The president of Georgia may be facing impeachment, but she has no intention of leaving

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Salome Zurabishvili, the President of Georgia, could be facing impeachment due to her decision to proceed with her Europe tour in support of Georgia’s bid for EU membership. The ruling Georgian Dream party is campaigning to impeach the President and has been actively trying to sabotage the country's EU bid. In an address to the nation on September 7, Zurabishvili said she had no intention of resigning.

Separately, the ruling Georgian Dream vowed to sue the President in the Constitutional Court. The Georgian Dream alleges President Zurabishvili acted in violation of the Georgian Constitution Article 52, which states that the President can exercise representative powers in foreign relations only with the consent of the government.

The Georgian Dream banned the president from international visits, but the President decided to embark on the tour regardless of the ban and left Georgia for Europe on August 30. When photos of her meeting with her German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier circulated online, the ruling party said the president was “grossly violating the constitution” and was not authorized to meet with European leaders.

The Constitutional Court must establish that there was indeed a violation of Article 52, or the process will be terminated, as explained by Levan Alapishvili, a lawyer and constitutional specialist, in an interview with Jam News. If the court finds the alleged violation valid, then the next step is for the parliament to vote on the decision. Impeachment of the president requires 100 parliamentary votes out of 150. Currently, the ruling Georgian Dream holds 84 seats.

The Georgian opposition parties and several members of the European Parliament were quick to denounce the move by the ruling Georgian Dream to impeach the President. In a joint statement, Georgian organizations, including Open Society Georgia Foundation and Transparency International, said, “The decision of the Georgian Dream to start the impeachment procedure against the President of Georgia is an attack on the country’s aspirations to join the European Union.”

A growing rift

The office of Georgia's president has little power and is mainly limited to representative functions, while the majority of the powers rest with the parliament and the Prime Minister. It was not until Russia's invasion of Ukraine that President Zurabishvili took a more critical position against the ruling party. She regularly criticized the ruling party's rhetoric on the ongoing war and Russia's intentions.

When thousands of Georgians took to the streets to protest the government-imposed foreign agent law, President Zurabishvili sided with the people and the opposition. Her statements that followed in the aftermath of the protests were strongly worded and critical of the ruling Georgian Dream. When the ruling government decided to restore flights with Russia, the president issued a statement in which she condemned the decision to do so. Another move that placed the President at odds with the ruling government was her decision to pardon a prominent opposition journalist, Nikoloz Gvaramia, in June 2023, who was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars in May 2022.

Whether the ruling Georgian Dream will succeed at impeaching the president remains to be seen. According to Levan Alapishvili, the constitutional expert, “Georgian Dream faces a difficult task to prove that the president has violated the constitution.” On September 11, 2023, one opposition party from Georiga, Lelo, said it started consultations over impeaching Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili from the ruling Georgian Dream Party. The announcement came after local television channel TV Pirveli aired an investigation about a personal trip the Prime Minister took in August to the United States via Munich, Germany, alleging that Gharibashvili used state resources for the trip.

Georgia's EU aspirations

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Georgia announced its plan to become a member of the European Union. Since then, the ruling Georgian Dream party has found itself in hot water over a slew of decisions, statements, and criticisms leveled against the West. The ruling government has also taken a U-turn on freedoms and human rights. As recently as May 2023, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili attended the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) meeting in Budapest, where the politician lashed out against LGBTQ+ people, claiming they were spreading propaganda that was against the country's “traditional family values.” But it isn’t just the ruling government's anti-LGBTQ+ stance or its deteriorating track record on freedoms and democracy that are drawing international attention. Georgian Dream has also made significant shifts in its relationship with Russia ever since the latter invaded Ukraine, including by resuming flights to and from Russia in May 2023 and allowing sanctioned officials and their families to cross into Georgia.

Also in May, while attending a security conference in Bratislava, Georgian Prime Minister Gharibashvili overtly accused Ukraine of being the main reason why the war started in the first place. “I don’t want to quote the statements of the Russian government, but one of the reasons was Ukraine’s will and determination to become a member of NATO. Therefore we see the consequence,” said Gharibashvili. During the same conference, he lashed out at the EU as well, criticizing the institution for granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status while denying the same status to Georgia. The Prime Minister claimed that Georgia was ahead of the other two nations in terms of “reforms, performance, and this and that.”

Some analysts have questioned the decision, wondering whether Russia has its own angle in lifting Georgians’ visa requirements and resuming flights. “The most obvious motive, in this case, would be to drive a wedge between Georgia — which aspires to join both NATO and the EU — and the West,” wrote journalist Vladimir Solovyov in his overview for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Solovyov also suggested Russia could be exploiting tensions between Georgia and its Western allies, impacting Georgia’s relations with Ukraine, and working to keep the ruling Georgian Dream in power for as long as possible.

All of these remain points of concern within the EU. After the meeting with Zourabichvili in Brussels, the European Council president, Charles Michel, repeated the EU's earlier observations that so long as the government pursues reforms in “justice, deoligarchisation and anti-corruption and media pluralism,” the EU will remain committed to supporting Georgia in advancing to candidacy status.

However, the risks of strengthening ties with Russia could threaten the Georgian Dream's aspirations to remain in power. According to Alexander Atasuntsev, an independent journalist specializing in post-Soviet affairs, “All in all, the Georgian Dream’s gains from rapprochement with Moscow are quite nebulous, while the risks are very real.” Atasuntsev says the risks are reflected in a series of “illogical and unforced decisions” made by the Georgian Dream lately. The attempt to pass Georgia's very own “foreign agent” law in early March 2023 is one. After days of mass protests, the ruling government of Georgian Dream announced they would rescind the bill, in a major victory for civil society workers and protestors. Another questionable decision by the Georgian Dream was to withdraw from the Party of European Socialists following the latter's criticism of the ruling party's decision to participate in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Hungary in early May.

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