After weeks of vehemently denying media speculation about the imminent dismissal, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili fired Tbilisi Mayor Zurab Chiaberashvili on July 12.
Chiaberashvili had called the rumors “a well-planned campaign,” coming from people he had accused of stealing from Tbilisi’s budget. At the same time Gigi Ugulava, head of Saakashvili’s administration, had dismissed rumors about his own imminent appointment to the mayoral post (Inter-Press, Caucasus Press, Radio Imedi, July 11-12). Then on Tuesday Saakashvili used a televised briefing to explain his decision to replace Chiaberashvili, saying the mayor has been the subject of many verbal attacks. Saakashvili nominated Chiaberashvili to be Georgia’s ambassador to the Council of Europe.
Saakashvili said that Giorgi Arveladze, the general secretary of the ruling National Movement party and a member of parliament, would “temporarily” take over the duties of the head of the presidential administration. (TV Rustavi-2, July 12). Koba Davitashvili, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, called Saakashvili’s decision illegal, because the law prohibits legislators from simultaneously heading the presidential administration (Caucasus Press, July 13).
Chiaberashvili’s replacement comes on the heels of amendments to the Law on Tbilisi, which assigns the election of city’s mayor to the elected Sakrebulo (City Council) after the local elections scheduled for fall 2006 (see EDM, June 22). At the news conference, Saakashvili hinted that Ugulava would be mayor of Tbilisi for a long time. He did not hide that Ugulava will be the National Movement’s nominee for mayor. According to Saakashvili, Ugulava now has a chance to win the hearts of Tbilisi in the months remaining before the elections and become the first elected mayor of the capital city. Saakashvili particularly praised Ugulava’s contribution to the 2003 Rose Revolution in Tbilisi and the bloodless revolution in Ajaria.
Ugulava, a civil society activist, was one of the leaders of the youth movement “Kmara” (Enough), which engaged in civil disobedience during the Rose Revolution. Ugulava has never been an activist within the National Movement, but his close ties with the party and Saakashvili personally propelled him to the post of deputy security minister in the new government. In this capacity Ugulava played a leading role in the bloodless dismantling of the regime of former Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze. But Ugulava failed when he attempted to repeat a similar operation against the leadership of Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region last summer. This failure likely was behind Ugulava’s reassignment in September 2004 as governor of Samegrelo in western Georgia — one of the most troubled regions bordering breakaway Abkhazia. Sources say that Ugulava failed get on with the local establishment, and he was recalled in April 2005 to become chief of Saakashvili’s administration.
In an interview with Rustavi-2 on July 13, Ugulava acknowledged that he would be a candidate for mayor of Tbilisi. Moreover, Ugulava stated that as mayor he would fully support National Movement-backed candidate Bidzina Bregadze, now deputy interior minister, during the parliamentary by-elections in Tbilisi’s Isani-Samgori district. This is a clear indication that Ugulava will diligently implement the ruling party’s instructions.
Nino Burjanadze, chair of the Georgian parliament welcomed Ugulava’s nomination and admitted that Saakashvili has been considering possible changes at city hall for a long time.
Neither Saakashvili nor Burjanadze gave specific reasons behind the reshuffle; rather, they provided vague explanation that although “much has been done, there is the possibility of doing even more in a shorter period of time” (Civil Georgia, 24 Saati, TV-Imedi, TV- Rustavi-2, July 12-13).
Chiaberashvili, whom Saakashvili described as “an official of a new cohort,” was appointed as Tbilisi mayor shortly after the March 2004 parliamentary elections. He previously had chaired the Central Electoral Commission, which was reportedly shaped to favor the National Movement. However, Chiaberashvili’s freewheeling views and relatively independent personnel policy at city hall upset both the Tbilisi establishment and influential leaders of the National Movement. According to local sources, only support from Richard Miles, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia, saved Chiaberashvili’s job several times. Chiaberashvili even took on Saakashvili, threatening to expose illegal land sales in Tbilisi in 2002-2003, when Saakashvili chaired the Tbilisi City Council.
Commenting on Chiaberashvili’s “honorable banishment,” Givi Ordenidze, chief of the mayor’s staff, admitted that Chiaberashvili’s dismissal had been engineered by a group of some 60 individuals, including parliamentarians and senior officials from the State Chancellery and government. Other analysts and opposition politicians confirm this assumption, saying that Chiaberashvili, always regarded as an outsider by the ruling National Movement, violated the rules of game in his relations with Saakashvili and his entourage (Resonance, July 13).
Yet on June 29, the influential Resonance reported about “a backstage struggle” over the Tbilisi mayor’s office between the “Young Wing” in Saakashvili’s entourage composed by former civic leaders and the other groups. Ugulava represents that “Young Wing,” and his appointment to Tbilisi mayor clearly indicates which group has a greater influence on Saakashvili.
Although Giga Bokeria, the alleged leader of that “Young Wing,” said that “no dramatic” personnel shuffle is expected in the immediate future (TV-Rustavi-2, July 13), speculations are high about more changes in the government. As with previous personnel changes, the current reshuffle has not brought in new figures, reaffirming the widespread opinion that Saakashvili is short of qualified cadres and only appoints from his closest entourage.