TBILISI — When the European Union cracked open its door to Georgia last year, it made its invitation to formal candidate status conditional on the country reducing the polarization that has long vexed its domestic politics.
But before Brussels makes its critical decision on Georgia’s candidacy in October, the country is embroiled in yet another bitter internal power struggle.
President Salome Zurabishvili is on a tour of Europe that so far has taken her to Berlin, Brussels, and Paris to promote Georgia’s EU candidacy. But the Georgian Constitution requires the president — whose position is largely symbolic — to get permission from the government before conducting any foreign policy activities. According to the government, Zurabishvili asked for permission for the trip but was refused.
On the same day that she was warmly greeted in Brussels by European Council President Charles Michel, who praised her “personal commitment to advancing the European perspective of Georgia,” back at home she was in trouble. The ruling Georgian Dream party announced on September 1 that it intended to launch impeachment proceedings against Zurabishvili.
Zurabishvili and European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels on May 30
Party officials have accused her of not promoting the country’s EU candidacy but herself. Party Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said that the nominally independent Zurabishvili was acting in concert with Georgia’s political opposition to undermine the government: “They are doing everything so that Georgia is not given candidate status; this is their main interest. [While] at the same time, if the country is given candidate status, Salome Zurabishvili will try her best to attribute this decision to herself.”
Georgian Dream officials have acknowledged that they don’t have the votes in parliament to carry out the impeachment. But the demonstrative effort is a sign of the political jockeying that is intensifying as the EU decision looms: As Georgians gain confidence from recent signals that their bid may be successful, attention in Tbilisi is turning to who does and does not deserve credit for the potentially landmark decision.
Georgia applied for EU candidate status shortly after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, along with Ukraine and Moldova. While those two latter countries were awarded candidate status in June 2022, Georgia was instead given an EU “perspective” and a list of reforms it should implement. In addition to tackling political polarization and other issues, the European Commission has recommended Georgia address judicial reform, increase the fight against corruption and organized crime, and commit to “de-oligarchization.” In October, the EU will decide — based on its perception of the progress Georgia has made on those reforms — whether to award it candidate status.
Many in Georgia’s political opposition and anti-government civil society groups argue that the government’s efforts leave much to be desired. They point to the government’s spotty implementation of the EU-demanded reforms, as well as a series of foreign policy moves that have called into question the country’s once ironclad devotion to a Euro-Atlantic orientation. The critics argue that a positive decision from the EU would thus allow Georgian Dream to claim credit it doesn’t deserve and could boost the party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2024. They say the EU should advance Tbilisi’s membership prospects but in a way that frames the gesture as an acknowledgment of Georgians’ national will to become part of Europe rather than anything their government did.
“We are asking the European structures to give us the status, but make it very clear that the status was given to the Georgian people and Georgian society, and it was not deserved by the government,” said Keti Khutsishvili, the executive director of the Open Society Foundation of Georgia, part of the network of civil society groups founded by financier and philanthropist George Soros.
The country’s largest opposition party, the United National Movement, is going to launch a campaign in Europe for a decision from Brussels “to keep Georgia on the path to EU membership, but, at the same time, to allow the Georgian people to elect a pro-European, rule-of-law government,” said the party’s secretary for international relations, Zurab Chiaberashvili.
Zurabishvili speaks during the plenary session at European Parliament in Brussels on May 31.
Georgian Dream, meanwhile, accuses the opposition and Zurabishvili of trying to sabotage the EU bid for their own gain and argues that a positive decision from Brussels should be credited only to them. In comments criticizing the president’s tour, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said the party deserves “exclusive” credit for advancing Georgia’s European aspirations.
Zurabishvili has become a particular target for Georgian Dream’s ire, given her increasingly outspoken role. While she has few formal powers, her popularity has risen as she has voiced strongly pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian views even as the ruling party has adopted an increasingly transactional stance with its Western partners and even dabbled in anti-Western conspiracy theories. Most controversially, the government mooted a “foreign agent” law — which Zurabishvili said would bring Georgia “closer to the flawed Russian model and not to the European model” — before huge street protests forced the party to back down.
