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Speculation swirls around new cabinet

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, January 22

It’s a familiar reprise of political gossip and crystal ball-gazing punditry, but predictions on the new cabinet of ministers carry unusually heavy significance this month.

“I instructed Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze to present a new cabinet, one with new energy and that is ready for new challenges,” President Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists a day after his January 20 inauguration.

The message of change is key for Saakashvili, who narrowly won reelection without a runoff on January 5 in a still-contested election. Once enjoying near-universal support, analysts blame Saakashvili’s plummeting voter approval in the last few years in part on a tight-knit and suspiciously-viewed cadre of close allies he has maintained largely intact since first taking office.

One of Saakashvili’s campaign promises was to restructure his inner team to better address what he says will be the focus of his second term, Georgia’s widespread poverty.

The cabinet formally resigned after Saakashvili was sworn in, as required by law; the new list of ministers is expected to be presented by the end of the week.

Georgian media speculation on new cabinet arrangements is popular sport here, and earlier the prime minister told Rustavi 2 that at least two new vice premier posts would be created, while many current ministers will be turned out of office.

The television network reported that Minister for Economic Development Giorgi Arveladze and State Minister for Reforms Coordination Kakha Bendukidze are on the chopping block; both men, particularly Arveladze, have been deeply-set in the Saakashvili administration from its earliest days.

Also expected to get the pink slip are the environment and culture ministers.

The only ministers Saakashvili has publicly committed to keeping are Gurgenidze, Justice Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili and Minister of Refugees and Resettlement Koba Subeliani.

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, widely unpopular but considered to have his own power base, is also likely to stay.

Yesterday, the chair of the parliamentary procedural issues and rules committee confirmed that consideration of constitutional amendments to carve out the new vice premier posts would begin in a week.

Saakashvili has not only promised to dramatically overhaul his “revolutionary team,” but has suggested the structural changes—including the new vice-premier positions—could make room for opposition politicians.

“We will invite new faces, new professionals, and I suppose many of them will be from opposition groups. I promised the Georgian people that I would come [into a second term] with a new group,” Saakashvili said in an interview shortly after the presidential election.

The offer still stood as of his January 20 inauguration.

“I will take efficient steps to bring the opposition into strong participation in state structures,” the president said in his inauguration speech on the steps of parliament. “We don’t have enough Georgians to lose, irrespective of their political opinions.”

But opposition leaders, who are protesting the election as rigged and have not recognized Saakashvili as a legitimate victor, vow to reject any offers of government posts.

“We won’t have any negotiations, and we won’t accept any high-ranking positions that Saakashvili offers us,” Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the nine-party opposition coalition, said on January 20.