Georgia gets powerful new prime minister


TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has named a powerful new prime minister ahead of an October parliamentary election that will set in motion a fundamental change in how the country is governed.

The new prime minister is veteran Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who has been by Saakashvili's side since he first came to power more than eight years ago. Merabishvili is best known for ambitious reforms that turned Georgia's notoriously corrupt police into a professional force.

Under constitutional changes approved in 2010, the prime minister will gain additional powers to rival those of the president. No longer tasked primarily with economic matters, the prime minister will have the power to name Cabinet members, including the ministers of the interior and defense, and to shape policies. The president, however, will remain commander in chief.

The changes go into effect after the January presidential election. Saakashvili is not eligible to run and he has not yet said what he plans to do when he leaves the presidency. He has not excluded becoming prime minister, but this would bring unwelcome comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spent the past four years as prime minister to accommodate a constitutional ban on two consecutive presidential terms.

Saakashvili has brought the former Soviet republic closer to the West, with aims of one day joining NATO and the European Union, and he wants to be seen and remembered as a democratic reformer. A Putin comparison would be additionally bitter since the two leaders have expressed open hostility toward each other since the brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

Saakashvili's appointment of Merabishvili, which he personally announced on television late Saturday, may indicate that he intends to hand over power to him, political analyst Soso Tsintsadze said. But he stressed that any predictions at this point are risky.

Saakashvili's party is expected to win the parliamentary election in October and under the 2010 reform will then have the right to select the prime minister.

Merabishvili has been allied with Saakashvili since he was first elected president in January 2004. He held a number of high-level security posts before taking over the Interior Ministry in 2004.

As prime minister, he replaces Niki Gilauri, who had held the post since 2009. Saakashvili thanked Gilauri for his efforts to strengthen Georgia's economy and appointed him the head of a fund aimed at increasing foreign investment.