The incident taking place in front of the Georgian National Library on February 8 exacerbated the EU’s apprehensions over the “deterioration of the power-sharing arrangement” between PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) coalition and President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party.
The tensions began on February 6 when the parliament discussed the constitutional amendments offered by GD lawmakers, implying a restriction of presidential power through depriving the president of the right to dismiss the government and appointing a new one without parliamentary approval.
The UNM MPs agreed to vote for the amendments only on the condition that a pro-Western foreign policy course in incorporated in the constitution as a binding clause and to raise the requirement for endorsing constitutional amendments from two-thirds to three-fourths of the MP votes. The GD parliamentary majority, however, did not accept the proposal arguing that the issue could be discussed separately but not as part of the same package.
Failing to secure the UNM’s support for approving the constitutional amendments, the GD postponed president’s annual state of the nation address in parliament scheduled for February 8. “The president will of course be given an opportunity but it will only happen after the president and his political team explicitly express their position on this concrete issue [on the constitutional amendments related to the presidential powers],” Parliamentary Speaker David Usupashvili said on February 7.
In response, Saakashvili decided to address the public from the National Library in the presence of foreign diplomats, journalists, UNM party members and activists. Protesters aiming to thwart the event had gathered outside the National Library before the scheduled time. The chaos started when UNM lawmakers and Tbilisi’s mayor Gigi Ugulava appeared in the vicinity of the crowd. As a result of the confrontation, several UNM MPs including Chiora Taktakishvili, Sergo Ratiani and party activist Giga Nasaridze were assaulted and injured by protesters while trying to approach the main entrance of the Library.
Whereas police had been mobilized at the site, it failed to prevent the incident. Minister of Internal Affairs Irakli Gharibashvili, who arrived at the scene during the clash, asserted that the UNM members had been offered alternative routes to get inside the Library but they rejected the proposal and entered into open conflict with demonstrators. Saakashvili expressed “regrets” over the clash and eventually delivered the address to the nation from the presidential palace.
With reference to the incident, Štefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood policy and the spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, released a statement on February 10 saying that “the EU considers it of paramount importance for the future of Georgia’s democracy that all political actors and institutions in Georgia be accorded due respect, in line with our shared European values.”
Two days later Füle met with Saakashvili while visiting Tbilisi as part of the Informal Eastern Partnership (EaP) dialogue. In the course of the meeting, the president expressed hopes that at the upcoming Vilnius Summit in November, Georgia would obtain a declaration conferring the country a status of potential candidate for EU membership. However, Füle stressed that the best outcome Georgia can expect from the Summit is the finalization of negotiations on the Association Agreement.
Meanwhile, the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest and most influential European-level political party, declared on February 15 that the violence taking place in front of the National Library “shocked the European public opinion” and could “undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration process.” The EPP said that “it is impossible to finalize and sign an Association Agreement with a country that does not respect [European] principles anymore.”
Commenting on this statement, Parliamentary Speaker Usupashvili said that the EPP is composed of various parties including the UNM. Hence, it might not be surprising that sometimes the EPP makes subjective assessments, Usupashvili said. In turn, the State Minister of Georgia for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, ironically suggested that the EPP should be more critical towards Saakashvili and “notice things beyond Chiora’s nose,” with reference to MP Taktakishvili, one of the UNM leaders.
President Saakashvili stated that given the EPP’s political clout, it would be able to block any issue considered relevant. It would thus be irresponsible to downplay the importance of the statement and Georgian politicians should instead address existing shortcomings to avoid unwanted consequences, he said.
While the GD coalition’s representatives claim that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration is an indispensable process that could never be invalidated by a statement from the EPP, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, who leads the visa liberalization related negotiations with Georgia, has three times delayed her scheduled visits to Georgia. Currently, she is expected to arrive in late February to present an action plan to advance visa liberalization deliberations.
The warnings sent by EU officials to Tbilisi indicate that not only the progress attained in implementing the action plan but also the overall success of the cohabitation process will have a considerable impact on Georgia’s chances at the Vilnius Summit.