On February 6, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili presented Parliament with a final annual address.
The President spoke about security challenges, focusing on Russia’s hybrid war, the ongoing occupation of Georgian regions and Russia’s war in Ukraine; the process of Georgia’s EU membership and the importance of mobilizing the whole society on this path; the challenges to Georgian democracy and the importance in this context of dismantling the Soviet system and transforming the country “into a vibrant, successful, strong, European and democratic state”; the importance of free and fair elections in 2024. Salome Zurabishvili addressed various stakeholders: the government, the opposition, the diaspora and the youth.
The President sharply criticized the ruling Georgian Dream party in her speech. The President addressed the candidate for PM position Irakli Kobakhidze, asking him to present his plans for reforming the judiciary, fighting elite corruption and reforming the electoral administration.
But “the main addressee of the public’s questions today is neither the prime minister, nor the speaker of parliament, nor the ruling party, but the one who really runs the country,” she said, speaking for the first time about Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose name she had previously avoided mentioning. She called on Ivanishvili to explain to Georgian society “how and when he intends to move from a one-party, one-person, vertical model to a democratic, European model”.
She announced the intent to set up the platform with participation of the opposition and the civil society- “Platform of Unity for Europe”, which “will bring together all concrete proposals on European priorities and contribute to the drafting of a common document through dialogue and consensus.”
The session at the Parliament was attended by the heads of the central government, as well as of the autonomous republics of Adjara and Abkhazia, representatives of the Orthodox Church, the diplomatic corps, and international organizations. Similarly to her previous parliamentary address when the President entered the plenary chamber, the deputies of the GD parliamentary majority remained seated.
Challenges – Russian Hybrid War
The President spoke about were the security challenges and the Russian war against Ukraine. The President stressed that Russia had failed to break Ukraine and to shake the unity and solidarity of Europe, but had even strengthened it. The President spoke about various forms of Russia’s hybrid war against Georgia.
In particular, she referred to Russia’s plan to build a naval base in occupied Ochamchire, Abkhazia, the transfer of the Bichvinta (Pistunda) residence to Russia, the plan to build the Sokhumi Babushera airport, human rights violations, constant harassment of the population and killings along the occupation line, Among hybrid challenges she mentioned challenges the migration of Russian citizens to Georgia en-masse, anti-Western propaganda, the resumption of direct flights between Georgia and Russia, display of the Stalin icon in the main Georgian cathedral and others stressing that all of the mentioned are aimed at igniting strife and confrontation in society.
Challenges to Democracy
The president noted that in 2023 “instead of democratic reforms, we saw an unprecedented consolidation of power, reflected in the introduction of the Russian law,” adding that it was “an attempt to harass and disarm civil society”. She also mentioned the following changes in the law “On the National Bank” and the attempt to impeach her. “The latter revealed not only the unacceptability of the independence of the presidential institution, but also the deplorable state of the Constitutional Court,” – said Zurabishvili.
While the President asserted that the ultimate goal of a country with European aspirations “should be to strengthen independent institutions,” she noted that “the necessary balance between the branches of government, which is the cornerstone of democracy, has been severely disrupted.” She stated that “there is no dividing line between the party and the government.” Zurabishvili also criticized the work of Parliament for being influenced by the ruling party, saying that “instead of supervising and controlling the government, parliament has become a mere implementer of party policy.”
The president also stressed the challenge of corruption in Georgia, saying that it indicates the unlimited appetite of the elite: “In fact, nothing is controlled and no one is held accountable,” – said Zurabishvili, adding that this is “because elite corruption is the necessary cement that binds a reliable caste around monolithic power.”
Challenges to European Georgia
Speaking about the challenges to Georgia’s European orientation, Salome Zurabishvili noted that “anti-European and anti-Western echoes have moved from marginal political circles to official rhetoric” and, on the contrary, “positions towards Russia have softened considerably.” Zurabishvili also pointed to Georgia’s “distancing from the EU and the US on international sanctions.” She said that all of these “have raised questions about the strength of our foreign orientation”. “With confusing rhetoric and steps, we have jeopardized the colossal work and achievements of European integration,” – Zurabishvili said, adding that despite these challenges, the country was still granted candidate status. She emphasized the role of society in this regard: “Society did not give up, it fought and protected its own future. The steadfastness of the people proved to everyone, both inside and outside the country, that our claim to be European is well-founded and that the spirit of the Georgian people is unwavering towards this goal.”
Benefits of Europe
President Zurabishvili emphasized the importance of the candidate status for strengthening the country’s security, noting that “the most tragic and dangerous thing” would be to be isolated and left alone in the face of Russia. In this regard, she noted that the candidate status and the upcoming process of starting negotiations for EU accession means entering the European security space. “Russification is not an option!” – President Zurabishvili stated.
