Over the last two days of August, Georgian senior officials, including Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili, have vehemently denied media speculation about an impending reorganization of the leadership of the power ministries.
“Such reshuffle is not planned,” Bezhuashvili told journalists (RIA Novosti August 31). “As a rule, I’m the first who learns about a reshuffle. Since I don’t know anything about this, it means that this is a rumor,” Zhvania said (TV Rustavi-2, August 31). Defense Minister Baramidze dismissed the rumors about personnel changes as “absurd” disinformation spread by Georgia’s enemies in order to keep the country in a permanent state of anxiety (TV-Imedi, TV-Rustavi-2, Interpress, August 31).
Georgian officials issued their clarifications shortly after the influential Georgian newspaper Alia published an article on August 31 that suggested Minister of State Security Vano Merabishvili, Defense Minister Baramidze, and possibly Minister of Internal Affairs Irakli Okruashvili would be out of their posts this fall.
The newspaper also reported a serious conflict between Okruashvili and Merabishvili, who allegedly even came to blows during a recent meeting. The first rotation in the Georgian power ministries occurred in June. It was widely perceived as Saakashvili’s response to criticism about the poor performance of the ministers (See also EDM June 10, and June 21). However, the changes did not result in the appointment of new, more professional leaders. The power ministers simply exchanged chairs.
The low levels of professionalism within Georgian ministerial posts, which have been largely staffed by inexperienced officials since last year’s Rose Revolution, is still a subject of criticism by media and independent analysts. The top posts in the power ministries were filled by people whose only qualification was participation in the Rose Revolution and close ties with its leaders. For example, Amiran Meskheli, deputy minister of state security, is a close friend of the minister and has a rather limited educational background. Alia also reported backbiting within the ministry. The delayed reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, accompanied with continuous personnel turnovers, has further reduced the efficacy of this already inefficient body.
The poor showing of the power ministries during the August hostilities in South Ossetia has become a litmus test of the agencies’ effectiveness. The Ossetia skirmishes revealed a lack of inter-agency coordination and poor information sharing.
After seizing key staging grounds used by the Ossetian fighters and Russian mercenaries, the Georgian power ministries promised a public display of the corpses of the mercenaries and their ammunition as evidence of Russian interference in South Ossetia. However, all they could produce was a single corpse of an unidentified Ossetian fighter. Meanwhile, on August 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that the Georgian government had failed to provide any evidence of Russian involvement. Former foreign minister Irakli Menagarishvili said that the more the Georgian government delays publicizing the evidence, if any, they less convincing they become before the international community (Akhali Versia, August 30-31). This raises a difficult question about the validity of the government’s claims of victory.
More critically minded analysts say that the power ministers have become victims of the political mistakes made by the country’s top leadership, and any personnel changes would be used as opportunities to find scapegoats. It seems that former chief of staff Givi Iukuridze, who was not backed by any political faction, was the first to take the fall (24 Hours, Weekly Military Review, August 30-September 5.
The Georgian government appears to have decided that for now it would be more prudent to put on a brave face instead of publicly admitting mistakes. The heads of the power ministries are Saakashvili’s closest confidants and a strong guarantee of his political staying power. However, it is possible that Saakashvili is using the media to prepare Georgians for a painless purge of the inept power ministers.