The gloves have come off in the passive-aggressive feud between Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party as the latter set an impeachment inquiry in motion.
The move is potentially of geopolitical consequence as the president is an ardent promoter of Georgia's integration with the European Union while the ruling party is perceived to be keeping its foreign policy options open.
President Zourabichvili put on her diplomatic hat and went to Europe to promote Georgia's bid to take a key step on the path toward joining the EU. Her mission however did not receive a constitutionally required greenlight from the Prime Minister's Office and that amounted to contempt for the nation's supreme law, said Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's administration.
In Georgia's political system, the prime minister wields most executive powers as the head of government, while the president is the largely ceremonial head of state. The constitution says that implementing foreign policy is the prerogative of the government, which is led by the prime minister. By taking foreign policy matters into her hands without authorization from the government, Zourabichvili spurned the constitution, Garibashvili's administration said.
"The Georgian president can take on a representative role in foreign relations only with the consent of the Georgian government," said the Prime Minister's Office on September 1, just as the president was having meetings in Brussels.
On a personal level, there is little love lost between the head of the Georgian state and the head of the Georgian government. Prime Minister Garibashvili and his party have tried to keep the increasingly defiant president under a de facto diplomatic house arrest, rejecting a whole slew of her recent requests to go on official international visits. Zourabichvili was recently denied sanction to visit Ukraine, Switzerland, Poland and Bulgaria to name but a few.
Breaking the executive’s chains, the president still went on her European tour, meeting key EU leaders to advance Georgia's bid to gain the status of candidate of membership in the bloc. In Brussels, Zourabichvili met Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, an institution tasked with forging unity among European governments on key issues, including enlargement.
Before arriving in Brussels, Zourabichvili met in Berlin her German opposite number Frank Walter Steinmeier. Germany is traditionally viewed as a conservative voice in the EU's enlargement debates. "Germany's support is crucial," Zourabichvili tweeted. "Georgian people believe in their European future." On September 6, Zourabichvili posted a video of her meeting Emmanuel Macron, president of another EU heavyweight, France.
Watching the president rubbing shoulders with Europe's bosses flouting the government's ban, Georgian Dream responded with plans to launch an impeachment probe. "Wanton breach of the Constitution is undermining the rule of law and the democratic, constitutional system," said Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze as he announced the launch of a motion against the president at a September 1 press conference.
It is unclear if Georgian Dream can get anywhere with its bid to get the nettlesome president out of its way. Even if the Constitutional Court confirms the alleged breach of the constitution by the president, the ruling party lacks the votes needed to push impeachment through the parliament.
"I believe it is impossible to see the process of impeachment to the end," constitutional expert Vakhtang Khmaladze told Formula TV. "You need 100 votes to remove the president from office and I really doubt you can find 100 members of parliament who would support the dismissal of the president."
Still, Georgian Dream is going for it, raining a raft of accusations on the president, who as a moderate and progressive voice has been stealing the show from the governing party.
Kobakhidze claimed that President Zourabichvili's European trip has undermined Georgia's push for EU membership, but a choir of local human rights and democracy watchdogs said that it is the impeachment motion that threatened Georgia's odds of gaining the EU candidate status.
"Launching impeachment proceedings against the president for her efforts to convince EU leaders to grant Georgia candidacy is a direct attack on the EU," 11 prominent organizations, including Open Society Georgia Foundation and Transparency International, said in a joint statement.
These organizations, and scores of local and international critics, have long accused Georgian Dream of deliberately attempting to torpedo Georgia's European future through its policies and actions. Georgian Dream claims that the nation is on track to getting the much-craved status, but the party and its satellites have managed to repeatedly antagonize key European lawmakers and diplomats over the course of the last two years.
Bucking the EU's policies, Georgian Dream took a cautious stance toward Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine and refused to participate in international economic sanctions against Russia. On the contrary, the country has become increasingly open to business and trade with Russia.
Criticized for this approach, the ruling establishment accused forces in Europe and the United States of attempts to provoke military confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow. Kobakhidze and members of his party repeatedly upbraided European diplomats and lawmakers, and also nearly passed a "foreign agent" law that the EU said was incompatible with the reform targets set for Georgia to gain candidate status.
A number of observers believe this was why the EU gave candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine, while fellow applicant Georgia was told to catch up. Brussels gave Tbilisi homework to complete, a set of democratic reform targets to hit.
Refusing to take the blame for being left behind, Georgian Dream complained that the decision was unfair, since, by some metrics, Georgia has made more progress in harmonizing its governance system with the EU than the two fellow ex-Soviet states did.
In Kobakhidze's own words, chances of getting the status this year "are 50/50 because this is a political decision. If it were a technical, fact-based decision, our chances would be 100 percent." EU officials' comments suggest that the key expectation in Brussels is for Georgia to align its foreign policy, not just legislation, with the EU.
Commenting on the controversial restoration of direct flights between Georgia and Russia, EU Ambassador Pawel Herczynski said that Brussels wished for its partners to join Western attempts to isolate Moscow economically. "In our view, this is the only way to make sure that this horrible war [in Ukraine] ends as quickly as possible and we would expect all our partners, and especially those partners who want to become part of the EU, to follow the same approach," Herczynski said.
Amid all the lingering uncertainty about Georgia's European bid, President Zourabichvili stepped into the breach and became the strongest official voice conveying the Georgian people's will to join the EU.
She repeatedly reprimanded the ruling party for pushing its fake narrative that the West is pushing Georgia to open a second front against Russia and for squandering a historic opportunity to move closer to EU membership. Heeding European exhortations to free high-profile prisoners, Zourabichvili pardoned controversially jailed media executive and government critic Nika Gvaramia. (Though she has so far resisted calls to do the same for incarcerated former president Mikhail Saakashvili.)
Georgian Dream responded by lumping the president with its domestic and international foes, who, the party claims, work against Georgia's European future.
The irony of the situation is that Georgian Dream and its billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili went out of their way to make French-born Zourabichvili a president back in 2018. The party campaigned aggressively for Zourabichvili, and the billionaire paid the bad debt of about 600,000 Georgians in an apparent attempt to gather votes for her.