Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili is increasingly distancing herself from the ruling Georgian Dream party that helped her win the elections. Zourabishvili opposes the Georgian Dream increasingly anti-Western rhetoric and seems poised to challenge the Georgian Dream with a new political movement that would bring Georgia closer to the EU.
The Georgian-French diplomat turned Saakashvili critic and then President with the help of the Georgian Dream
Salome Zourabishvili was elected as the 5th President of Georgia in November 2018 with 59.52% of the vote. Many called her victory historic, given that she was the first woman to run for president in Georgia and win them. In her election campaign, Zourabishvili, who repeatedly emphasizes her European origin, promised to help Georgia integrate into NATO and the EU and "unite Georgian society."
Zourabishvili comes from a well-known Georgian family, was born in France in a family of political emigrants and worked as a diplomat in the French Foreign Ministry for about 30 years. She came to Georgia in 2003 as France’s ambassador to Tbilisi, and a year later she became Georgia’s minister of foreign affairs, serving until 2005, when the new president of the country, Mikheil Saakashvili, fired her.
Zourabishvili returned to politics in 2016, when she ran as an independent in the parliamentary elections. Although Zourabishvili was not officially affiliated with the Georgian Dream, the ruling party fully supported her and did not oppose her in the Mtatsminda region, thus paving the way for her to enter parliament. It is worth noting that, as an independent deputy, she did not show serious resistance to the policies and initiatives of the ruling party.
As a foreign minister, Zourabishvili had successfully negotiated the withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgian territory, an achievement that many regard as her most important. Despite this, when she returned to politics, she had to face a stream of accusations of having pro-Russian views because of her statements about the August 2008 war. Answering a journalist's question, she had said that Russia started a war against Georgia a hundred years ago, but Georgia got involved in a Russian provocation, which lead to a new round of conflict. She later explained that Russia acted as the aggressor in 2008, but she said that Saakashvili and his entourage played into Moscow's hands by responding militarily to the Russian provocation. Russia used this as a pretext for starting a war against Georgia.
“This was a huge crime against the Georgian people and state by Saakashvili and the National Movement, and it is our civic duty to remember this,” she wrote. This mirrored the view expressed by the ruling Georgian Dream that Russia was the aggressor and initiator of the war in 2008, but if it were not for the adventurous approach of the Saakashvili government, Moscow would not have succeeded.
Zourabishvili's victory in the presidential election came as no surprise to most: her election campaign spent ₾7 million ($2.6 million), almost three times more than that of her rival Grigol Vashadze.
Technically, her candidacy was independent, given that the ballot papers did not indicate that she was a member of Georgian Dream. In fact, the Georgian Dream made no less effort to help her win it than it did for its own candidates. In August 2018, the Georgian Dream announced that it would not nominate its own candidate, but would support independent candidate Salome Zourabishvili. They explained that Georgia needed an impartial president who would stay above party conflicts.
“If the party candidate wins, it will be difficult for the President to maintain political neutrality and perform his/her functions assigned to him/her by the Constitution properly. It is even more undesirable to have a candidate for the presidency from the Georgian Dream party, given that the party has an overwhelming majority in central and local government,” said Irakli Kobakhidze, speaker of the Georgian parliament at the time and currently serving as chairman of the Georgian Dream.
And in September 2018, Kobakhidze called on Georgians to vote for Salome Zourabishvili. He announced that Georgian Dream supports her candidacy, saying that she comes from an outstanding Georgian family [...] has a unique diplomatic experience [...] and at one time in the opposition fought for justice against the Saakashvili regime”.
Members of the ruling party have participated in Zourabishvili's election campaign. Party members, including Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, then-Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, and personally the head of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, were cast in a video supporting Zourabishvili, and representatives of the Georgian Dream even appeared on Zourabishvili electoral banners, which once again raised questions about her independence.
The president and the Georgian Dream started to fall out when the latter broke a EU-sponsored agreement
It took three years into Zourabishvili’s presidency until she took a public stand against the Georgian Dream. She did it after the ruling party withdrew from the Charles Michel agreement at the end of July 2021, created with the mediation of the President of the European Council in order to put an end to the months-long confrontation between the authorities and the opposition. Zourabishvili delivered a speech in which she stated that the country was again at a crossroads between the West and those whose interests include Georgia's estrangement from European values. The president did not name Russia, but it was obvious that she was talking about Georgia’s northern neighbor.
Salome Zourabishvili also criticized the ruling party in the summer of 2022, when Georgia did not receive the status of a candidate country for joining the European Union. During her briefing, the President said that the Georgian authorities had "failed the cause" of European integration and said their policies were putting the country at risk of isolation. She also listed the government's steps that had a negative impact on the process of Georgia's European integration. Among them, the rejection of the Charles Michel document and the demonstrative rejection of the EU macro-financial loan of 75 million euros.
