Georgian President Speaks of Recent Pardoning, Anti-vaxxer Clerics, and Foreign Policy

President Salome Zurabishvili gave a 45-minute long interview to Rustavi 2 TV, discussing a number of hot-button issues – recent controversial pardoning of “political prisoners,” COVID-19 situation, and Georgia’s foreign policy towards Ukraine and Russia.

Pardoning of opposition leaders

In an interview aired on May 19, Zurabishvili tried to account for her decision to pardon two inmates – a move which has been contested by the ruling Georgian Dream Party.

The President said crucial figures from the Georgian Dream party – Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze, as well as the ruling party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili – were notified before about the pardoning.

Zurabishvili’s account contradicts with MP Irakli Kobakhidze’s statement, who – while voicing GD’s official position – claimed that President’s decision had caught the party officials off guard.

The President denied claims that Georgian Dream’s party boss had any bearing on her decision. “I did not act on my emotions, or in accordance with legal reasoning. I rather made a decision which will benefit the state,” the President stated.

Zurabishvili reiterated remarks made in televised address that she acted “in her capacity as an impartial” arbiter of Georgian politics, aiming at ending political deadlock prompted by controversy around the March 8 agreement.

“We need to weather economic and social crisis set off by COVID-19 with little suffering,” noted the President. She stressed that, given these trying circumstances, political “tensions and attempts to stir disorder” would further menace the country.

The President also sought to downplay prominent U.S. senators’ statement, demanding “release of politically-motivated detainees” in Georgia. Zurabishvili ascribed lawmakers remarks to them being “ill-informed” about the local context, and appealed to “all sides” to express more “self-restraint” while commenting on the issue.

COVID-19 and the Orthodox Church

The President highlighted her cordial relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church, and its supreme leader Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.

Meanwhile, Zurabishvili denounced skeptical attitudes towards vaccines and COVID-19 treatment espoused by “some Orthodox clergymen” as “absolutely unacceptable.”

While slamming anti-vaxxer clerics, the President stressed the importance of driving a wedge between matters lay and spiritual .

“[Their statements] amount to an interference into public health matters, which could have grave ramifications” for the society, she said.

On strained relations with Ukraine

The President also touched on the growing rifts between Ukraine of Georgia, following appointment of former President Mikheil Saakashvili as the head of the Executive Reform Committee by her Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In this context, Zurabishvili fully endorsed the measures taken by vexed Georgian authorities, including recalling of the Ambassador from Kyiv “for consultations.”

She underscored that maintaining a steady bilateral relationship served the interests of both nations, and suggested Ukraine should have reflected more before upsetting Georgian authorities.

Ukraine should call into question its rationale for tapping a person who is persecuted for criminal offenses in “a partner country,” Zurabishvili remarked.

On renewing ‘one-on-one dialogue’ with Russia

The President entertained a possibility of launching a dialogue with the common foe of Georgia and Ukraine – Russia – albeit with some reservations.

Zurabishvili stressed that any attempt to directly engage with Russia should be based on a clear-cut agenda, and disapproved of a “dialogue in name only.”

Touting her diplomatic credentials, Zurabishvili referred to her own track record as Georgia’s Foreign Minister in Saakashvili’s cabinet (2004-2005), and credited herself for brokering an agreement with Russia that allowed for withdrawal of Russian troops from military bases located in Georgia.

The President highlighted that it was “the single agreement in our history, which was not breached by Russia,” – achieved through tête-à-tête negotiations with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Meanwhile, Zurabishvili underlined that she had insisted on informing EU and U.S. Ambassadors about the contents of the talks, and kept them abreast of her negotiations with Russia.

Zurabishvili recognized that Georgia was “a small state,” and it could not allow itself to engage in talks with a bigger country – Russia – without a strong backing from Western partners.

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