Georgia’s parliament on Sunday (8 September) confirmed an ex-interior minister accused of cracking down on protesters as the country’s new prime minister, fuelling political tensions in the ex-Soviet nation.
Georgian former Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze announced his resignation on 2 September after little more than a year in the job and said the country must not be riven by political divisions that could play into Russia’s hands.
Lawmakers voted 98-0 to confirm Giorgi Gakharia as premier in a vote boycotted by the opposition.
Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia has been nominated as the ruling Georgian Dream party's candidate for prime minister. https://t.co/lPox4S5Xb4
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) September 3, 2019
Gakharia, 44, is deeply hated by Georgia’s opposition for overseeing a security operation against anti-Russia protests in June.
Riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrations and dozens of protesters were hurt, including several people who lost eyes.
Opposition supporters have dubbed Gakharia “Moscow’s man” in Tbilisi and accused him of taking orders from Russia, which supports two breakaway regions of Georgia and fought a war with the country in 2008.
He rejected those claims in a speech before his approval, saying Georgia remained on its path towards closer ties with the European Union and NATO.
“The most important component of our security is the country’s pro-Western orientation, and European and Euro-Atlantic integration,” Gakharia said.
“The United States is our main strategic partner and there are no limits in our cooperation.”
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili — who leads the ruling Georgian Dream party and is widely believed to be the man in charge in the country — put Gakharia forward on Monday following the resignation of Bakhtadze after just over a year in office.
“Gakharia will be Ivanishvili’s last stooge in a prime minister’s seat,” Nika Melia, one of the leaders of the opposition United National Movement party (UNM), told AFP.
“Ivanishvili’s oligarchic rule is incompatible with democracy, and all of Georgia’s democratic and pro-Western parties will be uniting forces to defeat him in the parliamentary elections next year.”
Speaking to EURACTIV, government officials have strongly denied the pro-Russia bias of the Ivanishvili-controlled government.
Several dozen anti-government protesters rallied outside parliament on Sunday against Gakharia’s appointment, some with sheep to symbolise the ruling party’s subservience to Ivanishvili.
Protesters brought sheep to parliament, comparing MPs entering building to “sheep herd controlled by unofficial leader of country Bidzina Ivanishvili. pic.twitter.com/EEdm92E9vK
— JAMnews (@JAMnewsCaucasus) September 8, 2019
The demonstrations in July saw protesters chanting for Gakharia’s resignation. Though directed at Russia, the rallies were fuelled by discontent at the government’s failure to revive a stagnant economy and perceived democratic backsliding.
Before his appointment as Georgia’s deputy prime minister and interior minister in 2017, Gakharia worked in Russia as a regional director for German aviation company Lufthansa. He is a graduate at Moscow’s Lomonosov University.
Lawmakers on Sunday also approved ex-prime minister Irakli Garibashvili as defence minister and the head of Georgia’s state security service, Vakhtang Gomelauri, as the new interior minister.
President Salome Zurabishvili will have to sign off on the bill confirming the new prime minister and his cabinet lineup.