In addition, Zourabishvili called the topic of a “second front against Russia”, raised by the Georgian Dream, a fiction, noting that there were no calls from the US or Europe to open it.
In response to this, the chairman of the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, stated:
“The President of Georgia noted that the topic of the second front is a fiction. We would like to remind Salome Zourabishvili that 20% of the territories of Georgia are occupied, and not NATO, but the Russian army is located 40 kilometers from Tbilisi. If we imposed sanctions against Russia and released a plane with volunteers into Ukraine, the result would be just a second front. Salome Zourabishvili may well raise the question of who asked to take these steps. We say nothing about the rhetoric of the radical opposition, their TV channels, NGOs and foreign partners who sought to shape this opinion. We would like to suggest to Salome Zourabishvili that if someone wants to open a second front in Georgia, no one will report it to her, because, fortunately, according to the Constitution of Georgia, the president does not have the leverage to open a second front.”
The mass protests that deepened the rift between Salome Zourabishvili and the Georgian Dream
During the March 2023 mass protests against a Russian-inspired law on foreign agents, President Salome Zourabishvili addressed the nation, expressing support for the protesters and threatening to veto the bill:
“I appeal to you who are standing this evening on Rustaveli Avenue, as I have repeatedly stood. I'm in New York, behind me is the Statue of Liberty. This is a symbol of what Georgia has always fought for, I am with you, because today you represent a free Georgia. Georgia, which sees its future in Europe and will not allow anyone to take away this future. This future belongs to our descendants, this future is what our ancestors prepared, what we prepared. No one has the right to take away your future, no one has the right to set traps.
This bill, which no one needed, which came out of nowhere, unless dictated by Moscow, this law should be abolished. […] From day one, I said I would veto it. I will veto it. I am not interested in its consideration, I am not interested in its compliance with the old American law, which, as we know very well, serves quite different purposes. I am only interested in the future of Georgia, the Constitution, of which I am the guarantor. It says that all state institutions, and first of all me, but also the government, the authorities, are obliged to do everything so that Georgia finds itself in Europe.
Everyone who supports this law today, everyone who voted for it today violates the Constitution, they all distance us from Europe,” the President said.
The estrangement between the ruling party and President Salome Zourabishvili culminated in her annual speech to Parliament on March 31, 2023. The head of state accused the authorities of changing the foreign course, recalling that under the Constitution they are obliged to take all measures to ensure the full Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia.
The president began her speech with an expression of solidarity with Ukraine, and on the anniversary of the tragedy in Bucha, she honored the memory of the dead with a minute of silence. Then she told the ruling majority:
“Instead of strengthening state institutions as the cornerstone of democracy in the country, the one-party system and its influence are being strengthened. The laws adopted in the accelerated mode do not serve to strengthen democracy in the country or the well-being of citizens, but to strengthen and prolong power”. Zourabishvili also said that the reform of the judiciary system, essential for EU integration, “has reached a dead end”, and she denounced the ruling party's growing influence on the government and Parliament, and stated that "the party has become a space for decision-making." She also blamed the Georgian Dream for failing to get Georgia official EU candidate country status when Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova got it.
After Zourabishvili's speech in parliament, disillusioned with the president, members of the Georgian Dream apologized to voters for calling for support for Zourabishvili's candidacy in the presidential elections in 2018.
"Many incomprehensible statements were made in the parliamentary report of the President of Georgia" according to Irakli Kobakhidze.
“It is worrisome when the country's president says that last year Georgia did not deserve the status of a candidate, against the background of the fact that the EU itself admitted that the refusal was unfair. When the president says that Georgia will not deserve the status this year, this also causes concern. This is not the position of a person who should take care of the state interests of his country”, Kobakhidze said.
Kobakhidze also commented on the president's statement that "Tbilisi and Moscow speak the same language about the second front." The politician advised the president to remember her own words about the beginning of the 2008 war.
“Regarding another topic, allegedly the second front is a conspiracy. I would like to remind the President of her statements regarding the 2008 war, that she spoke about this war, its beginning. Was it a conspiracy or what? Maybe she will remember her own statements and then she will talk about conspiracies regarding the second front. This is my request to the president,” Kobakhidze said.
According to the chairman of the Georgian Dream, Zourabishvili's speech proves that she has joined the campaign against the status of Georgia's candidate for EU membership.
However, many experts point out that President Salome Zourabishvili is starting to play an increasingly independent game. The media also reported that the head of state is holding meetings with women deputies, planning to create a new pro-European political force. Could this new, emerging, political movement bring to an end the Georgian Dream’s long stint in power – and bring Georgia once more on a firm European integration path?