Georgia's new ministers of the interior and state security are grappling with the enormous task of regaining public trust in their respective government agencies. The extent to which the ministries restore public confidence could have significant influence on Georgia's ability to overcome political and economic turmoil. Yet, despite overwhelming support in parliament for their respective appointments, analysts do not expect the ministers to make sweeping changes.
On November 22, the Georgian parliament, by an overwhelming margin, confirmed Koba Narchemashvili, 32, as Minister of Internal Affairs and Valeri Khaburzania, 37, as Minister of State Security.
Georgia's so-called "power ministries" have played a central role in an on-going confrontation between the country's pro-reform and conservative forces. The government infighting has hampered Georgia's ability to address a variety of pressing political and economic issues - including the outbreak of guerrilla warfare in Abkhazia and perennial power shortages in the country. The political crisis, precipitated when state security forces raided the offices of the independent Rustavi-2 television channel, culminated with the resignation of the entire cabinet.
Interior and state security ministry forces played important roles in helping President Eduard Shevardnadze regain power in Georgia in 1992, and then in stabilizing the country during the mid 1990s. However, many Georgians believe that in recent years the power ministers had emerged as obstacles to reform. Some also worried about the Interior Ministry's ability to influence domestic policy. The ministry had 30,000 police officers and paramilitary troops under its control. The Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, had only 12,000 troops under its control.
Georgia's police force is notorious for extorting bribes from car owners and businesspeople alike. Ex-Minister of Justice Mikhail Saakashvili had accused former Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze of fostering a culture of corruption at the ministry. Saakashvili also suggested that Targamadze was fomenting unrest in Abkhazia as part of a plan to have martial law imposed in Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Recent public opinion surveys have placed public disapproval ratings of the Interior Ministry at between 75 percent and 85 percent. The new minister, Narchemashvili, once served as a deputy minister under Targamadze. He was also a member of the National Security Council responsible for oversight of the Interior Ministry. The Security Council Secretary Nugzar Sadjaya is reportedly one of Narchemashvili's strongest supporters.
During his tenure as Targamadze's deputy, Narchemashvili often acted as a more sympathetic representative to the mass media and to the public than his widely resented boss. Narchemashvili has announced a desire to carry out an extensive re-organization of the police agency, including structural changes and staff cuts. "We would count on support of international partners in making these changes," he said.
Narchemashvili's reform record is somewhat mixed. In 2000, Narchemashvili, who at the time headed the ministry's Customs Department, was embroiled in controversy, accused by Minister of Taxes and Revenues Mikhail Machavariani of not taking action to curb corruption. Some analysts say that Machavariani - a reform-minded supporter of former parliament chairman Zurab Zhvania - sought to undermine Narchemashvili in order to place his own political ally as head of the Customs Department. Whatever the case, some analysts say Targamadze loyalists within the Interior Ministry will provide stiff resistance to reform attempts.
Khaburzania, the new state security minister, also has ties to the National Security Council, and has an extensive security background. He joined the Ministry of Information and Intelligence in 1992. Since then, his career proceeded smoothly, including his Security Council appointment in 1997. Khaburzania's specialty is legal analysis, and he served as Shevardnadze's parliamentary representative prior to his appointment as minister.
The new security chief has made pro-reform statements. In particular, he has expressed support for the dismantling of the Security Ministry's Economic Security Division (ESD). It was the ESD raid on Rustavi-2 that sparked mass protests that ultimately brought down the former government.
Narchemashvili's and Khaburzania's ties to the Security Council have some local observers concerned about Sadjaya's influence in domestic politics. Sadjaya, a former communist cadre, has been able to maintain a low public profile. Little is known about his actual role in the decision-making process. Estimates of his real political power, made by Georgian media and in analytical circles, range from an "unimportant cog in the president's team" to the "eminence gris of Shevardnadze's team."
Regardless of Sadjaya's own political aspirations, his proteges have proven useful to Shevardnadze, who has placed them in key positions to counterbalance the influence of Zhvania loyalists in government. Aside from the new power ministers, another Security Council 'graduate,' Mirian Gogiashvili, was appointed as the chairman of the anti-corruption council earlier this year.
Many observers view the overwhelming vote in parliament to confirm both Narchemashvili and Khaburzania as driven more by longer-term political calculations than by approval for the ministers' respective characters. Many MPs expect new elections to be called soon. Thus many politicians are inclined to view the current ministers as occupying their posts on an interim basis.
According to the current calculations of many MPs, new elections ought to reduce Shevardnadze's authority to the point that he becomes a figurehead. They also expect the newly created post of prime minister will assume the bulk of executive authority. The prime minister, especially if it is Zhvania, would be expected to make wholesale cabinet changes.
It is too early to say whether this scenario will actually come to pass in Georgia's chaotic domestic political climate. What is known is that even if Narchemashvili and Khaburzania are not able to muster the political will to overhaul law enforcement agencies, they will face intense pressure to implement some changes in order to justify their appointments. It is not known, however, whether they will go far enough with reforms to restore the general population's confidence in the government agencies.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of the UNAs program for applied research.