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AnalysisDeeper Look

Georgian Dream and President Zurabishvili: the Cold War is About to Get Colder?

As Salome Zurabushvili prepares to address the European Parliament today, her confrontation with the cabinet of Irakli Garibashvili and the Georgian Dream is likely to get momentum – and that’s despite the most recent decision of the Georgian Dream political party to ignore the president.

Heavy Background

When Salome Zurabishvili was elected president in 2018, the GD was happy. The election required two rounds, a blow to the Georgian Dream requiring the party to throw its full weight behind Zurabishvili ahead of the second round. In a move largely ridiculed by the opposition and pundits, and reminded to her by both sides since, Georgians woke up one morning before the second round of voting to see renewed posters in towns and villages urging them to vote for Zurabishvili, but with the image of GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili instead of hers, for further persuasion. This was a long time ago.

Billboard urging to vote for Zurabishvili ahead of the 1st round of the 2018 Presidential election
Billboard urging to vote for Zurabishvili ahead of the 2nd round of the 2018 Presidential election

Since then, the relations between the President and the ruling Georgian Dream government have deteriorated significantly, turning in recent months and weeks into a real feud.

Power Games

Last year President and the government disagreed over the candidates for the nomination of the Ambassadors – probably the only power that the President still has is to approve Ambassadors’ nominations, as the Presidential Institute has been stripped of most of its powers since the GD came to power.

The standoff resulted in the Georgian Dream government suing the president in the Constitutional court. The charges were later on dropped but left an unpleasant aftertaste for both parties.

Value Problems

The feud trend has become especially visible after the initiation of the Foreign Agent’s bill at the beginning of March, and the sharp reaction by the President who addressed Georgian citizens from the US where she was on a visit, with supporting messages and slammed the law from the UN GA tribune as well.

Then came the presidential annual address in the Parliament where she accused the Georgian Dream of swerving from its pledge to take the country further on the European integration path.

On the War Path

The President-GD relations have reached new chilling lows in recent weeks as the country has been shaken by several scandals. To recall just a few:

When the news spread that the Russian president had signed the decrees on the resumption of direct flights with Georgia and the abolition of the visa regime, the president’s reaction was swift and unequivocal: she called the decision to open direct flights a provocation,” and tweeted that the flight that landed in Tbilisi “despite the opposition of the Georgian people” was “not welcome”.

Nonetheless, Putin’s decrees were followed by a very quick stamp of approval from the government, as the Georgian aviation authority, issued approvals for the Russian “Azimuth” and Georgian “Airzena” airlines to operate the flights. The GD representatives, obviously guided by the same talking points, were unanimous in claiming that the decision was unilateral, and that the GD government had nothing to do with it, while also brushing aside any negative consequences it might have and focusing instead on the positive “humanitarian” aspect of facilitating the movement of an imaginary “one million Georgians” living in Russia.

These explanations apparently did not have the desired calming effect on the Georgian public, who greeted the first direct flight from Moscow with a noisy protest rally at Tbilisi airport, against a backdrop of police mobilization in the area.

No sooner had the passion and controversy over the opening of flights subsided than another followed this time over the entry into the country of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s close entourage, including his sanctioned daughter. The planned wedding celebrations in the Georgian wine-producing resort of Kakheti did not occur as expected, as the public outcry followed, and activists gathered near the resort to protest against the event.

The authorities tried to play down the incident, justifying the sanctioned woman’s entry into the country on the grounds that her passport did not show her maiden name.

The President criticized the authorities, saying they “cannot play with their people and irritate them like this”. She said: “This is an insult to the Georgian people” who “know how to protect their freedom”.

She expressed dismay at the government’s alleged lack of knowledge about the presence of the sanctioned individuals in the country and slammed the authorities for the poor border control.

Then came Georgia’s Independence Day – May 26, marked by an outcry from a section of society over the removal of EU flags from parliament ahead of the celebrations. In an act of defiance, activists, ordinary citizens, and political parties joined a ‘flag march‘ on the morning of 26 May, carrying EU and Georgian flags from the Rustaveli statue to Freedom Square. Media reported that those carrying the EU flag were prohibited from entering Freedom Square.

