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Georgian court finds President Zurabishvili guilty of violating constitution

16 October 2023
Salome Zurabishvili at the pro-EU demonstration organised by her in Tbilisi on 16 June 2022. Shota Kincha/OC Media

Georgia’s Constitutional Court has found President Salome Zurabishvili guilty of violating the constitution, which will allow the ruling party to hold a parliamentary vote on impeaching the president in the coming fortnight.

The court found that Zurabishvili had violated the constitution by making official visits abroad in August and September, after the government refused to grant her official permission to do so. Constitutional court president Merab Turava stated on Monday that the decision could not be appealed or revised. 

[Read more: Georgian president defies government with European visit]

Ruling party chair Irakli Kobakhidze announced at a briefing on Monday that the final vote on impeaching Zurabishvili would be held in parliament this week. 

‘A majority of the MPs elected by the Georgian people in 2020 will confirm that Salome Zurabishvili is no longer worthy to hold the high office of the President of Georgia’, stated Kobakhidze. 

The verdict allows the ruling party to proceed with impeachment proceedings against Zurabishvili, with the final stage being a parliamentary vote. 100 out of 150 sitting MPs would need to support the president’s impeachment for the motion to be passed; a figure that the ruling party is unlikely to achieve, given the opposition’s declaration that they would not support the president’s impeachment.

While senior figures in the ruling Georgian Dream party have acknowledged that a vote in favour of Zurabishvili’s impeachment is unlikely, party chair Irakli Kobakhidze argued in September that it was important to go through with the procedure for the sake of the rule of law, as well as to ‘expose a common agenda’ allegedly shared by Georgia’s president and its opposition; the latter an apparent reference to the expected failure of the vote in parliament.

[Read on OC Media: Georgian Dream to begin impeachment proceedings against president]

Speaking on Monday, Kobakhidze stated that there was ‘practically no chance’ of gathering the 100 votes required to impeach the president, claiming that Zurabishvili had violated the constitution on the basis of the assumption that the opposition United National Movement party would refuse to impeach her. 

‘No matter how the impeachment procedure ends, we have already achieved the goal that was set: the violation of Georgia’s constitution by Salome Zurabishvili did not go unanswered’, said Kobakhidze. 

Maia Kopaleishvili, one of Zurabishvili’s lawyers, told IPN that ‘the Constitutional Court really had neither legal nor factual basis to confirm the violation of the constitution by the president’.

‘If the court were acting under fair conditions [...] this decision should not have been made’, she claimed.

According to Turava, three out of nine judges who took part in the case did not conclude that Zurabishvili had violated the constitution, although whether they had voted against or withheld their conclusions was not made public. 

Speaking several hours before the constitutional court announced its verdict, Turava stated that the court was not under pressure, and would have publicly announced if it were. 

‘There was no pressure’, stated Turava. ‘We don’t need any pressure, even without pressure we know what kind of decision we have to make.’

Disagreements over official visits and European relations

Impeachment proceedings against Zurabishvili began after the president embarked on a series of official visits to meet with senior European officials, despite having been denied permission to do so. 

Article 52 of Georgia’s constitution states that the President can exercise representative powers in foreign relations only with the consent of the government.

In defiance of the government’s refusal, Zurabishvili met with a number of European leaders in Germany, France, and Belgium in September, advocating for Georgia’s EU membership candidacy. 

Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili meeting with Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo: Salome Zurabishvili/Facebook

The EU is set to make a decision regarding Georgia’s EU membership candidate status in November. In June 2022, Ukraine and Moldova received EU candidate status while Georgia’s application was declined, with the country instead given 12 conditions to meet before its application could be reexamined.

Two of the conditions related to addressing ‘the issue of political polarisation’ and ‘ensuring a judiciary that is fully independent, accountable and impartial’. 

The process of Zurabishvili’s impeachment began on 1 September, when Kobakhidze launched both the relevant government procedure and announced that a complaint would be filed with the constitutional court.

Zurabishvili’s trial began on 3 October at the Constitutional Court in Batumi, and was not attended by the president. Kobakhidze, who is a constitutional lawyer, was one of the lawyers for the prosecution. 

Tamar Chugoshvili, a former member of the Georgian Dream party, and Maia Kopaleishvili, a former judge, defended the president.

A number of leading opposition figures decried the decision shortly after it was announced.

Badri Japaridze, of the opposition Lelo party, stated that the decision had ‘proven once again that the Constitutional Court is a blind executor of the will of Georgian Dream’.

Tina Bokuchava, chair of the parliamentary faction United National Movement — Unified Opposition — Unity Makes Strength, said that ‘the political circus organised by Ivanishvili in the form of impeachment damages our country, the country’s national interests and the European integration process’. Bokuchava was referring to former prime minister, and billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is frequently referred to as Georgia’s ‘informal ruler’. 

Vakhushti Menabde, a constitutional lawyer, noted that the parliament was not obliged to impeach the president on the basis of the court’s ruling, and could still vote against her removal. 

However, he explained that were parliament to vote for Zurabishvili’s impeachment, a new president would be elected within 45 days. While Zurabishvili was elected through public elections, a change in the law in 2018 means that the following president will be elected by the electoral college, a group of 300 individuals including all members of parliament, approved by the Central Election Commission (CEC).

In June, the ruling party passed amendments giving more power to parliament and the speaker of parliament in deciding the makeup of the CEC. The changes introduced a system that would allow the speaker of parliament to nominate all CEC candidates based on a shortlisted selection of candidates provided by a separate commission, depriving the president of Georgia of the ability to nominate candidates.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.