President Saakashvili said that he has appointed Irakli Okruashvili as new Economy Minister because Russia’s aggression towards Georgia is mainly targeting the economy.
Chief of Financial Police Davit Kezerashvili, 28, will replace Okruashvili as the Defense Minister. Saakashvili said it was “to some extent not an ordinary decision.”
In other changes in the cabinet, Economy Minister Irakli Chogovadze will be appointed as the General Director of the state-run Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation (GOGC), replacing Davit Ingorokva. Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili will become Governor of the western region of Guria, while Petre Tsiskarishvili, the governor of the eastern region of Kakheti, will replace Svimonishvili as Agriculture Minister.
At a news conference on November 10 President Saakashvili said that as a result of the current reshuffle the country’s “economic team has become stronger.”
“Why Okruashvili? I want to remind everyone that I appointed Irakli as General Prosecutor [in January 2004] and he managed to create a system that still works with great success to fight against corruption… Then we needed strong police and I appointed Okruashvili as the Interior Minister [in June 2004]. He sacked the entire police force and created an absolutely new system – the Patrol Police. When I appointed Irakli as Defense Minister [in December, 2004] the army was an absolutely disorganized system. I want to say with great pleasure that we have created a small army, but the most modern one in the region. And we are at a very good stage of army development and our army is ready to fulfill any kind of task, as was confirmed by our operation in the Kodori Gorge,” Saakashvili said.
He said that against the background of Russia’s economic blockade, “the frontline of Georgia’s defense lies in the economy.”
“And we have sent Okruashvili to this line,” Saakashvili said.
He noted that the Economy Ministry should become “a strong and consolidated” structure focused on the attraction of investments and gaining access to foreign markets for Georgian products.
“Despite the persisting economic embargo we should create a favorable economic and investment climate… [The government-sponsored] employment program now will be under the Economy Ministry’s competencies. The Ministry will also be in charge of accessing new foreign markets… So it means that we are creating a strong and very important structure,” Saakashvili said.
The Georgian Economy Ministry is in charge of conducting talks with Russia over the latter’s WTO accession. Georgia refuses to give its go-ahead to Russia’s WTO-membership unless Moscow meets some of Tbilisi’s demands.
Saakashvili also stressed that a focus on economy does not mean that “we will not stop further development of the army.”
“I have thought much about the candidacy for the Defense Minister’s position and finally took to some extent an unorthodox decision. It was a joint decision of mine and Okruashvili to nominate Kezerashvili,” Saakashvili said.
“Kezerashvili is a popular target of criticism. Why? Because no one likes to pay taxes. If not for Kezerashvili’s efforts, the collection of taxes would have been very difficult… Yes, he has enemies; but this means that he was collecting taxes and doing his job very well,” Saakashvili said.
Kezerashvili led the Financial Police from the day of its creation in February, 2004. The Financial Police was set up to fight economic and financial crimes and to probe into tax evasion cases. The unit, which is currently part of the Finance Ministry and is under the direct subordination of the President, has turned into an extremely influential institution and has often been the target of fierce criticism for its high-handed tactics against business. The Financial Police will become part of a new structure to be established in January, 2007 as a result of a merger of the tax and customs services.
Some opposition lawmakers have already alleged that Okruashvili’s controversial statements about breakaway South Ossetia’s reunification deadlines were the major reason behind the cabinet reshuffle.
In May 2006, Okruashvili said that he would resign from the Defense Minister’s position if Georgia fails to reunite breakaway South Ossetia by January 1, 2007.
“This kind of cabinet reshuffle was quite anticipated after Okruashvili’s statements on South Ossetia. Now society has to judge whether the party of war or peace has prevailed in the Georgian government,” MP Giorgi Tsagareishvili of the opposition Industrialist Party said, referring to allegation of the existence of a ‘party of war’ in the government led by hawkish Okruashvili.
“It was clear that Okruashvili was not able to retain the Defense Minister’s position for a long period of time because of his political statements,” MP Pikria Chikhradze of the opposition New Rights party said.
“I think this kind of reshuffle also indicates certain changes in the Georgian government’s policy, and here I mean political statements of Okruashvili about the country’s territorial integrity,” MP Kakha Kukava of the opposition Conservative Party said.
But lawmakers from the ruling party denied that the cabinet reshuffle is linked with Okruashvili’s statements.
“This cabinet change has nothing to do with Okruashvili’s statement about January 1,” MP Nika Rurua said.
Influential parliamentarian from the ruling National Movement party Giga Bokeria said that in the capacity of Economy Minister, “Okruashvili should win an economic war against Russia.”
“A political heavy-weight was needed in the economy. This decision against the background of the current economic war with Russia is a good decision,” MP Bokeria said.
Some Russian political analysts have already indicated that the dismissal of Okruashvili may have a positive consequence on current Russo-Georgian tensions, but other pundits in Moscow doubt that the move will be enough to help ease tensions.
“Okruashvili’s dismissal is a blow for the ‘party of war’ in the Georgian government. This is very important reshuffle in Georgia’s internal politics,” Sergey Markov, head of the Institute of Political Research, told RIA Novosti news agency.
Speaking at a news conference on November 10, President Saakashvili said that all the speculations about motives behind his decision, except of those he has listed, are groundless.
The current cabinet reshuffle does not need the parliament's approval because less than six ministers will be replaced in the government.