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In the shadow of impeachment

As Georgia is racing against the clock to fulfil the European Union’s 12 recommendations to secure candidacy status by December, President Salome Zourabichvili embarked on an international tour to promote Georgia’s European aspirations and gain support from international partners. This decision has been met with an unexpected response from the Georgian government.

October 5, 2023 - Giorgi Beroshvili - Articles and Commentary

Georgia's fifth president Salome Zurabishvili's election poster in Tbilisi ahead of the elections in 2018. Photo: Malkhaz Svanidze / Shutterstock

On September 1st 2023, the ruling Georgian Dream party made an unexpected announcement: they would initiate the impeachment process against President Salome Zourabichvili due to violation of the constitution. According to the announcement, the president made the decision to proceed with the meetings with international partners after the government refused to approve Zourabichvili’s visits. The impeachment was announced right before Zourabichvili’s meeting with Charles Michel, president of the European Council. Prior to that, Zourabichvili also held meetings with the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The main argument put forward by Georgian Dream is based on the fact that the Georgian Constitution assigns the exclusive role of conducting foreign policy to the government, and the president is permitted to act only with the former’s consent. Thus, the party claims that Zourabichvili’s actions were in violation of the constitution. Furthermore, Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the party stated that with these actions the president “is trying to receive political points for a [possible] candidacy status in her name” and “sabotage the possibility of the EU granting Georgia the candidacy”. Apart from these counterintuitive arguments, the statements released by the EU regarding the candidacy status show that Georgia has yet to fulfil the majority of the 12 recommendations.

Falling out of favour

In October 2018, during a fiercely contested presidential election, Zourabichvili, an independent candidate, received substantial backing from the ruling Georgian Dream party. Despite these efforts, Zourabichvili only secured 38 per cent of the votes in the first round, followed by Grigol Vashadze with 37 per cent – the opposition candidate form the United National Movement. The Georgian Dream doubled down during the runoff election in November 2018, launching an extensive campaign endorsing her candidacy, posting billboards throughout Georgia with high-ranking officials vouching for her. The Georgian Dream went so far that several voters received automated robocalls from Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the party, urging citizens to vote for Zourabichvili. Ultimately, Zourabichvili took office. Over the years, however, the president’s relations with the party have soured.

Impeachment is not an entirely new chapter in the ongoing disagreements between the government and the president. In 2022, following a dispute regarding the selection of ambassadors, the government initiated a case against the president in the Constitutional Court to revoke her authority to appoint ambassadors. The case was eventually dropped. The biggest flashpoint, however, was the so-called foreign agents bill in March 2023, which was later withdrawn amid mass public protests. Zourabichvili criticised the government for allowing the passing of the bill while on an official visit to the United States, where she attended the United Nations General Assembly. The president further amplified her criticism during her annual address to the parliament in late March.

Despite the schism, the president has seen her public approval ratings rise, particularly among the younger generation, a demographic traditionally disengaged from politics. According to a Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung survey, only 38 per cent of young Georgians express partial interest in politics. Zourabichvili’s growing presence on social media, characterised by high levels of engagement and comments, underscores her growing popularity, especially among the young people, whose interests are rarely reflected in political developments. Her constant support for Georgia’s European integration aligns with the aspirations of the majority of Georgian society (about 81 per cent), which in turn makes her a notable figure amid increasing political polarisation.

Moreover, the view that the Georgian government might be intentionally sabotaging Georgia’s candidacy has just emerged in Brussels, according to reports. According to these claims, the Georgian Dream party is trying to blame the EU for the rejection of candidacy status and convince its supporters that receiving this status was never a realistic prospect. This view might be relatively new within EU circles, however, it has been voiced repeatedly by opposition figures in Georgia, and considering the government’s past actions, it does have grounding. The recent impeachment proceedings only add to the mounting evidence in this direction.

Impeachment procedures

According to the Georgian constitution, if the president violates the constitution or there are signs of potential violation, one-third of the parliament’s members (50 in total) can initiate impeachment proceedings, which would then be turned to the Constitutional Court of Georgia. The court would have one month to issue a report on the case. Should the court find a violation (or a potential violation), the parliament would then vote on impeachment, which requires at least a two-thirds of votes (100 members) in favour. Currently, the Georgian Dream holds the majority with 84 members, however, this is not enough to secure the vote. Thus, the success of the impeachment proceedings remains unclear. The remaining 56 members, including the United National Movement MPs, declared their refusal to participate in the impeachment vote.

Instead, the United National Movement (UNM) called on Zourabichvili to commit to the 12 recommendations and pardon Mikheil Saakashvili, the third president and the UNM’s founder. Calls for pardoning Saakashvili have been voiced by European partners too, including in the resolution adopted by the European Parliament in December 2022. On the other hand, Georgian Dream has constantly warned that pardoning Saakashvili would “cost Zourabichvili her career”, and possibly trigger impeachment proceedings. Ironically, now facing impeachment for entirely different reasons, pardoning Saakashvili could come back to Zourabichvili’s agenda, although she has stated multiple times that the ultimate decision lays with the Georgian court.

The parliament voted on the impeachment proceedings on September 11th 2023. Prior to this vote, Josep Borrell visited Georgia on September 7th and 8th, holding meetings with the president and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The discussions centred around the candidacy status and polarisation in the country. Yet, the government still proceeded with the impeachment.

On October 4th, the constitutional court started the case for the impeachment, which was not attended by Zourabichvili. It will still take roughly one month to prepare the report. The court might either agree with the parliament’s decision and support the impeachment, or rule against it, ending the process. In the case that the constitutional court approves the parliament’s decision, a vote will be held within two weeks to impeach the president. Here comes the need for the two-thirds majority, since Georgian Dream would still need an additional 16 votes to secure impeachment. Although the opposition parties have pledged not to support the impeachment, backroom agreements, such as asking for Saakashvili’s pardon in exchange for support for Zourabichvili, could still be possible.

Bargaining with the official who openly supports Georgian aspirations could only damage the country’s credibility in the West’s eyes. It might not be the best time to criticise Zourabichvili for her previous actions, such as criticising the Georgian leadership for escalating the war in 2008 and not criticising Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgian Dream and an influential oligarch. This has led to conspiracies fuelled by several opposition members that she is actually backed by Ivanishvili.

In the event that the impeachment proceeds through all stages and the government successfully removes the president from office, a new presidential election must be held within 45 days. The rules of electing the president were changed in 2018, thus there will be no public vote. Instead, a special electoral college, consisting of members of parliament, members of the Supreme Councils of the Abkhazian and Adjarian Autonomous Republics, and representatives from local assemblies, totalling 300 members, will elect the new president.

In case the impeachment goes through, the timing will possibly align with EU’s report on Georgia’s candidacy status and its fulfilment of the 12 recommendations at the end of the year. Considering the dire situation with most of the recommendations not yet met, the impeachment would add yet another layer of uncertainty to the already complicated political environment of the country.

Giorgi Beroshvili is an editorial assistant with New Eastern Europe. He has completed his MA within the Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) programme jointly run by the University of Tartu, the University of Glasgow, and the Jagiellonian University.

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