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A babe in arms

The latest surprise in Georgian politics is...a substitution. Out goes defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, in comes Davit Kezerashvili, a 28-year old neophyte whose main claim to fame is as chief tax inspector.
What's going on here? Is it because Okruashvili has been shooting his mouth off, backing Georgia into a corner by talking tough at Russia? Molly Corso at Eurasianet writes:
According to analysts, Okruashvili, infamous for his blunt, anti-Russian rhetoric, became a liability as Georgia strives to fight Russian attempts to portray Tbilisi as the aggressor in the bilateral row. "In Russia and the United Nations, Okruashvili was identified with war," said Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst with the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict and Negotiation.
I'm not convinced. Yes, he has made a few awkward comments - but that hardly seems fair when other ministers are accusing Russia of ethnic cleansing and the like, and aren't being fired.

If this is about Russia, it's only via Ossetia. Okruashvili said he wanted to spend the New Year in Tskhinvali, capital of the South Ossetian region which, with Russian support, is trying to separate itself from Georgia. He was born in Ossetia, and is pretty determined to bring it back under Georgian control. So, the argument goes, Saakashvili is trying to calm down the tensions over Ossetia, and avoid some embarrassing PR over the new year.

I find that a lot more plausible. Saakashvili himself has a basically mainstream attitude to South Ossetia - that is, something which looks over the top to outsiders. He knows the voters like the idea ofdefeating the separatists, made that a plank of his presidential campaign in 2004, and has let things escalate to armed scuffles both in August 2004, and in July of this year. So if Ossetia is behind this, it's not because of a fundamental difference of opinion. But right now, when Georgia is trying to look like the innocent victim of Russian aggression, it's probably best to keep this conflict on the back burner. And that's especially true after last week's South Ossetian referendum (the people voted heavily for independence, surprising nobody but ratcheting up the tension), which makes this an even trickier dispute to handle. The new defence minister's won't be going overboard on Ossetia: his protestations that he isn't soft on South Ossetia just demonstrate that he is seen as softer than his predecessor.

But, by itself, that's not enough to explain putting your defence policy in such inexperienced hands. Granted, Kezerashvili's previous job as head tax inspector is a lot more macho than it sounds - in this part of the world tax evasion is closely linked to organized crime, and the financial police have a reputation for dramatic, heavily-armed raids. But that's a long way from running the army - the opposition are branding him "a deserter...with no clue about the army". And Kezerashvili has been forced into making a fairly laughable attempt to prove his military creds:
Like most Georgians, I also like weapons.... I have a favorite sword.
If it was just about foreign policy and PR, couldn't Saakashvili just have told Okruashvili - and old ally - to keep his mouth shut for a few months?

So if foreign policy can't explain it, what about the domestic angle? It can't quite be a case of Saakashvili putting his men in charge, since the old defence minister was already a close ally of his. But if Okruashvili was an ally, Kezerashvili is entirely Saakashvili's creation: a peon in the Justice Ministry until Saakashvili grabbed him as a personal assistant, and helped him into ever-grander jobs. There's an element here of grooming Kezerashvili to become a major political player (being made minister at age 28 isn't bad going, even in a country with a population of 4 million), combined with the knowledge that for now he's going to follow Saakashvili's lead.

But however competent and loyal Saakashvili expects Kezerashvili to be, he's also relying on him not being one of the big guns. Okruashvili was getting hard to push around: in a recent poll, 90% of Georgians considered him to be Georgia's second most powerful politician. There are suggestions that the president thought Okruashvili was planng a coup, but even without going so far, it's very likely that Saakashvili wants to be the dominant figure in foreign policy right now. And he's probably managed it in the short term - but at the cost of turning a powerful ally into an enemy