Georgia, with eye on 2016 election, switches prime minister

TBILISI (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Georgia voted on Tuesday to approve Georgy Kvirikashvili as the ex-Soviet state’s new prime minister, an appointment widely seen as an attempt to boost the ruling coalition’s flagging popularity amid an economic slump.

Georgian Foreign Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili delivers a speech during a meeting with members of parliamentary groups and committees in Kutaisi, Georgia, December 28, 2015. REUTERS/Pool

The vote took place after Irakly Garibashvili unexpectedly resigned as prime minister last week without giving a specific reason for his decision. Kvirikashvili, his replacement, was previously foreign minister.

Opposition politicians and analysts linked the switch to a decline in the popularity of the ruling Georgian Dream party, saying it wanted to overhaul its image before contesting a parliamentary election in October next year.

Support for the ruling coalition plunged to 18 percent this month from 42 percent in August 2014, according to one opinion poll. The opposition blames the government for mounting economic problems in the Caucasus nation of 3.7 million, the subject of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

Parliament, dominated by the Georgian Dream coalition, on Tuesday also approved a new government. It included only one new member -- Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze -- who was deputy foreign minister before being nominated by Kvirikashvili.

Kvirikashvili, 48, who was also first deputy prime minister before his nomination, has said Georgia will continue its Euro-Atlantic integration and a “pragmatic” policy towards Russia, with which it fought a brief war in August 2008.

“Full European integration with an eventual goal of EU membership, as well as NATO membership, is our top priority,” he told parliament on Monday.

“Our pragmatic approach towards Russia aims first and foremost to lessen risks to prevent threats to our main foreign policy course,” he said.

Kvirikashvili became deputy prime minister and economy minister after Georgian Dream defeated former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in an election in October 2012, taking control of both the government and legislature.

He was appointed foreign minister in September this year.

Kvirikashvili spent most of his career in the financial and banking sectors and was director general of billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank in 2006-2011.

He has a Master’s degree in finance from the University of Illinois in the United States.

Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Balmforth