Dispatch – March 17/18: Change of Heart

Polish PM Arrives in Batumi – Ruling Party’s Spat with President Continues – Saakashvili Expects Zurabishvili in Prison for Joint Hunger Strike – New Data on ‘Russian Influx’ – Opposition Pushes for Zelenskyy’s Virtual Address in Parliament

There are many things that have worried Georgians since the first day of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. And there were many claims the authorities were making to address or rather deny those worries. But their latest statements show that things were not quite as once argued. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

Dispatch is our regular newsletter. Subscribe and find us on Twitter: @DispatchCivil and hear Civil.ge news first on Telegram: https://t.me/CivilGe_Live

WE’VE SUFFERED ENOUGH Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki arrived in the coastal city of Batumi, meet on March 17 Georgian counterpart Irakli Garibashvili to discuss Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, among other issues. There were expectations that the Georgian government’s controversial stance on the Russia sanctions would also be among discussion topics. In the media remarks afterward, Garibashvili reiterated support for Ukraine and said that Georgia has already paid “a heavy price” with 20% of the country’s territories being occupied by Russia.

The PM also said that after the 2008 war, “no sanctions were imposed by the world leaders then against Russia” (indeed, they were not even seriously considered). But he did not forget to lash out at the United National Movement government either, alleging that the former ruling party – instead of imposing sanctions – “sold strategic objects to Russian state companies, waived the visa regime for Russian nationals and backed Russia’s accession into World Trade Organization”. Of course he waived off the context and details of those decisions, which you may refer to if you follow the links to our archives. In Batumi, the two leaders also opened the monument of Lech Kaczyński, the late Polish president and Georgia’s known supporter. Read more here.

READ THE RULES After President Salome Zurabishvili (who turns 70 today) dared to criticize the ruling party on several counts in her annual parliamentary address days ago, the counterattacks from the Georgian Dream did not stop: aside from questioning the constitutionality of government-unapproved foreign visits, the GD also plans to challenge the President in the Constitutional Court (which it previously stacked with loyal judges) over competencies: the ruling party, apparently, has also harbored anger over President’s numerous refusals to appoint government-nominated ambassadors (read more). Even if so far the impeachment procedure remains off the table, there are fears the GD might join forces with its arch-rival United National Movement – which also despises the incumbent President – to get enough votes for President’s ousting.

WHAT PEOPLE WANT At least civil society jumped to President’s defense, arguing she was acting within constitutional norms in her controversial moves.  For example, key local watchdog Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association said on March 15 that while exercising the representative rights in European capitals despite government’s objections was “procedurally incompatible with the constitution,” the President’s moves were in line with the public demand when it comes to positioning over EU integration and Ukraine support. “The Constitution of Georgia obliges each constitutional body to take all measures to ensure Georgia’s full integration into the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Alliance,” GYLA said.

The watchdog thinks that the GD’s plans to challenge the President in court stem from the ruling party’s desire to restrict her constitutionally guaranteed discretionary powers in response to her latest decisions. It also believes that President’s moves to block the diplomats were constitutional: “The constitutionally defined competency for the President to appoint ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions entails the right to assess government-proposed candidacies and independently decide whether to enact the appointment order, ensuring the checks and balances principle among government bodies.”

INVITATION There is someplace Zurabishvili is quite welcome but would prefer not to go. “I am tried here today for crossing border {into Georgia}. She is challenged for crossing border {from Georgia},” jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili said in the courtroom during a hearing on March 17. According to the former President, if she continues her criticism, charges similar to those against him can be also brought against Zurabishvili, such as misspending (Zurabishvili, an esthete,  is said to have purchased some expensive decorations for presidential palace) or pardoning (for pardoning someone guilty for killing a police officer).

“I am expecting her in the 12th {penitentiary} facility, we can go on hunger strike together,” Misha suggested. Having shortly quit his second hunger strike, Saakashvili posed in a Ukrainian flag-colored shirt he claims to be a personal gift from Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director (earlier, Gvasalia – Georgian-born designer – signed a petition for Saakashvili’s release).

CAME TO STAY Addressing the Parliament on March 17, Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri said against earlier claims of the government that 12,638 Russian citizens have arrived and stayed in Georgia since Russia began the war in Ukraine. The information he gave came in contrast to earlier government claims denying the Russian influx against public perceptions and worries regarding the possible negative impact of the trend. But Gomelauri’s revelations were not the first sign that authorities were keeping an eye on the new visitors: media had reported before that newly-arrived Russian citizens have been apparently subjected to checks from Georgian security services.

RFE/RL Tbilisi bureau, citing its interviews with Russian visitors, said people from State Security Service started knocking on hostel doors to ask the Russian guests routine questions about their identities, activities, visits, check their social media and want to know what the guests think about the situation in Ukraine. The right answer to that question? We don’t know.

PROVE YOUR LOVE Latest in Ukraine-inspired domestic rows in Georgia: seemingly fascinated by a series of powerful video addresses of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to legislatures of various Western countries, Georgian opposition now wants some of that energy in their parliament too. It was Lelo for Georgia party that proposed to invite Zelenskyy to go live in the legislative body, as proof of Georgia’s true support for Ukraine, among others. But UNM’s Khatia Dekanoidze made things look quite real by claiming that the Ukrainian President is ready to find the time if such an offer comes from Tbilisi. The Georgian Dream so far looks unimpressed, with MP Mamuka Mdinaradze saying it is not up to MP Dekanoidze to settle a presidential video address. The discussion remains open and who knows, the hearts may change.

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life.