The President’s announcement, made in Beijing on April 12, elicited an
ironic response from the opposition, but also triggered speculation that Saakashvili is laying the groundwork for the promotion of his close ally to the post of Prime Minister.
Saakashvili said after the Georgian-Chinese Business Forum that he has charged Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili with promoting Georgian wines on new foreign markets.
The wine row with Russia has topped the Georgian authorities’ agenda since March 27, when Moscow banned the import of Georgian wines, saying that their quality does not correspond to that indicated by their producers.
Saakashvili said that he has asked Okruashvili to visit Ukraine, as well as Eastern European and Baltic States to promote Georgian wines there. He also explained that Okruashvili’s experience in business management was the reason behind his decision.
Irakli Okruashvili led a private law firm from 1996 to 2000, before becoming Saakashvili’s deputy when the latter served as justice minister in former President Shevardnadze's administration.
Okruashvili, who currently visits NATO headquarters in Brussels together with Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili, told Georgian reporters on April 12 that he has a plan to help solve the current problem with wine. He also said there are several illegal wine producing factories in Georgia, which should be immediately closed down.
“We have discussed the issue before the President’s departure to China and my proposals regarding [overcoming current wine problem] was welcomed [by the government members]… Many Georgian wine producing companies are very bad in marketing and management and I think the government should help them in this regard,” Okruashvili said.
The opposition has ironically criticized Okruashvili’s new assignment.
“Maybe the Agriculture Minister [Mikheil Svimonishvili] will now be told to repair artillery,” New Rights Party MP Irakli Iashvili said.
“The Defense Ministry has its concrete and important functions… I do not know what Okruashvili should do; maybe he will go [abroad] and will force someone to drink Georgian wine at gunpoint?” MP Davit Zurabishvili, chairman of the Democratic Front parliamentary faction, said.
The president’s announcement has also triggered rumors that he plans to replace PM Zurab Noghaideli with Okruashvili.
“Okruashvili will take a major step towards the Prime Minister’s position if he accomplishes his new task,” Iashvili said.
“There have long been rumors about Okruashvili’s desire to become Prime Minister,” Industrialists Party MP Gia Tsagareishvili said.
But parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party, as well as PM Noghaideli himself, promptly rejected these rumors as “unserious speculation.”
“I guess you understand the senseless nature of this question,” Noghaideli told reporters on April 12, when asked about Okruashvili’s possible appointment as Pprime Minister.
He also said that Okruashvili’s new assignment does not mean that Okruashvili “will become a PR agent.”
“He was tasked by the President to find new markets for Georgian wines not as the defense minister, but as a government member and I am sure that Okruashvili will successfully accomplish this task. We were considering this issue before the President left for China and I fully welcome this decision,” PM Nogaideli said.
An influential parliamentarian from the National Movement party Giga Bokeria also said that the opposition’s speculations are groundless.
“I consider comments made [by the opposition] as very unserious. Georgia has the Prime Minister and there is no reason, or precondition to replace him… I do not see any reason why the President’s decision triggered speculations,” MP Bokeria told reporters on April 12.