Oh, that awkward moment when the head of state shows up uninvited at a milestone-event in a country’s history. Georgia had just that moment on July 18, when its parliament endorsed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Just about everyone — foreign ambassadors, civil society figures and government ministers – was invited to parliament to give a big hand to Georgia’s European future. But President Giorgi Margvelashvili was not.
The tension between Margvelashvili, Georgia’s directly elected head of state, and its appointed head of government, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, has been on everyone’s lips for quite some time now. This time, it played out in public.
Throughout the day on July 18, reporters had wondered why the president was not on the guest list for Georgia’s official European début. “Not everyone can fit in this building,” responded Eka Beselia, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Georgia Dream coalition, chaired by Prime Minister Gharibashvili.
Margvelashvili put paid to that when he walked in as the parliamentary session was about to kick off and plopped down in a chair with a contented smile. “See, I have fit, haven't I?” he quipped to Beselia, Tabula.ge reported. It was left to Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili to fill the awkward pause with bows and greetings for all guests of the legislature.
Parliament unanimously approved the Association Agreement, and Margvelashvili and Beselia walked out from the hall together, both wearing happy smiles for the TV cameras.
To some, this might just appear another episode in the never-ending soap opera that is Georgian politics.
After nearly ten years of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, some Georgians have no problem with a prime minister flexing his muscles. The Constitution gives the president now a more ceremonial role.
But Gharibashvili’s increasing distaste for sharing any moment with Margvelashvili, however ceremonial, is raising questions about how the government’s understanding of “building democracy” actually runs.
For months before the document's ratification, Margvelashvili and Gharibashvili could not decide among themselves who gets to make history by signing the Association Agreement on June 27.
The Constitution grants the president the power to "conclude international treaties and agreements" and names him as Georgia's supreme representative in foreign affairs, but the PM and his supporters apparently saw this as more of a suggestion.
Gharibashvili claimed the pen as his. Eventually, Margvelashvili let go.
Many trace the withering of Margvelashvili's status to powerful ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s loss of love for the president, a onetime protégé.
Since Margvelashvili’s fall from favor, Gharibashvili, a former custodian for the billionaire’s business interests, has shown himself reluctant to share any limelight with him.
While the pen-fight may now be over, the end result of this struggle, cautioned political analyst Khatuna Lagazidze, a co-founder of the Georgian Institute of European Values, will do nothing for strengthening the institution of government in Georgia.
“No one has the right to privatize the Association Agreement . . . “ she commented to the daily Rezonansi on July 19.
Yet for now, President Margvelashvili, a doctor of philosophy, appears to be taking the long-term view . . . at least publicly.
When it comes to European integration, he commented on July 18, “we are all united over a common idea.”