The attempt to impeach the president of Georgia was politically unnecessary and diplomatically costly

Georgia is a parliamentary republic. The people vote for the members of parliament who then appoint a prime minister. He/She and his/her ministers are the executive authority. The president, with one or two small exceptions is a symbolic head of state, a totem pole for the nation to unite around, much as is a constitutional monarch in say Scandinavia or the Benelux.

So when the Georgian government says that President Salome Zurabishvili had no authority to travel to Europe without its permission, and to speak to foreign governments on sensitive foreign policy issues without its permission, they were technically right. In a constitutional monarchy, the King has to ask the permission of the government, even to go on holiday, let alone to conduct a sensitive foreign policy tour.

Yet, the Georgian government’s decision to push forward the impeachment of President Salome Zurabishvili was not only politically unnecessary, but also counterproductive and wrong.

Salome Zurabishvili is an unconventional Georgian politician. Born in Paris, a daughter of Georgian political refugees, she was a career French diplomat and was posted to Tbilisi as Ambassador in 2003. In 2004, after the Rose Revolution catapulted Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania persuaded her to resign from the French foreign service and become Georgia’s foreign minister. She was never Saakashvili’s choice, and relations between president and foreign minister were difficult. Once Zhvania died, her days as minister were numbered. But she did not return to France, instead, she became one of the most vocal and effective critics of Saakashvili, and joined the broad movement led by Bidzina Ivanishvili that swept him and his United National Movement out of power in 2012. The new government took some time to recognise her role, but in 2019, following constitutional changes, she was nominated by Georgian Dream to the largely honorary post of president. The constitution provided for the president to be elected by popular vote for the last time in 2019, after which the president will be elected by parliament. Despite having the full support of the ruling Georgian Dream party Zurabishvili nearly lost the election, and only scrapped through in the second round. Some blamed the fact that she was a woman and that Georgians were not yet ready to elect a woman head of state – even though Nino Burjanadze served as Acting President in 2003-4. Others blamed the fact that Zurabishvili, then at least, spoke Georgian with a somewhat unusual accent and appeared sometimes to struggle to find the right word. More likely, she was the victim of a protest vote by disenchanted GD supporters. In any case, she finally assumed office in December 2018. From the outset, Zurabishvili wanted to be an active president, and to use to the maximum the few presidential prerogatives that the constitution gave her. In the meantime, a new hard-line team had taken over the Georgian Dream, and they expected nothing less than full obedience from their candidate. Zurabishvili was not for turning and the seeds of a constitutional crisis were sown, leading to this week’s impeachment proceedings.

The government knew it was unlikely to succeed with the impeachment given it did not have the necessary numbers in the parliament, but proceeded just the same. It sought the advice of the Constitutional Court, which as predicted, on 16 October ruled that the Constitution had been breached. It then moved the impeachment resolution to the parliament, where it only secured 86, out of the 100 votes necessary.

Salome Zurabishvili thus remains the president of Georgia. Yet this act of political folly comes with a diplomatic price. It puts question marks on the wisdom of the current government, and it makes Georgia appear increasingly like a banana republic, hardly fit to become an EU member anytime soon. And in this issue of EU membership, or at least for the moment the candidate status that Georgia seeks to get before the end of the year, lays the core cause of this political charade.

Western orientation and Euro-Atlantic aspirations leading to EU and NATO membership are foreign policy pillars on which both government and opposition in Georgia agree on, at least on paper. Yes, the Georgian Dream government has become increasingly awkward in the way it articulates its position (and that of the country), but it has not renounced to these broader ambitions. That the president of Georgia should feel she needs to contribute to this process, including by speaking to foreign governments is understandable, and should not in itself have been a controversial issue. The question is not why did she do it without the approval of the government – that is a technical question. But, more important is the question why did the government not give her permission, and in practice, tried to gag her? That is the political question that is being asked in Georgia, and in Europe. By trying to stop President Zurabishvili from pushing what is after all the broadly accepted foreign policy position of Georgia at a particularly sensitive time the government has inadvertently opened itself to the accusation that it is far from enthusiastic to push its own foreign policy, and that it has a hidden agenda.

Given the history and geo-political context, these shenanigans assume importance much bigger than the usual squabbles between politicians that one finds in every democracy. The Georgian opposition accuses the government of being a tool of Russia, and that it is on purpose trying to sabotage the prospects of Georgia achieving EU candidate status, on the orders of Moscow.

It is highly unlikely that the reality is as simple as this. The Georgian Dream remains a broad church, despite its haemorrhaging of members and political allies over the last decade that sees it today a shadow of the broad movement that it was when it swept to victory in Georgia in 2012. Within it are many who strongly support Georgia’s Western orientation and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Very few, even within the Georgian Dream would want to see Georgia aligned with Russia. But unfortunately, the devil is in the detail. For reasons, known, unknown, or presumed, the Georgian Dream has muddied the water of its own foreign policy, even whilst realising the high risk that such ambiguity creates. Salome Zurabishvili’s “sin” was that she tried to use her office as Head of State to project a clearer and more united vision for the future of Georgia and its foreign policy orientation. She may have overstepped her competence, but, for this, given the context, she should not have been subjected to impeachment.

source: This is an commentary prepared by the editorial team of


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