The growing spat between Georgia's president and governing party erupted into an open confrontation on March 31 when President Salome Zourabichvili delivered her most vituperative reproach yet of the ruling Georgian Dream party during her state-of-the-nation address to the legislature.
"Where do you stand today? Why have you strayed from the people's will, from the mandate given to you by the people?" Zourabichvili asked the governing establishment, speaking three weeks after massive pro-Europe protests in Tbilisi.
She reminded the ruling party that it had been elected over a decade ago on a promise of bringing justice and democracy, and securing the path toward integration with the European Union. She said that in the early days of its governance Georgian Dream and its billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili helped build a pluralistic media and political environment, freed business from government racketeering, and strengthened Georgia's Europe-Atlantic path.
Supporting the candidacy of a French-born diplomat like herself in 2018 was also a step toward integration with the European Union, she said. "But you are a government that has begun to change its spots," Zourabichvili said.
The pluralism of the early days has been replaced by one-party rule, laws are being passed unilaterally, judiciary reforms are being stalled and the commitment to European integration is being called into question, she said.
"Georgian Dream has been slowly drained of dissenting opinion and alternative political views," Zourabichvili said, speaking over catcalls from ruling party members. "Amidst your ranks you can't hear even a mildly discordant opinion as that would result in expulsion."
Above all, she said, Georgian Dream in recent years has begun to sabotage the top foreign policy priority of working toward EU membership. "Doubts first appeared when you invited Gavrilov in 2019," she said referring to the highly controversial appearance of a Russian lawmaker in the Georgian parliament four years ago.
"However, the real transformation of the foreign policy began in 2021, when then Georgian Dream chairman, Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili, quit politics. It was then that this big confusion began as to who is responsible for this new course."
Zourabichvili still pulled her punches when speaking of her former benefactor Ivanishvili, who is still widely seen as the éminence grise of Georgian politics, and concentrated her ire on the de jure leadership of the Georgian Dream. The party leaders, she said, made it their pastime to insult European partners and spin conspiracy theories about the collective West trying to open a second front in Georgia, dragging the nation into a war with Russia.
"No matter how hard you try to force upon people all these fake scenarios […] you are not going to get anywhere with it. It's a fact that today Tbilisi and Moscow stick to the same line when speaking about the 'second front,'" she said. "You can speak all you want of second front conspiracies, but the people are well aware that the EU was founded on the idea of peace, not war."
Zourabichvili lambasted the party for its failure to appreciate economic and democracy-building assistance from Brussels, and for claims that the EU's moral norms were incompatible with Georgian culture.
The president also wagged her finger at Georgian Dream for the party's attempts to bully her into submission. "You can threaten me with impeachment and sue me in the Constitutional Court all you want, you can try to bar me from making visits abroad and nitpick at my command of the Georgian language […] but you are going to fail at changing my goal and changing me," she said.
Zourabichvili deliberately chose March 31 to deliver her j'accuse. The day marked the 32nd anniversary of Georgia voting for independence from the Soviet Union. Just as it was then, she said, Georgia now stands at a major crossroads. Just as that government fulfilled Georgia's dream of independence, today's government must honor its promise to lead Georgia into Europe, she said.
After the president left the rostrum, opposition legislators took turns praising her. "With this address, the Georgian president made her personal choice," said Davit Usupashvili, a member of the Lelo party, adding that it was not a simple choice to make for a president who was once elected with the help of Georgian Dream and who long tried to maintain restraint amid the nation's chronic political drama.
"Thank you Madam President for your position," said Aleko Elisashvili of Citizens party. "If anyone is saving Georgia's reputation today, this is you and the Georgian boys who are shedding their blood [in Ukraine]."
Meanwhile, Georgian Dream members peppered the president with reproaches. "We heard lots of confusing statements from her today, but I still hope she is not going to cross the red lines," said party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze.
The ruling party lawmakers also rebuked Zourabichvili for betraying the trust of Ivanishvili – it is de rigueur for Georgian Dream members to offer regular panegyrics to their billionaire benefactor – after the president admitted four days earlier that her former backer was an oligarch.
"It was such a waste helping her campaign," said ruling party faction head Mamuka Mdinaradze. "It serves us right."