She also spoke of tangible economic and social benefits of being a member of the European Union, stressing that “Europe means prosperity” and that by granting the country EU candidate status, Europe has made it clear to Georgia that it is now its turn to respond and continue to work for its European future.
What Georgia needs to do
The President emphasized that Georgia must overcome “the ugliest formations of the evil Soviet past” in order to move forward on its way to the EU, which means becoming more compliant with European policies in all spheres, including free competition, rule of law and impartial courts, diversity of opinions, compromise and power sharing, coalition government, fighting corruption, etc.
“The task for 2024 is clear! Our future is in our hands, which demands the greatest responsibility from us,” – Zurabishvili said, emphasizing that the EU’s recommendations are “no different from what we need to strengthen the country and what society has been waiting for and demanding for years: justice, equality, security.”
Addressing PM Candidate
Zurabishvili was particularly critical of Georgia’s future Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, accusing him of being pro-Russian and therefore anti-European: “You, who are associated with the admission of Gavrilov to Parliament, the annulment of the “Charles Michel document”, the anti-European rhetoric and the impeachment – how do you intend to fulfill the European order of society and, in particular, implement the recommendations before the elections? – Zurabishvili said.
President Zurabishvili addressed Kobakhidze directly, asking whether the future Prime Minister will articulate visions on critical issues. These include changing the composition of the High Council of Justice and the Supreme Court, staffing election administration, empowering and ensuring the independence of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, preserving the autonomy of the National Bank of Georgia, and aligning Georgian policy more closely with the EU’s foreign and security agenda.
Addressing Bidzina Ivanishvili
The President called out Bidzina Ivanishvili since, as she says, Ivanishvili is “the one who actually runs the country.” Zurabishvili urged him to explain to the public, which “has every right to hear from him,” the reasons for his return to politics for the third time, and to explain what he meant when stating corruption and the country’s foreign policy as reasons for his return.
Zurabishvili stressed that since society expects a new European model of governance, “it deserves to know how and when Ivanishvili intends to move from a one-party, one-person, vertical structure to a democratic, European model.” She added that society expects Ivanishvili to remove judges like Murusidze and Chinchaladze from the court who are associated with the previous United National Movement government, which Ivanishvili claims to be fighting.
President Zurabishvili also called on the opposition “to stop the confrontation, the name-calling, the fighting that creates hopelessness and nihilism in society.” While the President said it was not her job to tell the opposition to “unite or disband,” she urged it to be able to agree on the main priorities for the country.
“You have to show the public that you can still talk, work and achieve results around this European goal. The main task of the opposition is to mobilize and engage the public in support of the European choice,” President added.
As for the upcoming 2024 Parliamentary elections, she said it will “determine our future” and called on the public “for active participation.”
She also urged the diaspora, “who are no less obliged to participate in shaping the country’s future,” to know their rights, to register to vote at Georgian consulates on time and, and to exercise their right to demand the opening of new polling stations abroad. The President emphasized that participation in the elections will not be a problem for Georgians residing abroad illegally. “I will personally defend your right to vote” she pledged.
President Zurabishvili praised the youth for their “great contribution to last year’s victory,” referring to the successful protests against the Foreign Agents law.
She also urged the youth to remember that in elections in various countries, it was the unprecedented activism of young people that decided the results and changed the future. “You can do it too!”
Salome Zurabishvili said “it will not be the usual elections where we vote for one party instead of another,” stressing that it will be “the decisive stage in our history… where we should decide on our future and vote for the new model of governance, the new economy, i.e. the new, European country.”
She added that she also feels responsible in this crucial process, emphasizing that anyone’s intention to “take her into the arena of political struggle” by portraying her as the leader of some political force is “in vain”.
She also noted that the country needs a principled person, not affiliated to any party, with strategic views and not political and personal ambitions, who will serve the ultimate goal of “replacing the Soviet past with the European future, finally strengthening the country’s independence in the bosom of a free and peaceful European family.”
“Platform of Unity for Europe”
The President announced her intention to create the “Platform of Unity for Europe” with the participation of the opposition and civil society. She expressed her readiness to establish a coordination center within the President’s Administration, which “will bring together all concrete proposals on European priorities and contribute to the drafting of a common document through dialogue and consensus.” . Zurabishvili said she plans to invite politicians “from across the political spectrum” and civil society representatives in the coming days. She noted that the platform will not serve the interests of any political party, but it should be the “victory of unity, Europeanness and the country”.
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