Despite the EU demands that the country reduce it, Georgian Dream sees polarization as one of its most useful political tools, said Vano Abramishvili, an analyst and head of the Peace Program at the Tbilisi-based NGO Caucasian House. And Zurabishvili’s rising stature has made her a threat to the party, especially with elections coming up next year. “Zurabishvili is very popular and she might do something on her own, like form a political party or something, and they want to destroy her,” Abramishvili told RFE/RL.
Thousands of demonstrators marched through the Tbilisi on March 8 to protest against government plans to introduce a “foreign agent” law reminiscent of Russian legislation used to silence critics.
Zurabishvili’s disobedience of the government orders to stay home — epitomized by a viral Instagram post of her grinning widely on a speeding German train — cemented her popularity among pro-Western Georgians. It represents a remarkable turnaround from when she was elected in 2018, when that same bloc dismissed her as a Georgian Dream puppet. But not long after she was elected, Georgian Dream began to tack in an antidemocratic direction, and she gradually began to push back against the party. And when the government responded timidly to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, she spoke forcefully at pro-Ukraine rallies.
During her tenure, her popularity ratings have risen significantly: Early in her time in office, in 2019, 57 percent of respondents in a poll from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute saw her unfavorably, versus 36 percent who saw her favorably. The same poll, in March of this year, found those numbers had changed to 47 and 48, respectively, making her one of only three Georgian political figures with a net positive favorability rating.
The friendly reception she is receiving in European capitals demonstrates that her star is rising there, as well. And the impeachment proceedings against her will not help Georgia’s case, said Sonja Schiffers, the director of the Tbilisi office of the German-based Heinrich Boell Foundation.
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze (second right) has said Zurabishvili was acting in concert with Georgia’s political opposition to undermine the government. (file photo)
“If you would want to trust that the government acts in good faith and genuinely wants to get candidacy, then it’s quite unbelievable to start this process now,” Schiffers told RFE/RL. “So, I think this is another really big dubious incident after the foreign agent law and it puts the status into question.”
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, is slated to report on Georgia’s progress in its annual enlargement report, which will also assess Moldova’s and Ukraine’s bids to join the bloc. Then in December, the EU’s 27 member states will vote on whether to advance Georgia’s application.
It remains far from a given how the commission will decide, but pro-European Georgians have been cheered by recent signals coming from Brussels, impeachment drama notwithstanding. European Council President Michel has recently advocated speeding up the enlargement process and has pointedly included Georgia in his remarks.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, is visiting Tbilisi on September 7-8 in what appears to be a hastily organized bid to shore up Tbilisi’s chances for advancement. He will meet with Zurabishvili, Gharibashvili, and other officials.
“Borrell’s visit is a clear sign that the European Union is trying, it’s grasping at straws with Georgia, trying to take every opportunity to give Georgia status,” political analyst Khatuna Lagazidze told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “Borrell would not come to say no,” she said, but added that the case for a positive decision still needed to be strengthened.
Ahead of the visit, Borrell was asked by Georgian news website Civil.ge about Zurabishvili’s impeachment, and he gave her a clear endorsement: “We appreciate the president’s commitment to European values and her European vision for Georgia. Unity is more important than ever,” he said. The implications for Georgia’s politics will likely be on the mind of policymakers in Brussels as they make their decision. “It’s a tough call, because if you give Georgia candidacy, it’s almost rewarding this government, which is backsliding on democracy. And [the government] can say, ‘See, we got us the invitation.’ But if you don’t give it to them, then they’re going to say, ‘The West doesn’t want us, so there is only Russia,'” said Brian Whitmore, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, in an interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “There is no good option here.”
While the European Commission should not weigh the Georgian domestic political implications of its decision too heavily, it may seek to use language that minimizes the benefit that the government can extract from a positive decision, Schiffers said. For example, it could say that it is advancing Georgia’s application “despite the lack of implementation” of the reforms.
“I expect that they will be explicit about this,” she said.
Georgian opposition party Lelo has begun a process of consultation with other opposition groups regarding the possibility of impeaching Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili over allegations of personal use of state resources.
