Georgia's Constitutional Court has cleared the path for President Salome Zourabichvili's impeachment, leaving her fate in the hands of parliament.
Georgian Dream, the parliamentary majority, will initiate proceedings on October 18, but it will have to reach across legislative enemy lines to pick up the votes needed to send the defiant president home.
Upholding Georgian Dream's claims against the maverick president, the court found President Zourabichvili guilty of breaching the nation's supreme law by meeting European leaders without permission from the prime minister's office. Over objections from the Georgian Dream government, Zourabichvili visited European capitals late in summer to make the case for Georgia's bid to advance toward membership in the European Union.
"The president of Georgia acted in the capacity of a foreign policy representative without the consent of the government of Georgia," said Chairman of Constitutional Court Merab Turava as he read the verdict on October 16. Three judges in the nine-member bench issued a dissenting opinion.
President Zourabichvili responded by accusing the court of caving to pressure from the governing party. "To be honest, I felt pain in my heart today," Zourabichvili said in a televised address to the nation. "Nothing should surprise me in this country anymore, but I still felt pain in my heart for the Constitutional Court, which was the last place within our legal system that still enjoyed some trust. That has changed today."
Georgian Dream's hard-line chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, gloatingly welcomed the verdict, which gives the ruling party legal grounds to initiate an impeachment vote in parliament. Kobakhidze described Zourabichvili as "a lame duck," who is falling into an abyss along with all his party's opponents. Along with a couple other members of his party, Kobakhidze acted as the accuser-in-chief at the tense trial.
A number of independent legal analysts share the president's view that the Constitutional Court did Georgian Dream's bidding. "I believe that the Constitution Court's decision was driven by politics, rather than law, and it is very unfortunate," veteran constitutional law analyst, Vakhtang Khmaladze, told IPN news service.
He criticized the court for making an overly literal interpretation of a concrete clause of the Constitution and failing to take into account the spirit of the supreme law. "In no way can we assume that the key premises of the Constitution, when viewed in their entirety, require the president to ask the government for permission every time she picks up a pen or opens her mouth to speak to foreign officials," he said.
Khmadalze argued that the president acted in support of the greater good of European integration – a constitutionally defined and popularly backed foreign policy goal that carries bigger weight than any one clause taken separately and literally.
Zourabichvili claimed that the court's decision will have dire implications for Georgia's European aspirations. "Today they killed two birds with one stone: Georgia's European future and Georgian democracy," she said, adding that "a country where there is no balance between the different branches of government does not belong in Europe."
Kobakhidze, for his part, described the president as politically and morally bankrupt and called for her resignation. "Had Salome Zourabichvili had a shred of dignity, then of course she would have stepped down," he said.
The president shrugged off the idea. "I'm staying right here. I'm not going to step down or step aside," Zourabichvili responded. "I'm even going to go to the parliament and I won't need anyone's help to face those little men."
The row between the ruling party and president, and the constitutional trial itself, could serve as a commentary on the fickle nature of Georgian politics. All sides in the trial – the defense, the claimant and the judges – featured people who used to be part of one team, the Georgian Dream.
The effective prosecutor at the trial, Kobakhidze, effectively wrote the very constitution that he was requesting the court to interpret. The constitution was extensively amended under Georgian Dream's rule to curtail presidential powers and adopt a parliamentary system of governance. The ruling party describes Kobakhidze as the author of the amended constitution.
One of the president's defense attorneys at the constitutional trial, Tamar Chugoshvili, was also a contributing author of the amendments and is a former member of Georgian Dream.
Zourabichvili herself was Georgian Dream's candidate for the largely figurehead presidency in 2018, but over time she has grown into a political maverick. She eventually crossed swords with the ruling party, which started out as a motley collection of people and individuals but evolved into an increasingly single-minded monolith.
With questions being raised recently about Georgian Dream's stated commitment to work toward joining the EU, the French-born Zourabichvili took it upon herself to be the champion of European integration. Georgian Dream, for its part, appeared reluctant to share the laurels with Zourabichvili should Brussels agree to put Georgia on the membership waiting list.
Brussels is expected to get back to Tbilisi on its application for the status of a membership candidate later this year, but it is unclear if Georgia will have a president by that point, as the impeachment vote is expected this week.
Zourabichvili asked opposition parties to stay out of the legislative hall during impeachment hearings. Her request has to do with the biggest intrigue in the long-running impeachment drama.
Georgian Dream lacks the 100 votes needed to push the impeachment motion through the 150-member legislature, but there are suspicions that the ruling party may have secretly bribed or otherwise influenced select opposition lawmakers to back up the motion. All opposition parties have vowed to vote against the motion, but the vote is anonymous and the identities of potential rank-breakers will be hard to trace if minority parties attend the hearing.
If all opposition lawmakers stay true to their word, the president will remain in office and the long and polarizing trial against her will end up being an exercise in nothing.