Lincoln Mitchell

Political Development, Strategic Communication and Research

Lincoln Mitchell is a political development and strategic communications consultant as well as an accomplished scholar and writer. Mitchell has worked on political development in dozens of countries as well as on numerous domestic political campaigns. He has also published books, articles, opinion pieces and blogs on international relations, the former Soviet Union, democracy, US politics and baseball. 

The Latest Government Changes

The recent changes to the Georgian government are the latest in a series of cabinet level resignations, firings and substitutions that have been a central component of Georgian politics for the last ten months or so. This month’s changes have led to the appointment of a new Foreign Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who had been Minister of Economy since the Georgian Dream (GD) came to power in late 2012. Kvirikishvili, in turn is being replaced at the economy ministry by Dimitri Kumsishvili, who had been deputy mayor of Tbilisi.

At first glance, a few things stand out about these changes. Kvirikishvili is one of the more dynamic and respected members of the government. He had served as deputy Prime Minister while at the Ministry of Economy, and will keep that position in his new role too. However, Kvirikishvili does not have a strong background in foreign affairs. He is the second cabinet member in the last few months to be appointed to a key foreign policy position with little previous experience in that field. The other, Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, appears to have brought an impressive level of energy, commitment and visibility to her post. If Kvirikishvili can do the same, it will be very helpful for Georgia.

For Kvirikishvili, this is a very good transition. Although it is not fair to hold him responsible for the economic problems which have been confronting Georgia in recent years, as Minister of Economy it was also impossible for him to avoid at least some blame. This move allows the government to show a willingness to change the economics team without losing one of the strongest ministers in the government. Additionally, Kvirikishvili will move to a ministry where it will be easier to accrue at least some successes, thus strengthening his reputation and position in the government.

In the broader picture, however, this change raises some concerns. It is extremely important for Georgia to present itself to the rest of the world as stable. Replacing one or two ministers is not prima facie evidence of instability, but when a government that has not yet marked its third anniversary in power is, for example, on its third foreign minister, third defense minister, second economics minister and fourth interior minister, it almost inevitably brings some governmental instability. In this environment, key ministries are often in a period of transition, and more significantly, members of government may become concerned that their jobs are in peril. This can lead them to focus more on the politics of remaining in office than the work of governance. It should also be noted that some ministries have been more stable than others. Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani, and Energy Minister Kaha Kaladze, for example, have been in their positions since the Georgian Dream came to power in October of 2012.

There are, of course, many reasons to make changes in a cabinet; and chief executives do it in most countries. Individual cabinet members want to leave for personal reasons; people who seem like good candidates at the time they were appointed don’t work out; political schisms like the one that occurred in Georgia last November occur; or interim officials get replaced by permanent ones. This is all part of national governance; and there is no clear line between this and excessive turnover. The Georgian government now finds itself in the grey area between the two. Further changes to the cabinet, particularly involving ministries where there have already been several changes, will be unambiguously excessive and more or less institutionalize a very low, but nonetheless real, instability in the government.

These changes also come roughly a year or 13 months before the next parliamentary election. The GD will benefit from going into that election with its team in place, so while this latest minor shakeup will not create election related problems, any further changes between now and the election will. While the election was not the most proximate reason for this change in government, it is not irrelevant either. In the context of faltering poll numbers, persistent economic problems and a very active and cohesive, if not particularly well-liked, opposition party, everything the government does this close to the election is at least somewhat election related.

It is, however, difficult to see how replacing Kvirikishvili with Kumsishvili at the Economy Ministry will have much of an impact on the economy. Moreover, because Kvirikishvili is moving to a ministry that is at least as important as the one he just left, the government cannot present this as a demotion or punishment for Kvirikishvili. This is clearly not the big pre-election move that will set the government up with a new image for the election, but it is still best for the GD if this is the last pre-election shakeup.

In addition to creating a low level of instability, frequent changes to the government reinforce a sense that power is informal and personal, rather than institutionalized or based on expertise. For example, while they are both smart and competent government officials, Kvirikishvili and Khidasheli both have backgrounds that are in areas somewhat afield from the ministries they now lead. This suggests that people like Kvirikishvili and Khidasheli are important and influential in this government regardless of what position they hold. This approach also ensures that few people are in one position long enough to build a power base that would be strong enough to challenge the Prime Minister, or the prime minister's powerful supporters. Moving ministers and other key players around in government, even if they are not actually pushed out, makes it very difficult for those people to build up a strong circle of loyal and valuable advisors or deputies, or relationships with key groups and constituencies in society that come into direct contact with their office.

The ousting of popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania last fall is the best example of this during the period of GD led government, as he was a popular leader with a strong national reputation. However, all changes that have occurred since the government first came to power should be seen, at least somewhat, in this context. Regardless of the true motivation for specific changes in government, when it is done with this degree of frequency, it is unavoidable that possible political motivations will be considered as well. 

It should be noted that these behaviors are not unique to the Georgian Dream. The previous government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili made even more frequent, and sometimes puzzling changes to the government. Ministers were changed regularly. For example, during the nearly nine years he controlled the government, Saakashivli had seven prime ministers and seven defense ministers. People with very little experience in areas like defense or law enforcement were brought in to head ministries working in those areas, and portfolios were carried by some individuals even after leaving the relevant positions in government. This approach meant that real power was in Saakashvili’s hands and those of a few close associates who held different offices at different times, rather than shared with ministries and local government.

During the last several years, however, a handful of Georgian leaders have been able to stay in one position and bring stability to their ministry and, in at least one case, begin to build an institution. That case is, of course, that of David Usupashvili who has remained Chair of Parliament throughout the GD’s time in office. Interestingly, the United National Movement (UNM) government also had stability in this position as only two people, Nino Burjanadze and David Bakradze, served in that role between 2004-2012. The difference is that Usupashvili’s parliament is becoming more influential in policy making, not less, as was the case under the UNM.

For this reason, Usupashvili will play a key role in Georgia’s democratic development, not just because of the formal rule he occupies or even because of his formidable intellectual and political skills, but because his ability to continue in his position will be evidence that the GD is not seeking to centralize all power and make it impossible for other centers of influence to emerge. This is particularly significant because Usupashvili and his Republican Party are not fully in the mainstream of political vision in the larger GD coalition. The Republican Party is more forcefully pro-west and liberal in their economic views than the rest of the coalition. This only makes Usupashvili’s work in parliament more impressive.

Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that Usupashvili will remain in that position. If he is ousted or shuffled off to another position, it will mean that parliament too is part of what will begin to look like a game of governmental musical chairs, and that the GD, like its predecessor is not open to power bases outside of the primary leader and his closest associates.

Moving a senior member of government from one key ministry to another, while promoting somebody from deputy mayor of Tbilisi to a major ministerial role is, in isolation, not necessarily a very big deal. However, this did not occur in isolation, but in the context of periodic government changes and shakeups that have created a climate where many observers of Georgian politics are either discussing the last change or busily trying to predict the next one.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.