On Sunday, an MP from the Lelo party, Levan Samushia, accused Gharibashvili of abusing his office and called on other members of the opposition to support the party’s initiative to impeach the prime minister.
Samushia cited a TV Pirveli investigation into a trip Gharibashvili had taken to the United States. The investigation, which aired on Saturday, alleged that Gharibashvili used a government plane to fly to Munich on 19 August, where he caught a connection flight to America. The plane reportedly remained in Munich to fly Gharibashvili back to Georgia on 28 August.
Gharibashvili’s trip has caused controversy in Georgia, as critics have questioned the prime minister’s alleged use of state assets for personal travel.
Vakhushti Menabde, a constitutional lawyer, wrote that Gharibashvili could be impeached if found in violation of the constitution or proven guilty of a crime.
He added that the opposition would require at least 50 votes in parliament to begin the impeachment process, and would require at least 76 in order to dismiss Gharibashvili.
On Monday, Irakli Kobakhidze, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, dismissed Lelo’s plans to impeach Gharibashvili as ‘speculation and nonsense’, while the party’s general secretary and mayor of Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze, accused the opposition of trying to distract the public from the proposed impeachment of President Salome Zurabishvili.
Zurabishvili is currently subject to an impeachment process for carrying out official visits in Europe that were not sanctioned by the government.
[Read on OC Media: Georgian Dream to begin impeachment proceedings against president]
‘For example, when it comes to the impeachment of the president because we actually have a very big crime when the president violates the constitution. This is the most difficult issue’, said Kaladze.
The United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition group, also condemned Gharibashvili’s visit and called on him to resign. The party’s chair, Levan Khabeishvili, stated that the prime minister should also be detained.
‘Gharibashvili should not only resign and then be replaced by [Culture Minister Tea] Tsulukiani or [Irakli] Kobakhidze, but he should be detained. The fact that we will support his resignation is clear to everyone, although this person should also be held criminally responsible for these specific crimes’, said Khabeishvili.
The UNM’s anti-corruption secretary, Vaso Urushadze, and the party’s lawyer, Lasha Tkesheladze, on Monday submitted a request to the General Prosecutor’s Office to investigate possible crimes committed by Gharibashvili, namely abuse of power and accepting bribes.
On the same day, members of the UNM’s youth wing held a protest in front of the government chancellery in Tbilisi demanding Gharibashvili’s resignation.
Footage from the demonstration shows Igor Narmania, the youth wing’s secretary, being detained for attempting to spray paint the ground in front of the building.
‘Now, with this inscription, we must remind Irakli Gharibashvili that he is Russian’, said Narmania moments before he was dragged away by the police.
On Sunday, six civil society organisations called on the State Security Services to launch an investigation into Gharibashvili’s alleged misappropriation of state resources.
Gharibashvili has yet to comment on Lelo’s intent to impeach him.
‘A charter scandal’
In its investigation, Pirveli reported that Gharibashvili had travelled with his 18-year-old son, Nikoloz Gharibashvili, to Munich on a government plane.
Nikoloz Gharibashvili is currently studying in America.
Once news broke of Gharibashvili’s visit on Thursday, the Georgian Department of Strategic Communication stated that the prime minister’s flights were not financed from the state budget.
‘The prime minister travelled to the USA on a passenger plane, on regular, commercial flights of various airlines, both during his official and private visits’, stated the agency, which confirmed that Gharibashvili had chartered the flight to ‘a European city’.
The department issued a follow-up statement after Pirveli’s report, accusing the opposition TV of spreading ‘disinformation’.
It explained that the plane Gharibashvili had taken to Munich was on the ‘balance sheet of the Special State Protection Service’ (SSPS) and that he had personally paid for its use on that occasion.
The SSPS is a security agency tasked with protecting high-ranking officials in Georgia.
‘The SSPS has the right to receive income from governmental and budgetary structures, as well as from non-governmental, commercial, and private individuals. A similar commercial flight has been performed many times before’, concluded the statement.
Pirveli also reported that Gharibashvili had made use of SSPS officers to receive guests attending the birthday of his wife, Nunu Tamazashvili.
