From wine making to “color” revolutions, Georgia has had many firsts - but will it now become the first country to allow a non-citizen to become prime minister?
Politically, billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, head of the Georgian Dream coalition that triumphed in Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections, seems in line to become Georgia’s next prime minister. Except for one thing – he is not presently a Georgian citizen.
While the 56-year-old Ivanishvili was born and raised in Chorvila, a village 81 miles from Tbilisi, he lost his Georgian citizenship in 2011, when the government invoked a law that stipulates that Georgians cannot hold multiple citizenships. At the time, Ivanishvili was also a French and Russian citizen; he now retains only his French citizenship.
A nasty legal battle has raged during the past year over Ivanishvili’s citizenship; its revocation was largely perceived as politically motivated. The issue remains unresolved with two cases currently pending before Georgia’s Supreme Court.
For most Georgians, Ivanishvili’s lack of citizenship is a non-issue, noted Marina Muskhelishvili, director of the Center for Social Studies in Tbilisi. “If we had rule of law … this might become an issue,” said Muskhelishvili. “But everybody knows that [the] courts are not independent and that their decisions are directed [by the president]. … And, everybody acknowledges Bidzina as [a] true Georgian, so there are no problems with the … legitimization of his Georgian-ness.”
That might be the case, but there is nonetheless the matter of constitutionality. Georgia’s law on state employment stipulates that public officials must be Georgian citizens.
A constitutional amendment, introduced this May, and tailor-made for Ivanishvili, allows a European Union citizen born in Georgia, and who has lived continuously in Georgia for the past five years, to vote in or run for office in the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.
The amendment adds that constitutional limitations on a dual citizen being president, prime minister or parliamentary speaker “do not apply” to these provisions.
The wording of the amendment is proving a source of contention, since Ivanishvili no longer has dual citizenship. But some Georgians believe the amendment still clears the way for him to become prime minister.
Ivanishvili is among them. At an October 2 victory press conference, he dismissed questions from a reporter from the German media outlet Deutsche Welle about his legal right to be Georgia’s next prime minister, saying, with some confusion, that “there won’t be any problem.”
The amendment “allows citizens from EU member countries to be named prime minister,” he asserted. “The parliament chooses the prime minister, we will have the majority there, and there won't be any problem."
Under the constitution, however, Georgia’s parliament actually will not acquire such powers until after the next presidential election in 2013. The post currently is still nominated by the president.
Ivanishvili chose not to use the amendment to take part in this year’s parliamentary vote, and expressed similar reluctance “to use” it to become prime minister. Instead, he stressed, “the government should give the right to make a fair decision, and restore the Georgian citizenship that has been unlawfully revoked.”
A constitutional law expert from Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, MP-elect Vakhtang Khmaladze, agrees on that point, but emphasized that, under the constitution, Ivanishvili currently cannot become prime minister.
“When they were preparing the amendment, before it was passed, I told them it doesn't give Mr. Ivanishvili the right to become the prime minister. But representatives from the legal committee said that is not true and he can,” Khmaladze recounted.
If the new, Georgian-Dream-dominated parliament “should name Mr. Ivanishvili as prime minister, the United National Movement could take the case to the Constitutional Court and I am almost certain the Court would rule that the amendment does not give him the right [to be prime minister],” he said.
“The only solution is to return him his citizenship,” Khmaladze concluded.
Irakli Kobakhidze, a constitutional law professor at Tbilisi State University, shared Khmaladze’s general interpretation, saying the amendment’s “tricky” wording, which makes no specific mention of the “person” of the prime minister, leaves its application unclear. A “wide” interpretation would be required for Ivanishvili to use the amendment to become prime minister now, and that is not the current trend in Georgian courts, Kobakhidze said.
Somewhat surprisingly, UNM representatives say Ivanishvili is already entitled to become prime minister – even without Georgian citizenship.
"We created the constitutional amendment in order to allow him to specifically run for election, to participate in parliament and be considered for the post of prime minister,” said UNM spokesperson Chiora Taktakishvili, who served as first deputy chairperson of the last parliament’s Judicial Affairs Committee. “There is no room for any interpretation. … It is crystal clear.”
The issue could be quickly untangled by President Saakashvili, who holds the authority to nominate the prime minister. “If [Mikheil] Saakashvili would agree to name Ivanishvili [as prime minister], he automatically would restore his citizenship,” predicted Muskhelishvili, the Tbilisi social scientist.
Saakashvili has said he will not stand in the way of the Georgian Dream coalition to deciding on the composition of the next cabinet. Banking on the president’s pledge, Georgian-Dream parliamentarian-elect Archil Kbilashvili, a lawyer by profession, maintains that Ivanishvili will eventually become prime minister.
Saakashvili “said he would not obstruct it, and very soon – by the end of the month – we will probably see Mr. Ivanishvili in this position,” he forecast.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.