By Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili (@TsurtsumiaA )
Since 1997, the constitution of Georgia has obliged the President to address an annual report to parliament. Oddly, this aspect of the constitution has remained unrevised, even though all of the president’s other powers and competencies have been amended. The current President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, can be considered as the first non-partisan president of Georgia, but is opposed to most of the government policies. Georgia’s current semi-presidential constitutional model is premier-presidential, in which president holds little power over the rest of the executive branch.
For the third year in a row President Margvelashvili’s annual address to the parliament was preceded by political speculations, uncertainties and expectations.
The Constitution does not clearly define format or a length of the president’s address. Article 73 of the Constitution of Georgia states: “4. The President of Georgia shall have the right to address the people and Parliament. The President shall annually submit a report of crucial state-related issues to Parliament.”
This time, the format of the event became a source of disagreement between the political groups in Parliament. The major opposition party, the United National Movement, demanded an open political debate with the President after the speech. The Chair of the Parliament did not allow the debate, but the parliamentary factions were given the opportunity to make statements after the Presidential address.
In addition, in previous years the government, including the Prime Minister, refused to attend the presidential address, emphasising the political divisions between the president and the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
On February 3, 2016 President Margvelashvili arrived in Kutaisi to give a speech to parliament. The newly appointed PM, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and members of the Cabinet were present in the chamber along with chairperson of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, the central bank chief, and foreign diplomats. The Prime Minister’s presence marked the end of the boycott of the presidency by the executive branch. President Margvelashvili hinted at this issue in his speech: “Political or personal confrontation should not translate into infringement of fundamental, constitutional institutions,” he said.
The 55-minute long speech carried important messages and highlighted a number of issues related to the political and economic future of the country.
The president considered the economic situation in the country to be “difficult”. Further, he stressed the importance of using all the opportunities to strengthen the economy despite external shocks.
President Margvelashvili has declared 2016 as “a year of the European state”, highlighting his vision for the European future of Georgia “not as a guest in the family of the European states, but as a fully-fledged member of this union.” Furthermore, he noted that the “clear goal” should be turning from a “pro-Western state into Western State.” The President expects the European Commission to give the go-ahead to lifting visa requirements for Georgian citizens in the Schengen area this year meaning that “the European doors will open for the Georgian citizens for free movement.”
The President also raised the issue of electoral system reform: like many of the opposition parties, he has been advocating the scrapping of the majoritarian component of the electoral system at the 2016 parliamentary elections. The Georgian Dream ruling coalition, however, wants to do it after the 2016 elections.
The President noted that despite the general consensus about the future of the system, divisions remain on the timing: “I call on the political forces to carry out these changes in 2016,” he said.
The President also touched upon the issue of media freedom, emphasising the importance of having divergent and independent media sources in the election year. The President has called on the politicians to impose a “self-limitation” on themselves and to refrain from “assessing” media sources’ editorial policies.
“In an efficient democratic system strong political forces make key players,” Margvelashvili said, adding that strong political parties would add to diversity of Georgia’s political landscape, meaning voters will no longer face “the choice between bad and worse.”
President Margvelashvili also voiced his opinion on the issue of re-establishing good relations with Russia: “Relations [with the Russian Federation] should be based on the following points: like with any other country, Georgia aspires to relations based on equality; a united, strong, democratic and developed Georgia is a guarantee of security … in the Caucasus. Not a single country, including Russia, can achieve its own wellbeing at the expense of occupation of territories of neighbouring countries.”
At the same time, he said, Georgia should continue its policy of promoting non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the international stage. “We should not rest even for a second in this regard,” the President said. President has expressed his fears that Russia is “actively using soft power” in order to “neutralize” Georgia’s effort to secure territorial integrity and this is something that requires “close coordination with our western partners.”
The President said that economic relations with Russia should be welcomed, but warned that “soft power” can also be applied in this regard. “I have to reiterate that it concerns especially Gazprom,” stated Margvelashvili, and added that the Georgian government’s ongoing negotiations with Russian gas supplier Gazprom should be carried out “transparently.”
“The Euro-Atlantic integration remains Georgia’s priority. We will use all the instruments that NATO makes available for strengthening our defence capabilities. We will continue efforts for joining NATO,” said the president, and acknowledged the Georgian army forces for their contribution to operations.
President’s annual address was met with criticism from the opposition political groups (UNM, NPC, FD) in the parliament as expected, but representatives of the ruling coalition Georgian Dream did not hide their disagreement with his statements either.
However, the tone of the presidential address and the priorities of the government presented by the PM Kvirikashvili to the parliament of Georgia a couple of months ago showed more unity than division.
For the full text of the address, please visit www.president.gov.ge