On January 6, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who suspended his visit to Ukraine, brought Irakli Okruashvili, the Defense Minister, and Giorgi Baramidze, ex-Defense Minister currently serving as a State Minister, together and publicly warned both of them that he will not tolerate disagreements in the cabinet.
“I am not going to tolerate sparring between members of government. Both of you are my friends, but if you want to deal with each other through press conferences, then our door is open and you are free to go, we have no indispensables,” President Saakashvili said during his meeting with the two Ministers.
The cabinet row started on January 4, when Irakli Okruashvili, who replaced Giorgi Baramidze as Defense Minister as a result of a recent cabinet reshuffle in December, convened a news conference and accused several current and former senior Defense Ministry officials of misappropriating funds, adding that he “want[s] to see them in jail within one month.”
In response, former Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze, who is currently the State Minister in charge of the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration issues, convened a news conference of his own on January 6 and publicly accused Okruashvili of “intrigues” against him and of triggering a split in the cabinet. He also presented particular documents in an attempt to dismiss allegations put forth by Okruashvili over a misappropriation of funds, which allegedly took place during the period when Baramidze served as the Defense Minister, between June-December 2004.
The recent cabinet row brought hidden tensions which existed between the so called 'President Saakashvili team', which includes Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, and the 'Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania team', which includes Giorgi Baramidze, to the surface. The Georgian media has been speculating over these disagreements for a long time, but these speculations were always dismissed by officials as groundless.
Political analyst Ia Antadze says that the recent row was “the first open split [in the government].”
“The political importance of this confrontation was of major importance; it was for the first time when two teams in the government openly confronted each other,” Ia Antadze told Civil Georgia.
Ghia Nodia, of the think-tank Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD), says that it is quite normal when internal disagreements exist in the government. “However, it is very bad when a disagreement turns into a public sparring match between Ministers. It was a dangerous signal for the authorities and it is natural that Saakashvili was prompted to eradicate it and he actually managed to do so,” Ghia Nodia told Civil Georgia.
He said it was no secret that “hidden disagreements” always persisted between Saakashvili and Zhvania, “but neither of them are interested in publicly demonstrating it.”
Political analyst Ia Antadze also says that the existence of two competing groups in the government might be a positive sign. “For the development of democratic processes, especially in Georgia - where there is no influential opposition, where media freedom is restricted, where the judicial system is under the government’s control -the presence of two competing groups inside the cabinet might serve as a positive factor,” Ia Antadze said.
But legal expert and political analyst Davit Usupashvili says that the recent row in the cabinet once again revealed flaws which still persist in the style of management employed by the country’s leadership.
“In practice, there are two power centers in the Georgian government – one led by President Saakashvili and another by Prime Minister Zhvania. Saakashvili, who always has the final say, should ensure a system which will work effectively even in his absence; while Zhvania, if he really wants to be the second person in the country, should not permit similar incidents in the government,” Usupashvili told Civil Georgia.
Observers also say that disagreements between cabinet members increase society’s skepticism towards the government. “A part of the society, which is not well disposed towards the government, was very happy with this incident. But in general this kind of incidents increases [the level of] disappointment in the society,” Ghia Nodia said.
Ghia Nodia says that this recent incident was a particular kind of disagreement. “This kind of single case does not show an overall tendency. If similar cases will occur often in the future, then it will be a clear sign of a split. But President Saakashvili plays the role of a force capable of uniting these groups in the cabinet and I think he will be able to avoid confrontation reaching a critical point,” Ghia Nodia added.