Malkhaz Nakashidze – The Changing Face of Semi-presidentialism in Georgia

This is a guest post by Malkhaz Nakashidze of the Shota Rustaveli State University, Georgia

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From October 2012 to November 2013 there was a period of cohabitation in Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili from the United National Movement (UNM) was opposed to PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream Coalition. In November 2013 this period of cohabitation ended when Giorgi Margvelashvili, the candidate of the Georgian Dream Coalition and a close ally of Bidzina Ivanishvili, won the presidential election. It was expected that the president and the new PM, Irakli Garibashvili, also from the Georgian Dream Coalition, would cooperate smoothly. However, this has not been the case.

In May 2013 former PM Ivanishvili strongly criticized President Margvelashvili for using the presidential palace that was built during the presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili, arguing that it was a symbol of violence, evil and indecency. He stated that before being elected as president, Margvelashvili himself was strongly opposed to using the palace. After the election, though, Margvelashvili held several meetings there, including the appointment of various ambassadors. President Margvelashvili was also criticized for appointing Vano Matchavariani, who was the brother of the new leader of UNM, Mikheil Matchavariani, as a foreign policy adviser, though he later resigned from the post. Margvelashvili was also criticized when he considered vetoing a criminal procedure bill in late December 2013. The bill had been opposed by the UNM and civil society organisations. In fact, President Margvelashvili’s first veto was issued in October 2014 on a bill relating to the power of the security services. This generated considerable criticism from the government. What is more, unlike the situation during cohabitation, by this time the government did not have the required super majority of votes in parliament to overturn the president’s veto. In short, the president is no longer perceived to be supportive of the ruling coalition.

The conduct of foreign policy has been a particular source of tension over the last year. The Constitution states that the President of Georgia represents Georgia in terms of foreign relations, but it also states that the Prime Minister and ministers shall represent Georgia “within the terms of their competence”. Given the difficulties with President Margvelashvili, the government has challenged the powers of the president in foreign affairs. For example, President Margvelashvili said that it would be appropriate if he, as head of the state, were to put his name to the Association Agreement with the EU on 27 June 2014 instead of the Prime Minister. The presidential administration claimed that signing the agreement fell under the authority of the president, who has the constitutional right to sign international treaties upon agreement with the government. However, the government claimed that the prime minister was entitled to sign the agreement and refused to allow the president to do so. In this context, the president announced that he delegated his right to sign the treaty to the prime minister. However, he did so by way of a presidential order that required the prime minister’s countersignature. The prime minister’s office claimed that the government and not the president had the right to decide who should sign the agreement. In the end, the prime minister signed the treaty.

Another difficult issue has concerned the National Security Council. According to the constitution, the National Security Council is responsible for organizing the military development and defence of the country and is headed by the president. The composition, powers, and rules of operation of the National Security Council are determined by an organic law. The government has tried to restrict the power of the National Security Council and move some of its responsibilities to the new, non-constitutional State Security and Crisis Management Council headed by the prime minister. On 1 August 2014 President Margvelashvili scheduled a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the NATO summit to be held in Wales in September 2014. The meeting was held, but PM Garibashvili did not attend. That said, the prime minister did attend the second meeting of the National Security Council, which was chaired by President Margvelashvili, on 28 October 2014 because it was convened to discuss the highly sensitive issue of Abkhazia and the PM could not be seen to be absent.

There has also been conflict between the president, the prime minister and the parliamentary majority regarding the appointment of Supreme Court judges. According to the Constitution the president is entitled to nominate candidates to parliament. However, on 1 August 2014 parliament voted down two of the president’s nominations. They were only approved at a second attempt in October 2014.

Against this background, major changes have also taken place within the Coalition. In the first week of November 2014 the Free Democrats, one of the parties of Georgian Dream Coalition, left the government. The departure was triggered by the arrest on October 28 of one former and four serving officials from the procurement and general staff’s communications units in the Ministry of Defense. Irakli Alasania, the then Minister of Defense and leader of Free Democrats, announced he was confident that the officials were innocent and that he would wait for the results of the investigation. However, on November 4 a separate investigation against three army medical officials and three employees of a state-owned food provider company was also instigated. At the time, Minister Alasania was visiting France and Germany and the chief of general staff of the armed forces, General Vakhtang Kapanadze, was also visiting Washington. In response, Minister Alasania spoke out against the ruling coalition, stating that the investigations were an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. He resigned a few hours later. The next day the Free Democrats announced that they were leaving the coalition. They had two other posts in the coalition government: the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and the Minister of Justice. However, while the State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration did step down, the Minister of Justice decided to remain in the government. By contrast, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maia Panjikidze, did resign even though she was not a member of the Free Democrats. This was not a surprise, though, because she is Alasania’s sister-in-law.

The Free Democrats were the second largest group in the Georgian Dream parliamentary party with 10 members. With their departure, the Georgian Dream Coalition had 73 members in the 150-seat parliament. Another member of the Georgian Dream Coalition, the Republican Party, with nine members in parliament, officially supported the Free Democrats, but announced that they were not going to leave the coalition. Faced with the threat of not having a majority, the Coalition leaders met with the non-partisan members of parliament. On November 10, six non-partisan deputies, and former members of UNM, joined the Georgian Dream Coalition. At the same time, the “Non-partisan” parliamentary fraction announced that they would also join the Coalition majority. Given three members of Free Democrats did not leave parliamentary majority, Georgian Dream Coalition ended up with the support of 87 deputies.

In this context, the role of President has become very significant. It was during this time that the president used his veto. President Margvelashvili also made a statement in Vienna, where he was attending the second UN Conference on Landlocked Developing Countries, where he said that the crisis was a threat to the efficient functioning of the institutions in the country, a threat to the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration, and a threat to the Georgian army. Immediately after returning in Georgia, President Margvelashvili asked the cabinet to convene a session where the Euro-Atlantic issue could be discussed. He also asked parliament to convene a special session where he would make an address. This was agreed.

One of President Margvelashvili’s most significant statements was when he said that “We have stressed a number of times that the country should be ruled by strong institutions and not from the backstage”. This was a clear reference to former PM Ivanishvili. There has been a lot of discussion as to whether Ivanishvili was wielding any influence behind the scenes. PM Garibashvili initially denied this idea, but later he confirmed on television that he had consulted Ivanishvili, saying that it was normal he should seek the advice of a former PM. Ivanishvili’s influence was further confirmed when the former PM gave a long interview with the Georgian Public Broadcaster on November 8 during which he discussed the country’s political issues. He said that the prosecutor’s office could not turn a blind eye if there was a suspicion of wrong doing in the Ministry of Defense and mentioned that he had many questions about the case. He also criticized President Margvelashvili for vetoing the security services bill. He also criticized the President for his visit to Vienna and concluded that his actions and interests were consistent with those of the National Movement. If further proof were needed of Ivanishvili’s role in the coalition he attended the meeting of the political board of the Georgian Dream Coalition that was held one day after resignation of Minister Alasania.

In general, the relationship between the president and the government and indeed between the government and the majority remains difficult and perhaps increasingly so. The president, who was elected under the banner of the Georgian Dream coalition, is no longer seen to be supportive of the coalition. Moreover, the coalition itself is no longer as cohesive. In the background, former prime minister Ivanishvili still has considerable influence over the government and the prime minister. Overall, the practice of semi-presidentialism in Georgia has changed considerably over the last year.

Malkhaz Nakashidze is the Founder & Managing Director of The International Institute for Academic Development and Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at Shota Rustaveli State University, Georgia

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