On the morning of the May 26 President Zurabishvili addressed the nation with a speech that was probably the most critical of the GD government so far. Reviewing recent events, she accused the government of testing the patience of the people and taking steps that led to escalation and unrest. She said: “Our foreign policy has also become unclear,” stressing that while European integration is enshrined in the Constitution, “daily statements and actions are distancing us from Europe and leading us towards isolation.”

The President slammed the GD government for its “second front” rhetoric, saying that “instilling or manipulating fear in one’s own society cannot be a formula for successful governance”.

She also criticized the government for opening direct flights with Russia, noting: “It is incomprehensible and insulting when we count today how many millions the ‘gift of flights’ will bring. Is our dignity really being sold for 200-300 million?”

Zurabishvili accused the ruling party of hypocrisy, demonstrated in anti-Western rhetoric and actions, including attempts to “open the second front”, while sending its children to Europe and the US.

The President also made a point of wishing Ukraine victory, a wish never heard from the representatives and officials of the GD, who prefer to talk about peace and stability. Zurabishvili called on the government to deliver what it had promised the Georgian people – European democracy and membership in the European family. “Today, the Georgian people are still on this path, and where is the government?” she asked rhetorically.

The President’s speech caused discontent and visible grumbling among the ruling majority, whose representatives reportedly shouted “traitor” even as she was speaking. Their comments after the speech also betrayed their irritation.

The next day, at the Diaspora event, where both the President and the Prime Minister were invited to speak, another row broke out when Salome Zurabishvili was forced to stand during the Foreign Minister’s opening speech due to an intentional or unintentional error in the protocol. Visibly irritated, she began her speech with a reproach to the organizers of the event saying that protocol wasn’t about anyone’s whims, but should be the backbone of statehood. She left the event after a short speech, but not before noting that it was unacceptable that on Independence Day, the Defense Minister greeted the Prime Minister first and then the Commander-in-Chief. 

Onwards to Brussels

Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, pundits have been wondering whether the President would get approval for her visit to Brussels, where she was due to address the European Parliament. Considering that her previous visit to the EU parliament in Strasbourg in April was canceled, allegedly due to the government’s “artificial delay” in approving the visit, a claim refuted by the government itself. At the end of the day, it became known that the President finally got the government approval and will go to Brussels to address the European Parliament on May 31.

Red Lines of Loyalty

The GD representatives, especially its mouthpieces as GD Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze, or GD Parliamentary faction Chair Mamuka Mdinaradze, use the same line each time there is a renewed spat with the President: that her victory in the presidential elections was thanks to the GD, that her criticism about the GD’s “second front” narrative is inadequate against the background of her statements on the start of 2008 war; on her bias in favor of the “radical opposition”, etc. From time to time the GD also sends out veiled threats such as the recent one by Kobakhidze stating: “We have detailed information about why she changed her colors, but we will not go into details, because Salome Zurabishvili has not crossed the red lines yet”.

The opposition does not shy from criticizing Zurabishvili as well, albeit for different reasons: she is slammed for ambiguous, to say the least, rhetoric on the August 2008 war with Russia; others note that she never criticizes GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili; that all she does is words and not deeds citing her unwillingness to pardon ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili and director of the opposition Mtavari Channel Nika Gvaramia. Many claim that the President plays Ivanishvili game her being a card upon his sleeve.  

Whatever the criticism, President’s ratings seem to go up in direct proportion to and against the background of the increasing anti-Western stance of the GD government. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the future.

This indicates that she is perceived by a part of society as some kind of counterbalance that resists the pro-Russian orientation of the government. This part of the society holds out some hope that the President will be able to correct, at least to some extent, the recent actions of the Georgian Dream government in the international arena, which leave Georgia’s international partners perplexed.

The jury is still out on whether these hopes are justified.


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