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Georgian President in disagreement with government over exclusion from security council

14 February 2019
Salome Zurabishvili (Mari Nikuradze /OC Media)

Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili has found herself at odds with the ruling Georgian Dream party over their decision to deny her a permanent seat on the country’s new National Security Council (NSC). Meanwhile, a former deputy secretary of the NSC told OC Media that this was not the biggest problem with the new council, and warned of the ‘excessive powers’ it’s new head may wield.

The row is the first public disagreement between the president, who was elected as an independent candidate in November’s election, and the party that backed her.

The government and other leaders of the ruling party said on Wednesday that the president could not be given a permanent seat on the council.

Later that day, Zurabishvili’s parliamentary secretary, Dimitri Gabunia, met parliamentary Defense and Security Committee chair Irakli Sesiashvili to discuss the issue.

Gabunia was vocal both before and after the meeting that the president wished to safeguard her access to new NSC at her discretion, even if she would not be a permanent member of the council.

Gabunia reiterated that Zurabishvili’s ‘principled’ position was to have a seat at the Council table because she was supreme commander of the armed forces, and said her position would not change.

Both Gabunia and Sesiashvili insisted to journalists after Thursday’s talks that there was ‘no conflict’ between the president and Georgian Dream, but admitted that more negotiations were needed to reach an agreement.

A new council

Parliament approved a draft law to establish the security council in its first reading on 13 February.

Unlike the previous council, which was headed by the president, the new NSC would be an advisory body at the disposal of the prime minister.

If the government-initiated amendments are approved, the permanent members of the new NSC would be the prime minister, ministers of defence, interior, foreign affairs, and finance, the heads of the state security and intelligence services, and the commander of the defence forces.

The government’s parliamentary secretary, Natia Mikeladze, cited presidential duties under ‘the current constitutional model’ as the reason for the president’s exclusion.

Zurabishvli’s inauguration on 16 December 2017 brought constitutional amendments into force shifting the presidency to a primarily ceremonial role.

Amidst a fallout between former president Giorgi Margvelashvili and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanisvhili in 2014, then–prime minister Irakli Gharibashvili set up a separate State Security and Crisis Management Council.

The opposition European Georgia Party criticised the move labelling it ‘parallelism’.

After work on new constitutional amendments in 2016–2017, the ruling party decided to axe the security council under the president, a decision legally coming into force with the inauguration of new president Zurabishvili, with the new NSC being chaired instead by the Prime Minister.

‘Excessive powers’

Teona Akubardia, a former deputy secretary of the NSC, told OC Media that the president’s exclusion was not the main problem with the bill.

She said that there would have been less controversy if the drafting process had not been so ‘closed’, as the government failed to discuss the mandate of the revamped NSC with local and international experts before submitting it to parliament.

She warned that because the council would almost certainly be headed by one of the ministers, the chair of the council ‘would have excessive supervisory powers’, which could ‘potentially un tip the political balance between the ministries’.

She said that the country could end up with a national security council chair with more political power than the prime minister.

There has been growing media speculation about the influence within the government of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who, as one of the permanent members of the NSC, could end up as its head.

Zurab Agladze, founder of local think-tank the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre, said that the new NSC risked concentrating too much power in one minister. ‘In this case, probably, it will be Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia’, Agladze told Georgian news site For.ge.

Akubardia also said that the bill did not reflect the security challenges facing the country, as according to her, the NSC office would be similar to that of a law enforcement agency or a ‘secret service’.

‘It looks like a more militarised version, and more exposed to political instrumentalisation’, Akubardia said.