The mysterious death of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania did not trigger an immediate political crisis as feared, but the incident has drawn additional attention to the continuing backstage discord in the ruling party. President Mikheil Saakashvili had to take this intra-party drama into consideration when selecting Zhvania’s successor.
While waiting for the announcement of a new prime minister, Elene Tevdoradze, chair of the parliamentary committee for human rights, acted as an informal spokesperson for Zhvania’s faction in parliament. Tevdoradze argued that Zhvania’s death must not violate the “triangle principle” of governance; that is, the existing distribution of power among the three leaders of the Rose Revolution: President Saakashvili, Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze, and Prime Minister Zhvania. The pro-Saakashvili wing of the parliamentary majority quickly criticized Tevdoradze for her bold statement. However, in time Saakashvili accepted her message, because he had little room to maneuver otherwise.
Knowledgeable sources say that Zhvania’s followers in parliament threatened to defect from the majority bloc if Saakashvili failed to select the new prime minister from Zhvania’s team. The latter faction had reason for concern, because immediately following Zhvania’s death Saakashvili decided to act as prime minister himself instead of giving this post temporarily to Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze (a member of Zhvania’s team) as required by law. Saakashvili also asked the government to remain in place, while the constitution required him to dissolve the entire cabinet in the event of the prime minister’s death.
The process of selecting a new prime minister has put parliamentary chair Burjanadze in an awkward situation. She had announced that she and Saakashvili had agreed on a candidate, only to have Saakashvili name another individual. Saakashvili tapped Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli, a close associate of Zhvania, as prime minister, after first considering Valery Chechelashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to Russia and a politically neutral figure. Burjanadze did not hide her disappointment at a subsequent news conference, explaining that she had opposed Nogaideli due to his reputation for stubbornness and inflexibility. However, she promised to support Nogaideli’s candidacy.
Saakashvili gave Nogaideli two days to form a new government, instead of the constitutionally prescribed ten. Parliament is expected to confirm Nogaideli and his cabinet on February 17.
The new government has a few noteworthy personnel changes. Chechelashvili will succeed Nogaideli at the Ministry of Finance. Baramidze, who appears to have fallen out of Saakashvili’s favor, learned he had lost the deputy prime minister post from the press. Kote Kemularia, chairman of the Supreme Court and Saakashvili’s close confidant, has been nominated as both minister of justice and deputy prime minister. The current minister of justice, Giorgi Papuashvili, will replace Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Tamar Lebanidze, the sole minister who has lost his job. Lebanidze was close associate of Zhvania.
The 41-year old Nogaideli, a physicist, has good relations with international organizations and is described as a good negotiator. Recently he managed to reach a deal with his Russian counterpart, Alexei Kudrin, to postpone repayment of Georgia’s debt to Russia. At his first briefing, Nogaideli said that he wants to maintain constructive relations with Russia. He also indicated that the government’s political line would not undergo any drastic changes. Nogaideli had been minister of finance under former president Eduard Shevardnadze, but he resigned in 2002 because of disagreement over policy issues.
Born in Ajaria, Nogaideli is a shareholder in — and possibly the actual owner of — Basis Bank, which has successfully displaced the dissolved Maritime Bank, which had been controlled by Ajaria’s former strongman, Aslan Abashidze. Several months ago, the Interior Ministry began to investigate the Finance Ministry’s questionable deals with treasury liabilities and Nogaideli’s role in this deal. However, the investigation quickly stalled.
Meanwhile, the FBI team, which had arrived in Georgia to assist local law enforcement with their investigation into Zhvania’s death, has already returned to the United States. They took Zhvania’s clothes with them for further examination. The FBI experts told a news conference on February 11 that, so far, they have “no reasons to disagree with the Georgian investigators.” At the same time, the ruling party’s majority has rejected a proposal by David Gamkrelidze, chair of the opposition New Rights-Industrialists faction, to establish a parliamentary commission to further investigate the circumstances of Zhvania’s death. Gamkrelidze would put Zhvania’s closest associates in charge of the investigation. The opposition says that some members of Zhvania’s team now are seeking to establish themselves under Saakashvili, which explains their submissiveness regarding Zhvania’s case. However, it remains to be seen whether their strategy will be rewarded.
Saakashvili has managed to avoid the immediate political crisis that Zhvania’s departure from the political scene might have provoked. However, some analysts warn of the dangers surrounding an inevitable regrouping of political forces in post-Zhvania Georgia and the barely concealed factionalism within the ruling party.
(Akhali Taoba, February 12; 24 Saati, February 14; TV-Rustavi-2, TV “Imedi” February 10-11; News Info, February 12).