Gharibashvili has previously come under scrutiny for exorbitant spending and purchases beyond his means; in his 2022 financial declaration, Gharibashvili stated that his annual salary was worth about ₾45,000 ($17,200) and that he had received ₾150 thousand ($57,300) from his parents.
Pirveli reported in late 2021 that Georgia’s National Forestry Agency had transferred a lease over 5,958 square metres of publicly owned forests in Bakuriani to Gharibashvili’s wife.
[Read on OC Media: Georgian PM’s wife granted publicly owned forest]
In April 2020, several months after his return to politics as Defence Minister, RFE/RL reported that Gharibashvili had failed to declare his and his wife’s collection of luxury wristwatches, reportedly exceeding ₾500,000 ($160,000) in value.
The post Georgian opposition moves to impeach prime minister for ‘misuse of state assets’ appeared first on OC Media.
The US Embassy in Azerbaijan paid tribute to those killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Azernews reports, citing the Embassy.
“Today our Embassy, led by Chargé d’Affaires Hugo Guevara, marked the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and remembered those who lost their lives. We will never forget how Azerbaijan stood with the United States during this tragic time,” the embassy wrote on X.
On September 11, 2001, the United States was struck by a devastating terrorist attack that took the lives of thousands of innocent people. The US Embassy in Azerbaijan paid tribute to those killed in the attacks, and around the world, memorials and services were held in their honor.
In Madrid, staff from the US Embassy placed a floral wreath at a memorial in Juan Carlos I Park, and two giant light beams pierced the night sky to represent the Twin Towers. Flags flew at half-staff outside NATO headquarters in Brussels, where Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, and Douglas D. Jones, the US chargé d’affaires, held a moment of silence at the Sept. 11 memorial.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India described the 9/11 attack as an “attack on humanity,” while French President Emmanuel Macron posted a video on Twitter with a caption that translates to, “We will #NeverForget. We will always fight for freedom.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas released a statement saying that his country will never “forget that fateful day,” and South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his deepest condolences to President Biden and the US.
The anniversary of the September 11 attacks is a time to remember the lives lost and the legacies left behind. We will never forget the victims, survivors, and families affected by the tragedy, and we will continue to honor their memory.
Follow us on Twitter @AzerNewsAz
YEREVAN, SEPTEMBER 11, ARMENPRESS. The Azeri propaganda has again targeted Nagorno-Karabakh with more fake news. This time, the disinformation was branded by Nagorno-Karabakh as “beyond all reason.”
The Azeri authorities falsely accused Nagorno-Karabakh’s military of attempting to carry out an animal-borne bomb attack.
Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday denied the accusation as an “entirely made-up fake report.”
“The new false statement issued by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense alleging that around 08:30, September 11, the Defense Army units strapped an improvised explosive device on a dog’s neck and forced it to cross into the Azerbaijani side to carry out a ‘terror’ act is entirely made-up and fake,” the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry said in a statement.
TEHRAN, Sept. 11 (Xinhua) — Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said on Monday that Azerbaijan’s officials have sent a message to Tehran stressing that they do not seek to take any military action against Armenia.
Kanaani made the remarks at a weekly press conference in Iran’s capital Tehran, responding to a question about the recent rise in tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Iran is in constant contact with both sides and is concerned about the possibility of a conflict, Kanaani said.
Kanaani emphasized that Iran is committed to the security of its borders and against any change in the region’s geopolitical conditions and internationally recognized borders, calling for both Azerbaijan and Armenia to respect each other’s territorial integrity and refrain from moves to escalate tensions.
Kanaani’s comments come amid rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh last week.
Azerbaijan said on Saturday that Armenian forces had fired on its soldiers overnight and that Azerbaijan army units had responded by taking “retaliatory measures.” Armenia denied the incident.
The two countries have been at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh since 1988. They fought a war over the region in the early 1990s, which ended with a ceasefire in 1994.
A new round of armed conflict broke out along the contact line on Sept. 27, 2020, before Russia brokered a ceasefire on Nov. 9, 2020. Enditem