Will Georgia’s Real Head of State Please Stand Up

There are 193 members of the United Nations and on September 23, many of these nations will send their leaders to attend the UN Climate Summit in New York City. The South Caucasus country of Georgia, however, will be distinguished for being the only state to send both of its leaders to make speeches, but not because they are both exceptionally concerned with global warming. Georgia just has not figured out who its head of state is.

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He rode into office on a white horse. The people showered him in rose petals, love and respect, believing he would heal their wounds and deliver them to prosperity. And when they realized he was not the savior, they crucified him. The next emancipator found the same fate, and the next.

Georgians have a kind of bipolar disorder with their leaders.

Georgia’s first post-Soviet President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected with 86 percent of the vote and was deposed in a coup d’état less than a year later. Eduard Shevardnadze flew in from Moscow where he had been the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs and rescued Georgia from civil war. In 1995 he won elections with 70 percent of the vote. He was overthrown eight years later in the bloodless Rose Revolution, lead by Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili, who was elected President in 2004 with a whopping 96 percent of the vote. But even Misha was forced to step down in 2007 to appease tens of thousands of angry Georgians demanding his resignation. Although he won with 52 percent, it was clear much of the country had lost faith in his leadership.

The lame duck Misha amended the constitution in 2010, reducing the president’s powers in favor of parliament. Everybody expected Misha would “pull a Putin” and switch chairs in 2012 when the changes came into effect, but his party’s surprise defeat in the parliamentary elections changed everything. Georgia’s new leader was multibillionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who became Prime Minister. It was an awkward year of so-called power sharing, with Ivanishvili running the country while Misha was the head of state with much less power.

Under the new constitution, the president remains head of state and Georgia’s chief negotiator in foreign relations. He is the commander-in-chief, but needs government agreement to appoint or dismiss military commanders. The Prime Minister represents Georgia in foreign relations has the authority to appoint or dismiss members of the government, including ministers, while parliament directs and executes foreign and domestic policies and also appoints or dismisses provincial governors.

convert(Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili)

In 2013, college rector Giorgi Margvelashvili became president in the most uneventful presidential election in Georgia’s history. Then, keeping a campaign promise to step down after a year, Ivanishvili handpicked his successor, 32 year-old Irakli Garibashvili, a board member of Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank.

Ivanishvili’s plan was to end the era of political personalities and have a government run by technocrats, but he forgot that they too possess character and ego.

Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) coalition came to power hellbent on destroying Misha’s legacy. The logic was because Misha was bad, everything he had built was also bad; like the Presidential Palace. Known around town as “The Egg,” the glass residence towering above Tbilisi’s Old Town cost between $7 million and hundreds of millions, depending on who you want to believe. The GD saw it as a symbol of Misha’s excesses and Margvelashvili had refused to use it. There was talk of turning it into a university until one day the President began hosting diplomats there, much to the dismay of majority party members.

Ivanishvili chose Margvelashvili for presumably being vapid and for lacking ambition. He was just supposed to be Georgia’s ribbon cutting mascot. Nobody had expected he would actually be president and make independent decisions, which might explain why the party only gave him two rooms to perform his duties in. But Margvelashvili, who had taken an oath to serve his country, took it as a slight to political principles.

“The president’s institute is not an institute you can just put in two rooms and leave there,” he told the press.

Ivanishvili, who had been out of office for four months publicly stated his “disappointment” in Margvelashvili’s decision to use the residence, in his choice of advisors, and in his judgement to veto a GD sponsored bill supported by the minority party. After Ivanishvili’s public dressing down, the GD turned on their president.

convert1(Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili)

In May 2014, Georgian state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration issues, Alexi Petriashvili, announced that the prime minister would be signing the landmark Association Agreement with the European Union on June 27 in Brussels. President Margvelashvili told reporters he believed it was his job as head of state to sign the paper. Article 73 of Georgia’s constitution states that the president, with consent of the government, “concludes international agreements and treaties and negotiate with foreign states…”

In an act of humility, Margvelashvili drafted a document granting Garibashvili a one-off signature right for the Association Agreement, although it never became legal because the prime minister refused to sign that. He put his John Hancock on the EU document instead. To add insult to injury, nobody bothered to invite the president to the ratification ceremony, although Margvelashvili crashed it anyways.

Meanwhile, Garibashvili was working to further neutralize the president’s authority. In April, parliament drafted a law that would reduce the president’s power as commander in chief. If passed, the head of the Joint Chief of Staff will be subordinate to the Defense Minister instead of the president.

By early August, it was clear the President of Georgia was being ostracized by the party that had nominated him (Margvelashvili is not a member of a political party) when the GD voted down two of Margvleshavili’s candidates for Supreme Court on flimsy pretenses and Garibashvili snubbed the president’s first session as head of the National Security Council. By mid-month the cold shoulder got downright icy when Garibashvili complained to media that it was taking the president too long to declassify Saakashvili’s spending records for a case the prosecutor was building against the former president. Margvelashvili retorted that nobody has the right to tell the president to “speed things up” and called for a respect of procedures.

At a discussion on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” with a group of students, the academic President told the press, “That’s precisely what I disliked about the previous authorities – they did not know where the law ends, where obligations begin and where separation of powers ends.”

For Prime Minister Garibashvili, the differences he has with President Margvelashvili are simply a sign there is now “real democracy in the country.” Yet “real democracy” usually means respecting the roles and responsibilities of your democratically appointed leaders, not undermining the duties they were elected to perform. While the constitution’s lack of clarity can be blamed for much of the confusion, the Georgian Dream majority has plainly revealed it doesn’t want a president head of state, it wants a puppet.

Margvelashvili and Garibashvili have separately announced they will attend the UN Climate Summit on September 23. Both intend to make speeches, but which head of state will speak first?

photo credit: Earth Hour Global via photopin cc,

photo credit: Chatham House, London via photopin cc

photo credit: European External Action Service – EEAS via photopin cc
Originally published September 8, 2014 at Beacon Reader

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