Late on Wednesday, October 19, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli announced the dismissal of Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili.
Nogaideli, who was forced to postpone a scheduled trip to the United States because of the situation, said that he had experienced “a very difficult conversation” with Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze and members of the ruling National Movement’s parliamentary faction who demanded Zourabichvili’s resignation. Nogaideli made clear that he sacked Zourabichvili after consultations with President Mikheil Saakashvili.
A French-born career diplomat, Zourabichvili was invited to become Georgia’s foreign minister by President Saakashvili in March 2004, after granting her dual Georgian-French citizenship and seeking permission from French President Jacque Chirac. Zourabichvili soon came under fire from Burjanadze and other National Movement MPs for her lone-wolf approach, including her reshuffling of ambassadors and ministry staff.
Zourabichvili was instrumental in reaching an agreement with Russia to withdraw its military bases from Georgia. But she irritated Georgian leaders when she bluntly told her British counterpart Jack Straw on October 11, that Georgia “will face a crisis in 2007, if no decisive steps are taken in 2006 for resolving the frozen conflicts in Georgia.”
The row that led to Zourabichvili’s dismissal began on October 14.” During that day’s parliamentary session, David Kirkitadze, a leader of the ruling party faction, publicly accused Zourabichvili of “negligence” that had allegedly delayed Georgia’s submission to the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In response, the Foreign Ministry issued a formal protest at the “absolutely unacceptable and unsubstantiated criticism…insulting a top official.
The Ministry statement infuriated National Movement lawmakers. Led by Burjanadze, on October 17-18 the faction approached Saakashvili regarding Zourabishvili’s suitability for her post. “The Parliament will not work with the Foreign Minister in the existing regime,” Burjanadze said. Georgia’s Ambassadors to Russia, Ukraine, and the United Nations sent written complaints to Saakashvili about Zourabichvili’s performance, further fueling the conflict.
Until the very last moment, Zourabichvili refused to resign and insisted on waiting for Saakashvili’s decision. “I was brought here by the president,” she stressed.
However, on October 19, Zourabichvili made an emotional televised statement following an hour-long meeting with Saakashvili that reportedly was also attended by the French Ambassador to Georgia. She called her opponents in parliament “demons” and declared her intention to resign from the French dipomatic corps, stay in Georgia, and become “a fully fledged Georgian political figure.”
Zourabichvili said there had been a “carefully planned” plot against her and “mines in the form of several old ambassadors were laid” from her first days in office. Zourabichvili admitted to having made a “grave mistake” by keeping the veteran ambassadors who, as she put it, “served and are still serving another group.” Zourabichvili admitted that she was an “alien presence” in Saakashvili’s government because her attempts to dismantle corrupt structures at the embassies had harmed the interests of many influential figures.
Zourabichvili, who said that Saakashvili was aware of her planned statement, depicted the current system in Georgia as “the communist cancer,” and said the people who fought her were actually fighting Saakashvili and represent “the last attempt to save this system.” She said that if Georgians fail to maintain the gains of the Rose Revolution “everything will go backwards and ‘neo-communism’ will win.” Zourabichvili suggested dissolving parliament and holding new elections as a way to overcome the crisis. She urged her supporters to gather for a meeting, not to stage “a revolution in the streets” but to “simply be a demonstration of your attitude.”
Kote Gabashvili, chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, said that Zourabichvili had been in line to become secretary of the National Security Council until her televised attack on the government.
On October 20, Zourabichvili managed to organize a rally of some 8,000 supporters from various social groups and including some opposition leaders. The rally was the largest protest in Tbilisi since the 2003 Rose Revolution. Zourabichvili insisted that the gathering was not political. “I am going to start a new life together with you.” She again called for pre-term parliamentary elections, saying that the goals of the Rose Revolution have been abandoned.
Zourabichvili’s opponents from the National Movement downplayed her statements. They said that Georgia’s foreign policy achievements were largely the work of Saakashvili and parliament, not Zourabichvili. Burjanadze called Zourabichvili “unprofessional” and said that she should have been sacked earlier.
Georgian newspapers are heralding Zourabichvili as a new opposition leader. Opinion polls show that a growing segment of the Georgian electorate wants a new leader, someone not tarnished by the past, a qualification that eliminates Saakashvili, Burjanadze, and most current political players.
Zourabichvili remains tight-lipped about her possible political allies and now must find her niche in Georgia’s complicated and largely unpredictable political life. Most parties agree with Zourabichvili’s call for early elections. Saakashvili is reportedly considering the same idea as a way to get rid of some of his discredited allies.
Saakashvili, who has yet to comment on Zourabichvili’s dismissal, appointed his former classmate Gela Bezhuashvili, currently secretary of the National Security Council, as Georgia’s new foreign minister. On October 20, representatives of the ruling party vehemently denied opposition party allegations that Zourabichvili’s dismissal would mean shifting Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy toward Russia.
(Caucasus Press, October 14, 18-19-20; TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Civil Georgia, October 18-20; RIA-Novosti, October 19; Resonance, Akhali Taoba, October 20)