Georgia’s Minister of Health, Labour, and Social Affairs, Davit Sergeenko, has resigned from the government. Sergeenko was known as one of the most popular politicians in the country, regularly coming out on top in public opinion polls.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze announced the news at a press briefing on 18 June, with Sergeenko and his successor by his side.
Sergeenko will be replaced by Ekaterine Tikaradze, the CEO of Dostakari, the owner of the main hospital in the Sachkhere District of western Georgia's Imereti Region, the hometown of Georgian Dream chair Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Media reports that Sergeenko was about to be dismissed or step down first emerged on 14 June.
Speaking to media on Tuesday, Sergeenko said it was his idea ‘to discuss changes in order to achieve better results’, and that he recommended Tikaradze for the job.
Tikaradze, a graduate of Austria’s Danube University Krems, was approved by Sergeenko as Sachkhere Medical Center’s director in 2015, a position he held himself for six years before entering government.
Sachkhere Medical Center was renovated and reopened in 2005 by Ivanishvili.
Sergeenko served as Georgia’s Health Minister for seven years, appointed to the post as part of the original Georgian Dream government following their victory in 2012 parliamentary elections.
He once said his ideal choice would be ‘to be a doctor, not a politician’.
Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze said Sergeenko would continue working in public office — as his advisor.
The latest full title of 56-year-old Sergeenko, a paediatrician and intensive care physician by training, was the Minister of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labour, Health and Social Affairs.
The long name was a result of government restructuring that resulted in a ‘smaller government’ in mid-2018, which he survived among several other members.
No clear reasons named for his removal
No reason was offered for Sergeenko’s departure except that the Georgian government ‘needed renewal and new blood’, according to the Prime Minister.
Sergeenko had enjoyed the highest public opinion ratings among politicians in Georgia throughout recent years, including this year’s National Democratic Institute (NDI) polls unveiled in May.
In the survey carried out for NDI by CRRC Georgia in April, Sergeenko and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze came top with 40% approval each, with Sergeenko having lower negative ratings (12%) than Kaladze (18%).
Georgian Dream chair and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili ended up with the highest disapproval ratings — 39%.
A year earlier, Sergeenko had a 46% approval rating in the same NDI March-April poll, coming on top.
He had similar ratings in several polls commissioned by the International Republican Institute (IRI). In an early 2017 public opinion survey, he ended up second after then-president Giorgi Margvelashvili, with 65% seeing him favourable, and came 4th a year later with 49% approval.
The week before Sergeenko’s resignation, Zurab Tchiaberashvili, an MP from the opposition United National Movement party, once again criticised the health ministry.
He said the ministry under Sergeenko spent only $4.7 million out of $15 million allocated in 2018 on the Hepatitis C Elimination Programme and failed to involve more than 40% of potential patients in the treatment programme.
Speaking to Georgian online news outlet GHN, Georgian health policy and management expert Sergo Chikladze said that Sergeenko was responsible for mismanaging chronic medication programme in recent years.
He added that the real reason behind his departure could be to shield his high ratings from suffering due to the government’s healthcare policies in order to save his political capital for the parliamentary elections in 2020.
During his tenure, Sergeenko argued that the universal health care programme that he and the government introduced in February 2013 was ‘a right, not a privilege’.
Georgians regarded universal health care as the biggest accomplishment of Georgian Dream’s government in successive IRI surveys in 2017 and 2018.
In May 2017, the government modified the programme by removing coverage for those with an annual monthly income of ₾40,000 ($15,000) or more — over 32,000 Georgian citizens.
Parliamentary opposition parties the United National Movement and European Georgia have been critical of government expenditure on healthcare, especially on the background of Georgians’ growing lack of access to drugs.
In 2014, Sergeenko tightened mandatory prescription requirements for drugs containing psychoactive substances and said that addressing self-medication and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, including the illegal sale of psychotropic medication, were among his priorities.
Last winter, as cases of the H1N1 flu virus infection spread in Georgia, Sergeenko announced that free prescriptions of antiviral Tamiflu medication would be given to all Georgians in need.
As social affairs and labour minister, Sergeenko also faced numerous bad news related to occupation workplace, including controversial and contested lay-offs and fatal workplace accidents.
Facing frequent workplace-related deaths at construction sites and industrial cities in recent years, the government eventually beefed-up their labour safety inspection, a department under Sergeenko.
In March, almost all of Georgia’s social workers at the Social Service Agency under ministry went on strike demanding higher wages and more resources.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian social workers end strike after government ‘partially’ meets their demands]
Sergeenko was among those in government openly criticising the Constitutional Court ruling last July that decriminalised cannabis use, saying ‘a surgeon in the operating room under the influence’ was among his worst nightmares.
However, drug policy reform advocates have remained critical of the government and the parliamentary majority for failing to address what they call a ‘repressive’ policy on illegal drug use and addiction.