By Eka Janashia (10/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
A dispute between Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili gained momentum in mid-September, as both the head of state and the head of government decided to attend the September 23 Climate Summit at the UN headquarters in New York.
PM Gharibashvili declared his intention to participate September’s UN General Debates in July. Meanwhile the President’s office declared that Margvelashvili received a personal invitation from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) withheld the letter.
Deputy Foreign Minister David Zalkaniani later explained that the UN invitation was initially mistakenly addressed to former President Mikheil Saakashvili and the MFA had to resend it, causing the delay. To verify their respective versions, both sides disclosed their correspondence while Georgia came close to the diplomatic embarrassment of sending two simultaneous delegations to the UN.
Finally, Margvelashvili was dissuaded from attending the UN Summit. Commenting on the outcome, he said that “serious, organized efforts were undertaken against the visit of the Georgian President and as a result of these efforts the visit to the United States is thwarted.”
The embarrassing episode was not the first sign of discord between Margvelashvili and the leadership of the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition in general, and between the president and PM in particular.
According to former PM Ivanishvili, the disagreement started with Margvelashvili’s decision to use the glass-dome presidential palace constructed during Saakashvili’s presidency and, in Ivanishvili’s words, associated with “violence, evil and indecency” (See the 04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst). Margvelashvili, however, claimed that the tensions stemmed from the ruling coalition’s attempts to make him an “obedient” figure complying with the instructions of GD and the PM.
Another spat took place ahead of Georgia’s signing of the Association Agreement (AA) with the EU in June. The question of who would sign the AA became a subject of heated debate among constitutionalists, politicians, analysts and even ordinary people. Margvelashvili expressed his readiness to delegate his right to sign the treaty to the PM but the latter argued that Georgian constitution grants him sufficient competence to sing the agreement. Although most lawyers maintained that the AA should be signed by the president, it was the PM who signed it and the president was not even invited for the AA’s ratification ceremony in the parliament.
On August 1, Gharibashvili did not attend a session of the National Security Council (NSC) presided by Margvelashvili. The meeting was intended to discuss Georgia’s preparation for the upcoming NATO summit in Wales. Notably, the role of the NSC itself has been marginalized since November 2013 when the PM formed the Security and Crisis Management Council partially duplicating the NSC’s functions. On the same day, the GD parliamentary majority voted against the president’s Supreme Court judge nominees.
Several days later, the Prosecutor’s Office lamented that despite its request, Margvelashvili did not declassify a portion of the 2009-2013 spending records from the Special State Protection Service (SSPS). Part of those secret documents were publicized in April 2013. Another part, falling under President Margvelashvili’s competence, remained confidential.
Margvelashvili responded that he is empowered to contemplate sensitive matters such as declassification of secret information as long as the law allows him to do so and that no one can pressure him to do otherwise.
Some analysts suggest that vague and implicit clauses of the amended Georgian constitution, which came into force in 2013, fueled the conflict between the head of state and the head of government. Clause 69, paragraph 2 of the Georgian constitution states that “the president represents Georgia in foreign relations.” Nevertheless, clause 78, paragraph 1.4 entitles this competence to the PM as well, saying that the “prime minister … represent[s] Georgia in foreign relations within his competence” and meanwhile charges the cabinet with the responsibility to implement foreign policy. These clauses of the current constitution are likely to prompt confrontation rather than clarifying responsibilities.
However, the true reason for the disagreement between the president and PM likely has little to do with disagreements over foreign policy. Both politicians emerged through Ivanishvili’s clout, thanks to the allegiance they proclaimed to him. As Margvelashvili’s loyalty faded, the GD leadership increased pressure on him. As soon as Ivanishvili begun to publicly criticize the president, the PM and other ministers quickly replicated the move. This suggests that political power in Georgia is still concentrated to Ivanishvili’s informal rule.
After months of simmering conflict, it is still not clear whether Margvelashvili will stay within the GD coalition or endeavor his own political game. However, he recently reminded the public that in the case of a political crisis, he retains a right to resign or dismiss the parliament.