TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia's new prime minister said Thursday he would move quickly to expand the Cabinet's powers, a change that would take away even more influence from the ex-Soviet nation's beleaguered pro-Western president.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, an eccentric billionaire philanthropist who has promised to repair broken ties with Russia, also slapped his bitter rival for living in the lavish presidential palace rather than a more modest residence.
"The buildings that the Georgian president had had built for himself are more appropriate for a feudal lord than a democracy," Ivanishvili said at a news conference.
Ivanishvili's coalition unseated Mikhail Saakashvili's party in an embarrassing defeat in last month's parliamentary election. New constitutional reforms pushed by Saakashvili before his party lost the election will reduce the presidency to a largely symbolic role, but Ivanishvili has been relentless in his efforts to keep the embattled president sidelined even before the reform takes effect next October.
Georgia, which sits on pipelines carrying Caspian crude to Western markets, has been the subject of tense rivalry between its former imperial master, Russia, and the West.
Ivanishvili has pledged to improve relations with Moscow, which were ruptured in a 2008 Russian-Georgian war, but he has rejected Saakashvili's claims that he would bring the country back into the Russian fold.
Ivanishvili reaffirmed Thursday that Georgia must regain sovereignty over the rebel provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has recognized as independent after the war. He said he wouldn't visit Russia, but added that he could meet Russian leaders in a third country.
Ivanishvili also voiced hope for a quick restoration of Georgian exports to Russia. Georgian producers of wine, mineral water, vegetables and fruits had strongly depended on the Russian market and have suffered badly since their exports were cut amid a buildup of tensions in the run-up to the war.
Moving further to corner the president, Ivanishvili said Thursday that his Georgian Dream coalition controlling Parliament would move to speed up a constitutional reform.
The reform, due to take effect after Saakashvili steps down in October 2013, when his second term ends will transfer most of the presidential powers to the prime minister. But Ivanishvili has moved quickly to establish full control without waiting for the formal transfer of authority.
Soon after the election, his Cabinet sharply cut funds earmarked for maintaining presidential residences. Saakashvili's office said it would have to switch off most of the lights at the brightly lit presidential palace, one of the capital's most visible landmarks.
In other humiliating moves, the Cabinet voted not to provide the equivalent of $55 million required for maintaining presidential aircraft next year and sharply cut funding for a presidential fund that Saakashvili had used for some public projects.
The authorities also arrested several former officials in what Saakashvili denounced as political purges.
Ivanishvili, who promised to investigate official abuses during his campaign, dismissed the accusations, saying Thursday that "people are queuing up to the prosecutor's office to report crimes by former officials."
"I have promised to ensure justice, and this is what is going on now," Ivanishvili said.
Some analysts speculated that the arrests could be a prelude for a probe against Saakashvili himself. Ivanishvili said his allies don't have a plan to impeach the president, but added that prosecutors will continue their work.
"I personally don't want Saakashvili's arrest, and I think that society doesn't want it either," he said. "But if the prosecutors launch a case against top leaders of the country, I will not meddle in that or try to have it closed."
Soso Tsintsadze, a Tbilisi-based independent political analyst, said Ivanishvili made the promise not to impeach the president under pressure from the European Union. At the same time, the prime minister would likely be able to muster a two thirds majority to speed up the constitutional reform, Tsintsadze added.
"He wants to make sure that things stay calm; apparently he has concerns about Saakashvili still wielding broad powers," Tsintsadze said.