. But Okruashvili plans to return. “My heart and my soul remain with the army,” he declared the day after his eviction from the ministry of defense, swearing to return to the army one day and to recover Georgia’s territorial integrity.
A major reworking of the team in power
For the government which emerged from the Rose Revolution, Okruashvili’s departure goes above and beyond the relations with Tskhinvali and the great powers. His replacement by the ex-chief of the financial police, Davit Kezerashvili, is at the heart of a series and is part of a vast remodeling of the team in power.
The minister of the economy, Irakli Chogovadze, was also removed from power, then named general director of the State’s Society of oil and gas (GOGC) only to quit one week later at the same time as Okruashvili. He was replaced by Alexandre Khetaguri, vice-minister of energy. The governor of Kakhetia, Petre Tsiskarishvili, who was replaced by the deputy Gia Natsvlishvili, became minister of agriculture in place of Mikheil Svemonishvili, who in turn became governor of Gourie. The new chief of the financial police is Davit Karseladze. Finally, Georgi Arveladze, the former chief of the presidential administration, took over the economic portfolio after the second theatrical coup which was the Okruashvili’s resignation and temporary withdrawal from Georgian political life.
Factional fights: the big winning “Liberty Institute”
If one looks back on the origins of the Rose Revolution, there was a troika: Jvania-Burdjanadze-Saakashvili and their respective teams. After the revolution, the new deputies voted for the dwindling of parliament. Burdjanadze’s faction was thus weakened and then sentenced to death in the shady circumstances of Zurab Jvania whose clan was weakened and then partially absorbed by the circles which turn around Saakashvili.
Among the latter, on the one hand one finds the Liberty Institute’s group, which focuses around interior minister Vano Merabishvili and includes Giga Bokeria and education minister Kakha Lomaia. On the other hand, one finds those close to the president, including Kemularia in the ministry of justice, Salome Zurabishvili in foreign affairs and Okruashvili in defense. In 2005, Kemularia and Zurabishvili were sidelined.
“There is practically no division of authority or competence in Georgia. No institution is protected from interference.”
The Liberty Institute’s group was thus pushed from power like almost all of the other factions which resulted from the movement. Influential, wealthy, popular and endowed with an image of incorruptibility, Okruashvili seemed untouchable. However, from the importance which he had taken, he seemed threatening to Saakashvili himself. Now that he has been sidelined, it appears that Merabishvili, Bokeria and Lomaia have succeeded in sidelining all of the other influential groups, particularly those close to Saakashvili.
Saakashvili finds himself alone with the Liberty Institute’s team. He remains equally as isolated as prime minister Zurab Noghaideli and his supporters in the ministry of the economy, but their influence seems to be secondary. As for the President’s last remaining “men,” Guela Bejuashvili in foreign affairs and the general prosecutor Zurab Adeishvili, they carry little popularity and certainly have never succeeded in creating their own teams.
Although November’s cabinet shuffle and the sidelining of Okruashvili were initiated at the heart of a crisis of international dimensions, on the domestic level, it has made the interior minister the strong man of the president’s regime. Three years after the Rose Revolution, pluralism and diversity in the leading teams are on the road to disappearance and power is strongly concentrated on the Saakashvili-Merabishvili axis.
Transparency International’s recent report “Division of Authority in Georgia” is also worrying. “There is practically no division of authority or competence in Georgia. No institution is protected from interference.”