On December 23, Irakli Gharibashvili announced resignation, ending his two-year-long tenure as the prime minister of Georgia. Week later, the Parliament approved his replacement - former Economy and Foreign Affairs Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili. The appointment of a technocratic and politically-savvy head of government sparked discussion on the possible president-prime ministerial rapprochement. While it is probable that the conflict will be considerably tuned down in coming few months, the nature of Georgia’s institutional arrangement leaves no room for complete and lasting political truce between the two parts of the executive branch.
The unexpected results of 2012 Parliamentary elections caught Georgia’s political system largely off guard. The transfer of power and the ensuing cohabitation between President Mikheil Saakashvili (United National Movement) and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (Georgian Dream Coalition) appeared to be difficult for Georgia’s nascent political institutions. The country struggled through constant political tug-of-war as the parties failed to reach consensus on almost all pressing issues for the country.
Enactment of constitutional amendments in 2013 added a further pressure on Georgia’s already strained political system. Under the new constitutional framework, presidential powers were largely curtailed; the president lost control over the appointment and dismissal of prime minister and cabinet members and is no longer the chief executive responsible for implementing internal and external policies. Adjusting to such a fundamental institutional change required a fair amount of preparedness and understanding from all political actors, which Georgia failed to secure given the prevailing tit-for-tat political culture in the country.
Apart from that, the change in the institutional arrangement coincided with the transfer of prime ministerial and presidential offices. In November, 2013 – the candidate of the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition Giorgi Margvelashvili replaced President Saakashvili and the Prime Minister Ivanishvili was succeeded by Georgian Dream’s Irakli Gharibashvili. Since ideological distance between the president and the cabinet narrowed down, many rushed to conclude that the institutional conflict would gradually fade away as the new tandem would start acting in harmony. However, against all the odds, newly sworn leaders continued the practice of conflictive relationship and disagreed on many important terms.
Similarly to Margvelashvili-Gharibashvili pair, Margvelashvili-Kvirikashvili’s co-existence is formally under the unified government as the president has not officially denounced his allegiance to the Georgian Dream Coalition. Therefore, understanding why intra-executive conflicts occurred under the previous prime minister, might hold the key to predicting the nature of Kvirikashvili-Margvelashvili relations. A closer look at Georgia’s constitutional arrangement and the episodes of intra-executive conflicts sheds the light on this intriguing question.
Over the last two decades, semi-presidential constitutional arrangement, where a popularly elected fixed-term president co-exists with a prime minister and cabinet collectively responsible to the legislature, has emerged as the most widespread form of government among post-communist Central and Eastern European countries. Unlike its practical popularity however, theoretical characterization of the regime has not been seen entirely positive; because semi-presidential constitutions create a potential for conflictive relationship between two executives – the cabinet and the president – many commentators and political scientists, have viewed semi-presidentialism as perilous regime type. It has been argued that the underlying reason for the occurrence of conflicts is built into semi-presidential constitutions – which contain rather ambiguous provisions.
"conduct negotiations with other countries and international organizations in agreement with the Government, conclude international agreements and treaties, appoint and dismiss ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives of Georgia on the recommendation of the Government..."
The Constitution of Georgia illustrates the argument best. According to Paragraph 1 of Article 73 of the Constitution, the President of Georgia shall: “conduct negotiations with other countries and international organizations in agreement with the Government, conclude international agreements and treaties, appoint and dismiss ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives of Georgia on the recommendation of the Government...” At the same time, Article 78 states that “the Government of Georgia shall be the supreme body of executive power to implement the internal and foreign policy of the country.” Along with the fact that the two provisions come into contradiction to each other, the provision “conduct negotiations with other countries and international organizations in agreement with the Government, conclude international agreements and treaties”, does not answer whether governmental agreement is needed for only conducting negotiations or both – conducting negotiations and concluding international agreements and treaties.
Two episodes are presented to demonstrate how the constitutional ambiguity plays out into intra-executive conflicts:
On June 27, 2014 Georgia signed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Although Article 73 of the Constitution suggests that the signatory from Georgian side could also have been the president, it was the prime minister to put his signature on the Agreement. On May 20, 2014 President Margvelashvili announced that the Association Agreement with the European Union should have been signed by the President of Georgia arguing that the constitutional right to do so was within his authority. On May 23, PM Gharibashvili declared that the government and the parliamentary majority had decided that the prime minister and not the president would sign the agreement. On May 27, Margvelashvili issued a presidential order delegating the right to sign the Association Agreement to the prime minister so as to avoid the signature of the Association Agreement by an unauthorized person. Enforcement of this order necessitated countersignature from Gharibashvili, which he declined to do, claiming that he required no additional authority to sign the Agreement.
On July 8, 2014 Office of the Prime Minister issued a statement that Gharibashvili would address the UN General Assembly in September and would participate in other UN events as the head of the Georgian delegation, including the Climate Change Summit. Under the previous government, the head of the Georgian delegation and the speaker at UN General Assembly was usually the president. On the same day, Office of the President announced that President Margvelashvili had received an invitation from UN Secretary General to attend the Climate Change Summit, conducted a day before the opening of the UN General Debate. On September 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would be the prime minister who would attend the Climate Change Summit. Despite the statement, the president went on with organizing his visit without Foreign Ministry’s involvement. The dispute was settled on September 11, after the former Prime Minister Ivanishvili spoke against President Margvelashvili and accused him of obstructing the government activities. In response, President Margvelashvili organized a press conference and stated that his visit was “thwarted” as a result of “serious, organized efforts”. He accused the Government of disrespecting his constitutional role and of monopolizing the executive power in the Cabinet.
It follows from discussion that conflict is embedded in Georgia’s constitutional arrangement and that no fundamental breakthrough should be expected in this regards. Several things however, need to be noted: 1) appointment of Kvirikashvili, as a technocratic prime minister will invite lessen presidential activism; 2) much depends on the results of the 2016 Parliamentary Elections as well; if the winning party/block fails to garner decisive majority in the parliament, the presidential veto will obtain far more power that it has at the moment resulting into the increase of his activism.