In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
The change follows the exodus of three ministers (environment; youth and sports; infrastructure) in less than a week. That brings the grand total of ministerial departures since last summer to seven, a number which requires a fresh vote of confidence by parliament in the government.
To minimize the political fallout from these changes, the prime minister wanted to move fast with the replacements. But President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who must present the new cabinet to parliament, has taken the constitutional option of delaying for a week — arguably, a move that could reflect his constant status-struggles with Gharibashvili.
In televised remarks on May 1, Margvelashvili claimed that the government needs to take its time and think about what it's doing, rather than rushing about as if in a “force-majeure” situation; particularly when it comes to defense ministers.
“As the commander-in-chief, I want to ask a question: how frequently should we replace defense ministers?” he said.
The change is the second since November 2014, when Irakli Alasania was removed after charging that the government was moving away from its pro-European focus.
Gharibashvili has rejected those claims, but Khidasheli's nomination will help him dispel any lingering doubts. Janelidze was seen as something of a placeholder since his hasty appointment after Alasania's dismissal, and has been accused of trying to thwart an important arms deal with France. (A charge he has denied.)
Alasania, whose party, the Free Democrats, has since gone into opposition, warmly congratulated Khidasheli, a longtime friend, on her appointment, and asked her to take good care of the country’s soldiers.
"The rest will depend on how well she manages to be guided by national security considerations rather than by loyalty to certain political figures," he said, news agencies reported.
“Certain political figures” could mean Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire ex-prime-minister who continues to tower over Georgian politics. Khidasheli, however, did not refrain from differing from Ivanishvili and his protégé, Gharibashvili, by speaking out for Alasania amidst his showdown with the two men.
Yet, despite a reputation for speaking her mind, some Georgians have questioned Khidasheli’s ability to challenge Ivanishvili full-on. The Georgian Dream coalition he founded helped the Republicans nab a significance presence in parliament.
Aside from Khidasheli, another Republican Party member, Gigla Agulashvili, has been nominated as environment-minister. If confirmed by parliament, the pair would join in the cabinet fellow Republican Paata Zakareishvili, who serves as the state minister for reconciliation and civic equality (in other words, deals with policy related to breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia).
Apart from these Republican nominees, businessman Tariel Khechikashvili, a soccer-club founder, has been nominated for the youth and sports ministry.
*Tina Khidasheli previously served as board chairperson for the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under the separate auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City.