Russia rails at Georgian minister's 'stripper' photos

The Russian media has seized upon a raunchy photograph – of the Georgian Economy Minister posing in a nightclub – to release a fresh torrent of criticism at President Mikheil Saakashvili for appointing "strippers" to his cabinet.

Mr Saakashvili appointed 28-year-old Vera Kobalia to the ministerial post this month. Ms Kobalia, an ethnic Georgian, had lived in Canada for 15 years and has no previous experience in politics. She is said to have met Mr Saakashvili during his trip to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in February.

A photograph, apparently taken from Ms Kobalia's Facebook page, has been published by a newspaper in Georgia. It shows the minister, her sister and three friends posing. The Russian state-controlled media, which gives wide coverage to any story that paints President Saakashvili in a negative light, jumped on the story and insisted that the picture was taken in a Vancouver strip club.

Ms Kobalia claimed the photo was taken almost 10 years while she was on holiday in Florida. "If the worst thing that the opposition or anyone else can find about me is my old picture from college than I don't see anything wrong with that," she said.

In the photograph, the minister is wearing a dress and there is no indication that she took part in a striptease. There is also no indication from the photograph that it was taken in a strip club, nor any idea in which city or when it was taken.

Ms Kobalia's biography indicates that before leaving Canada for Georgia she worked for a local TV channel and ran a business. This didn't stop the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda running a story yesterday headlined "From Strippers to Ministers" and other Russian news outlets followed with similar stories. The minister herself could not be reached for comment yesterday.

At the time of her appointment, many experts expressed amazement that such a key ministry could be entrusted to a political neophyte. "Think how ambitious a person has to be to take the position of the head of the main economic body in the country, without having either the necessary education or any experience whatsoever," said Nodar Dzhavakhishvili, the former head of the Georgian National Bank, at the time. "I think anyone could find someone in their family who was far more experienced and qualified in this field than Ms Kobalia."

But Mr Saakashvili, who was just 36 when he took over as Georgian President after the Rose Revolution in late 2003, has made a habit of appointing ministers in their twenties and thirties. He claims that catapulting the young generation into power is an integral part of his project to build a new type of country and wipe out the Soviet legacy. "The plan is to have nobody in government who served during the Soviet period," said Mr Saakashvili last autumn. "Some of them don't even remember the Soviet period."

In Tbilisi, observers say that Ms Kobalia has started positively in the job and during her first weeks has shown a ruthless streak. On visiting the Tbilisi tourism information centre, she discovered most of the employees had gone to a jazz festival in a Black Sea resort. She immediately fired the entire staff, according to one local news agency.

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