Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
A radical reshuffle of the Georgian cabinet is raising new questions about President Mikheil Saakashvili's plans for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. New Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili outlined the government's new four-year program on July 2.
In a surprise move on June 30, Saakashvili dismissed Nika Gilauri and named Vano Merabishvili, the powerful head of the interior ministry, as prime minister. The government has attributed Merabishvili's appointment as part of its shift in priorities as it moves from business reforms to social issues, but critics believe the shake up could be a harbinger of who will lead the government should Saakashvili decide not to run for prime minister in 2013.
The appointment comes just four months before the country votes in a new parliament - a vitally important forerunner to the 2013 presidential elections, since whichever party holds the majority in parliament will be able to push through its candidate to head the government.
Merabishvili, a raising star in the ruling National Movement party, has long been considered a top contender for either the prime ministerial or presidential slot when Saakashvili's term ends in 2013.
He has been praised by Saakashvili for his role transforming the Georgian police from a corrupt force with ties to the mafia into a modern law enforcement body, and became the government's go-to man for tough problems following the 2008 war with Russia, when he organized the construction of new settlements for displaced families.
Now the government has tapped him to tackle the country's biggest ill: unemployment. Saakashvili also announced the creation of a new state body to tackle the job crisis. With official unemployment at 15.5% - and non-government statistics putting it at 31% - the lack of employment is quickly becoming a major issue for the elections.
Bringing unemployment to its knees?
After years of focusing on business and anti-corruption reforms, the government is scrambling to remodel itself as party with a heart as the elections draw near. "Vano is a man, who has achieved with us what for many was unimaginable; he brought crime and corruption to its knees," Saakashvili said as he announced Merabishvili's appointment. "In his capacity as prime minister, his main goal will be to bring unemployment to its knees."
Offering details of the new government programme, Merabishvili outlined policies very clearly aimed at securing the populist vote. The government's promises echo similar pledges made by billionaire-turned-opposition-financer Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is leading the campaign for the Georgian Dream alliance.
The government, which once scoffed at social welfare as a luxury for rich states, is now offering to increase pensions by 2013, as well as ploughing GEL3bn (€1.45bn) into healthcare and GEL 4bn into "villages" and agriculture over the next three to four years. Meanwhile, the outgoing Gilauri has been tapped to lead the Partnership Fund - a government-run equity fund designed to help create jobs by attracting large greenfield investments.
However, for critics, Merabishvili's legacy at the Interior Ministry has been punctuated by jarring human rights abuses and an increasingly powerful police apparatus better known for its allegiance to the ruling party than for even-handed law enforcement.
Additional appointments in the reshuffle, including the decision to name Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia as head of the interior ministry - a man credited by the opposition for creating pro-government militia-type groups in western Georgia - are unlikely to ease the growing polarization between the political forces vying for control of the parliament in the October elections.
Ivanishvili, once a fan of Merabishvili, told supporters a new prime minister is not enough to "save" the authorities. "No matter what kind of replacements they make in the government... nothing new will come out of it," he said on July 1 before a scheduled mass meeting with supporters. "Instead of reshuffles, they should better return back into legal framework and stand in service of the people."
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