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Spat Over Who Speaks To UN Hints Of Looming Political Crisis In Georgia

Some analysts fear that billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (right) may have something to do with tensions between Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and the country's President Giorgi Margvelashvili (center -- file photo)
Some analysts fear that billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (right) may have something to do with tensions between Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and the country's President Giorgi Margvelashvili (center -- file photo)

When Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili takes the podium for his 15 minutes of fame at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, the country's president will be back in Tbilisi, licking his political wounds.

At a press conference on September 11, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said his plans to represent his country at the UN had been "thwarted" by "serious, organized efforts" by the Georgian government to block him from travelling. It was a strange statement from a country's head of state.

"This creates an awkward situation and leads one not to take either of these institutions seriously," says Tbilisi-based constitutional scholar Vakhtang Dzabiradze. "However, we can take comfort in the fact that once, a long time ago, France found itself in a similar situation when both the president [Francois Mitterand] and the prime minister [Jacques Chirac] flew to a G7 summit [in 1986]."

"We aren't the first to do something like this," he adds, "but such cases are still remembered with laughter around the world."

Laughter aside, the conflict between the president and the government is indicative of a serious problem in Georgian domestic politics -- weak institutions and informal governance.

A poll in August found that 50 percent of Georgians believe that former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to play a decisive role in governing the country despite not holding any office for nearly a year. Only 17 percent said he does not play a role.

The conflict between Margvelashvili and the government is not about policies, says Gia Khukhashvili, who served as an adviser to Ivanishvili when he was prime minister.

"The reality is that the president and prime minister don't have differences about fundamental issues -- our foreign-policy vector, their foreign-policy statements," Khukhashvili says in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "The only thing that cannot be agreed upon is the form -- who shall go where and who is the main figure in this country."

Talking Philosophy

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Ivanishvili emerged from the 2012 parliamentary elections as Georgia's political savior. He cobbled together the opposition Georgian Dream coalition and led it to victory. He served as prime minister, as promised, for one year before handing over the reins to political ally Garibashvili in November 2013.

At the time, he told Georgian television that Garibashvili "reminds me of myself -- it is not necessary to repeat things to him several times."

Ivanishvili also picked Margvelashvili as the coalition's candidate in the 2013 presidential election. Everyone was smiling at a May 2013 press event at which Ivanishvili gave his unqualified endorsement to Margvelashvili, a former education minister and rector of Tbilisi's Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

"He's creative and he's unique in crisis situations," Ivanishvili said at the time. "He's experienced in management. He's experienced in politics. He's a good analyst."

Margvelashvili is also "a good team player," he added in conclusion.

Speaking to RFE/RL in October 2011, Margvelashvili described one of his first encounters with Ivanishvili.

"I'm a philosopher by profession but it has been a long time since anyone has spoken to me about philosophy," he said. "And there he was -- this person who had burst onto the political scene with a bang and is so active and has such massive financial means. And we were speaking about [John] Locke, [Thomas] Hobbes, [Sigmund] Freud.... Other issues were raised as well, but for me the most interesting and fascinating part was his discussions of philosophy and the essence of the human being."

But something seems to have changed.

In a much-discussed interview in March, Ivanishvili said he was "surprised" and "disappointed" by Margvelashvili. He said Margvelashvili had shown "fundamentally different features and character" after he was elected president. In particular, he criticized the president for using a lavish presidential palace built by the government of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Back To Personality Politics?

Ivanishvili also expressed his backing for Prime Minister Garibashvili, saying his successor was a better prime minister than he had been.

Transparency International Georgia wrote in its statement that, following the Ivanishvili interview, "the disagreement between President Margvelashvili and representatives of the government of Georgia has become even more apparent." The NGO said government officials have been "actively reproving" the president and "even disregarding the institution of the presidency."

The conflict comes when the country's "democratic transition is still at a fragile stage" and is "a blow to the institution-building process" that threatens a return to personality-driven politics in Georgia.

Under Saakashvili, political power was too concentrated in the executive branch, and this was a major campaign argument that brought Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream to power. Now, however, analysts are concerned that Ivanishvili's alleged informal rule since he resigned as prime minister threatens to move governance beyond the country's constitutional framework altogether.

Analyst Khukhashvili agrees. "None of [the politicians] is the main figure," he says. "In this country, the Georgian people are the main figure. [The leaders] are simply hired by the Georgian people and this relationship must be maintained -- which means mutual respect among institutions, not personalities."

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Salome Asatiani, Marina Vashakmadze, and Lela Kunchulia contributed to this report

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