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Georgian President Remains A Divisive Figure

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili addresses the country's parliament earlier this month.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili addresses the country's parliament earlier this month.

The unexplained resignation in late December of Irakli Gharibashvili from the post of Georgian prime minister put an end to two years of friction between him and the country's president, Giorgi Margvelashvili.

In certain respects Margvelashvili remains a divisive figure, however, whose stances on crucial political questions such as electoral reform differ from those of some other members of the ruling, five-party Georgian Dream coalition.

Gharibashvili's successor, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, has gone out of his way to present a united front with Margvelashvili. He made a point of attending a session of the National Security Council that Margvelashvili convened in late January, whereas Gharibashvili had participated in only one of three such sessions under Margvelashvili's chairmanship.

In a statement confirming that Kvirikashvili would attend the January 29 session, his office stressed that "the head of the government believes that it is important to respect institutions and that such issues [whether or not he will attend meetings of the National Security Council] should no longer become a topic of discussion, especially when the authorities have much more important issues to tackle."

Days later, Kvirikashvili was similarly present when Margvelashvili delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament. Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili hailed Kvirikashvili's presence as symbolizing "the restoration of political order."

That "new political reality" was also reflected in what Margvelashvili did and did not say. In his 2015 address, he had complained about the multiplicity of "commissions, councils, and agencies" whose functions duplicate each other and thus raise the question "Who exactly is in charge?" In that context, he mentioned specifically the Council for Security and Crisis Management set up by Gharibashvili in late 2013, the functions of which overlap with those of the National Security Council, and the Inter-Agency Council on Foreign Policy that partially duplicates the work of the Foreign Ministry.

Margvelashvili said that lack of clarity weakens the institutions in question and detracts from their efficiency, and also "creates confusion" among potential investors and Georgia's international partners.

He praised the government for "listening to the people" but went on to criticize its handling of the economy, in particular the slowdown in economic growth and the steady depreciation of the national currency.

This year, Margvelashvili eschewed such criticism, instead praising Kvirikashvili's stated intentions of expediting infrastructure projects, stepping up engagement with business, and reforming the education system.

Challenges Ahead

Margvelashvili went on to review in general terms all the major problems and challenges the country faces, including strengthening democracy; ensuring the parliamentary election due in October is acknowledged as free and fair; weathering the global economic downturn; Georgia's uneasy relationship with Russia; and its stalled bid for NATO membership.

Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili expressed "satisfaction that we have seen shared approaches, [and a shared] vision of the country's long-term and short-term priorities."

Other Georgian Dream parliamentarians, however, took issue with specific proposals. Giorgi Volsky, leader of the Georgian Dream faction, criticized Margvelashvili's commitment to the electoral reform advocated by extraparliamentary parties and supported by the formerly ruling United National Movement (ENM) that would replace the current 75 single-mandate constituencies with a regional-proportional system. Other Georgian Dream members (including Gharibashvili) have consistently argued that it is not feasible to do so in the time span remaining.

Opposition parliamentarians, especially two from the ENM, were harsher. Sergo Ratiani criticized Margvelashvili for being too vague in his approach to some key issues and for avoiding any mention of others, including "systemic corruption" and the role and influence of Georgian Dream's founder, billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, who the ENM is convinced influences, or even dictates, government policy.

Giorgi Gabashvili was more specific, arguing that Margvelashvili's assertion that Georgia should be a country where law reigns supreme was cynical insofar as the country is ruled by a person -- Ivanishvili -- who has no formal authority and is guided solely by his own interests.

Controversial Criticism

But it was a member of the Georgian Dream majority faction who came out with the most controversial criticism of Margvelashvili. Gogi Topadze, whose Industry Will Save Georgia party has been represented in most parliaments since 1995, accused Margvelashvili of showing "ingratitude" by criticizing Ivanishvili and the government that had selected him as its presidential candidate.

Topadze criticized Margvelashvili's refusal to vacate the presidential palace in Tbilisi constructed at huge expense by former President Mikheil Saakashvili. And he claimed that Margvelashvili had compared the Georgian nation to people suffering from Down syndrome.

In an essay published several years earlier in the journal Dro Mshvidobisa (Time of Peace), Margvelashvili, a former philosophy professor, had reportedly compared the Georgian nation to "a mentally defective child that doesn't want to grow up," apparently meaning a reluctance to shoulder responsibility. On the other hand, Margvelashvili and his wife hosted a party at the presidential palace in March 2015 for children with Down syndrome.

Two members of the cabinet, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani and Labor, Health, and Social Security Minister David Sergeenko, publicly apologized for the imputed slur, and Topadze himself subsequently retracted his comment.

But the public criticism by parliamentarians of Margvelashvili's refusal to vacate the presidential palace inspired a sparsely attended protest on February 12. Participants argued that at a time of economic hardship, the country cannot afford the upkeep of two official presidential residences. Some even demanded Margvelashvili's resignation.

True, only some 30 people attended that protest. But if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, Margvelashvili may, rightly or wrongly, come to be more widely perceived as a symbol of the authorities' apparent indifference to the plight of the population at large. And as the debate over the timing of electoral reform becomes more heated, Margvelashvili may also find himself in direct confrontation with the Georgian Dream parliament majority that insists on implementing that reform only after the October 2016 parliamentary ballot.

Meanwhile, Topadze's industrialists now risk expulsion from the Georgian Dream coalition after he publicly implicated Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli in the falsification of a recent by-election and accused two other parliamentarians from the 10 member Republican Party faction (the second-largest within Georgian Dream) of having collaborated with the Soviet-era KGB.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili said the allegations against Khidasheli "cast a shadow not only over the Republican Party but over the entire coalition."

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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