Georgia Debates Evicting Its President
The turf wars between Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili have now taken a literal turn: The prime minister’s coalition wants the president to move out of his office. The president says he is going nowhere.
It is a story of two presidential palaces, three nettlesome leaders and millions of wasted taxpayer money. And it has left many Georgians rolling their eyes at the government’s apparent preoccupation with petty politics rather than on such challenges as creating badly needed jobs and kickstarting the languishing economy.
But, beyond that, the palace-fight once again has focused a spotlight on the ever shadowy role of the billionaire believed to be the real power behind the Georgian government — ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili, who stepped down in 2013, has never liked Georgia’s hilltop presidential palace — a grand, egg-domed structure built to please his bitter rival, ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili — and has not hesitated to express his feelings.
A president with newly limited powers (under 2010 constitutional reforms) must be matched by a limited workspace, the thinking goes. Under Ivanishvili, Georgia purchased a 19th century downtown mansion in Tbilisi to serve as a new presidential headquarters.
But the Saakashvili palace seems to have grown on Margvelashvili and he has refused to swap offices
The government thus ended up allegedly spending 28 million lari (about $12 million) on preparing a presidential office that now has no president in it.
This apparently is preying on the mind of Georgia’s current prime minister, Ivanishvili's protégé. On April 21, Gharibashvili, who long has tried to elbow the president into ceremonial obscurity, stated that nobody plans to drag the president out of his office, but “if I were him, I would move into” the humbler residence.
Margvelashvili responded that the palace-change is the idée fixe of Ivanishvili, and that he would not do the powerful tycoon's bidding.
“It is obvious to everyone that this is not a matter of square meters… rather it is a political matter,” President Margvelashvili asserted to journalists on April 22. “Unfortunately, Mister Bidzina [Ivanishvili] can’t accept that I make my own decisions…Georgia does not need a president who would obey and move from one building to another on someone’s order.”
“I have not pressured anyone,” Ivanishvili responded later in the day. “But do you think it is normal to leave 10,000 square meters unused?” As usual, he recommended that reporters “analyze everything.”
An entertaining episode in “Me, My Grandmother, Iliko and Ilarion,” a popular Soviet-era book by Georgian writer Nodar Dumbadze, recounts how villagers at one rancorous collective-farm meeting spent hours trying to decide where to set up an office for the new chairman of the kolkhoz.
Each chairman would dismantle the old office and set it up closer to his house. “Let’s just attach wheels to the office and move it around and around,” one villager suggested.
This might provide a long-term solution for Georgia, before another government comes in and starts building yet another palace.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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