Georgia's new PM liked and feared in equal measure

By bne IntelliNews July 19, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

Newly appointed Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili appears to have slid into his new post with ease: in office less than a month, the former head of Georgia's policing ministry has already named a new cabinet, unveiled a new four-year economic programme and made his first trip abroad. But even as the move from siloviki (those with ties to the security services) to premier has seemed an easy one for Merabishvili, there are growing concerns in Georgian civil society that his appointment means President Mikheil Saakashvili is circling the wagons before October's parliamentary elections.

Merabishvili, one of the president's closest allies and advisors, was picked to replace former prime minister Nika Gilauri as part of a surprise cabinet shuffle on June 30 - a move that has been widely read to signify that the ruling party is gearing up for a tough campaign to hold on to its majority in parliament.

The October elections are regarded as a vital race that will set the stage for next year's presidential elections and, presumably, what the Georgian political scene will look like after Saakashvili leaves office, which he is constitutionally required to do after serving two terms. By keeping its majority in parliament, the ruling centre-right United National Movement party be in a position to allow its founder Saakashvili to "do a Putin" and take over as prime minister.

Formally the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) - an umbrella bureaucracy that oversees all the policing functions in the country - Merabishvili has repeatedly been ranked as the country's most popular minister, famous for the radical police reform that was credited with transforming Georgia's corrupt police into a modern crime fighting force.

The ruling party has praised his appointment as a necessary measure, bringing an experienced "top manager" to combat the country's unemployment crisis and its lifeless agriculture sector.

Giorgi Margvelashvili, a political scientist, says Merabishvili is popular for a number of reasons - including his reputation for caring for his staff. "He is popular, especially with the police because he treated his staff - no matter how big it is - with great respect and care. He took care of their families, he took good care of these people," he says. "He is [also] considered to be a doer, no matter what you put into that word - doing bad or good things - he is considered to be a doer."

Done and dusted

It is his reputation as a "doer" that appears to concern Georgian civil rights watchdogs, who worry that Merabishvili, charged with numerous human rights violations during his tenure at the MIA, will use his new position to consolidate power in the months before the October elections.

Adding to their fears was the appointment of former defence minister Bakho Akhalaia - also known for allowing serious abuses among the prison population during his time as the head of the penitentiaries - as Merabishvili's successor at the MIA.

Both men, in their new posts, are in a position to influence the vote, and Merabishvili has made some moves to increase the power of his post over the past few weeks, including placing him in charge of the chancellery, which allows the government to regulate its own decision-making process.

Iago Kachkachishvili, a professor of sociology at Tbilisi State University, notes that by appointing Merabshvili, Saakashvili is sending two messages to the public: one, that a proven reformer can ease the country's epic unemployment problem; but two, by tapping a man known for his power and ruthlessness, people know there is steel beneath those promises, as "Merabishvili is responsible for creating this kind of total scary [environment where] people... cannot speak freely on the phone."

And allegations that Merabishvili is not afraid to abuse his power continue to dog him in his new position. Since his appointment, efforts to marginalize the country's leading opposition group, Georgian Dream, and its billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili have picked up speed.

The ruling party, which according to a June survey by the National Democratic Institute enjoys 36% support compared with 18% for Georgian Dream, has repeatedly accused Ivanishvili - who earned his wealth in Russia - of using his money to thwart the election.

On July 12, the government took partial control of two banks reportedly owned by Ivanishvili, naming a temporary manager to oversee 100% of Cartu Bank and 21.7% of Progress Bank. The move was part of a months-long campaign of fines and other measures officially aimed at stopping the billionaire from misusing his vast resources to influence the vote.

Ivanishvili has already been fined GEL148.68 m (€73.84 m) - roughly 2.1% of Georgia's total budget revenues for the year and 1.4% of Ivanishvili's wealth. The billionaire has denied any wrongdoing, and has repeatedly appealed the fines. In addition, three of his activists were arrested on July 17, allegedly for participating in a scam to avoid limitations of party donations by individuals.

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