President Giorgi Margvelashvili delivered his third annual state of the nation address in the Parliament on February 3.
PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili and some government members were present in the Parliament chamber in Kutaisi along with chairperson of the Supreme Court, chairman of the Constitutional Court, central bank chief and foreign diplomats. PM Kvirikashvili’s predecessor Irakli Garibashvili snubbed President Margvelashvili’s two previous annual addresses in the Parliament.
Before starting his speech, President Margvelashvili paid tribute to memory of late PM Zurab Zhvania, who died on this day eleven years ago and asks the chamber to observe a moment of silence. Margvelashvili described Zhvania as “one of the main architects of Georgia’s European integration.”
He opened his 55-minute long speech by noting that 2016 will mark 25th anniversary of Georgia’s independence and added: “But we still have a road to travel from independence to freedom.”
“Freedom is much more… We gained independence; fight for freedom still continues. We should build the state, which is not only politically independent, but also politically free – the state where political and social rights of each and every citizen are guaranteed,” President Margvelashvili said. "Laws, not persons, should rule."
Noting his decision to declare 2016 “the year of European state”, he said that on the path of the European integration he sees Georgia “not as a guest in the family of the European states, but as a full-fledge member of this union.” He said that the “clear goal” should be turning from “pro-Western state into Western State.”
He said that 2015 was “difficult year for our country both politically and economically.” He attributed economic problems to external shocks ranging from economic slowdown in the region, worldwide strengthening of the U.S. dollar and falling oil prices to “Ukraine-Russian war” and economic recession in those two countries.
“It is obvious that 2016 will not be easy either from the economic point of view,” Margvelashvili said.
The President stressed for number of times in his speech that Georgia should make full use of its competitive advantages.
“We should realize that not using of all the available opportunities means backsliding,” he said. “2016 Georgia should be focused on fast-paced economic growth; therefore the state should spare no efforts for structural reforms.”
He hailed PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s initiatives to make focus on speeding up infrastructure projects and increase engagement with businesses, as well as on education reform.
When speaking about economy, the President hailed the launch of free trade talks with China and “intensified talks with the United States in this regard” and existing treaty on deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) with the EU. He, however, also said that opportunities provided by DCFTA “are not yet fully utilized.” He also said that Georgia should use its location and transit potential “more actively”
He said that lifting of nuclear-related sanctions from Iran and “opening of Iran’s economic potential” represents an additional “opportunity” for Georgia.
The President also spoke about the need to strike balance between economic development and protection of environment and cultural heritage. “We will lose our spiritual potential if become entirely focused on industrial project without taking into consideration how these projects are implemented and if we destroy our nature and unique cultural heritage,” Margvelashvili said.
He said that the government should keep its policy of having “human-oriented” and social-oriented budget. But he also added that such approach does not exclude making expenditures more efficient and social spending and allowances more targeted and differentiated. In this context he also mentioned universal healthcare system, which he said “gives relief to our citizens.”
The President then spoke about the need for further strengthening of institutions in the country and said that “personified relations should be replaced by properly working democratic institutions.”
“Political or personal confrontation should not translate into infringement of fundamental, constitutional institutions,” he said.
President Calls for Reform of Judicial Council
In the context of the need to strengthen institutions the President mentioned the judicial system and called on the lawmakers to consider reforming of the High Council of Justice (HCoJ). This body, which is overseeing judicial system, has been fiercely criticized in December for its controversial decision to re-appoint judge Levan Murusidze and in general over the process how new judges are selected. The criticism further intensified this week after chairman of Tbilisi City Court, Mamuka Akhvlediani, alleged that answers to judge certification exams were leaked from the HCoJ to at least one of the candidates.
“Procedures for selection of judges require special attention,” President Margvelashvili said. “Lots of question marks have been raised by the society recently over HCoJ’s decisions.”
“Of course it is up to the Parliament to decide on reforms in this regard, but I want to offer you number of initiatives,” he said.
The President has offered to make it possible to appeal decisions of HCoJ on appointment of judges to the Supreme Court; distribute nine seats, allocated for judges in the HCoJ, evenly between representatives of all three levels of courts (City Courts; Appeals Courts and Supreme Court); strengthen the role of a legal consultative council at the Supreme Court, including in respect of HCoJ’s decision-making process over appointment of new judges.
President also said that further reform of the law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor’s office is needed. He said that changes to the law on prosecutor’s office adopted by the parliament last year was mostly about rule of selecting and appointing of the chief prosecutor.
“A systemic reform of the prosecutor’s office should be carried out,” he said.
‘Risks are Growing’
The president said that “risks facing our region have not receded, but on the contrary further grew.”
“Georgia has undertaken concrete steps strengthening defense capabilities,” he said, adding that the NATO-Georgia substantial package of cooperation is on track, a joint NATO-Georgia training center was opened, jointed military exercises with western partners were held in Georgia last year, and “the launch of process of creating modern air defense system as a result of agreements signed with France.”
“The Euro-Atlantic integration remains Georgia’s priority. We will use all the instruments that NATO makes available for strengthening our defense capabilities. We will continue efforts for joining NATO,” Margvelashvili said and thanked the Georgian army service members for their contribution to this process.
He said that he expects the European Commission’s decision to give a go-ahead to lifting visa requirements for Georgian citizens in the Schengen area will be put into practice this year and “the European doors will open for the Georgian citizens for free movement.”
The President said that “new impulse should be created” in Georgia’s relations with its “major strategic partner” – the United States. He said that Georgia should be “represented in Washington more actively and it should be more visible on the U.S. radars.”
“We should also aim at moving at our relations with the EU at the new stage and implementing Georgia’s European perspective,” he said. “It also implies turning our country into an important regional player. The European Georgia should become a stronghold of stability and wellbeing of our region.”
Relations with Russia
The President said that Georgian-Russian relations are “part of the European policy and those relations should be represented in the context of the European policy.”
“Those relations should be based on the following points: like with any other country, Georgia aspires relations based on equality; united, strong, democratic and developed Georgia is a guarantee of security… in the Caucasus. Not a single country, including Russia, can achieve its own wellbeing at the expense of occupation of territories of neighboring countries,” President Margvelashvili said.
“As head of the state I reiterate Georgia’s aspiration for having relations based on principles of good neighborly ties, mutual respect of each other’s national interests and territorial integrity,” he added.
At the same time, he said, Georgia should continue its policy of promoting non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the international stage. “We should not rest even for a second in this regard,” the President said.
He also said that Russia is “actively using soft power” and in order to “neutralize” those efforts Georgia should work “in close coordination with our western partners.”
The President said that economic relations with Russia should be welcomed, but warned that “soft power” can also be applied in this regard.
“I have to repeat that it concerns especially Gazprom,” Margvelashvili said and added that the Georgian government’s ongoing talks with Gazprom should be carried out “transparently.”
‘Need for Strong Political Parties’
The President noted importance of strong civil society in building of “the modern European state” and said that “strengthening of practices based on secular principles.”
“The modern democracy cannot be created without strong political parties,” he said, adding that the political parties “should be facilitated in becoming more stable” with core voter base.
“This is a prerequisite for creating efficient democratic system where key players are strong political forces,” Margvelashvili said, adding that it would help to make Georgia’s political landscape much more diverse, where voters will no longer face “the choice between bad and worse.”
The President said that administration of and the way how elections are held in Georgia is improving since 2012.
“This trend should further deepen this year and we should hold elections at genuinely European standards,” President Margvelashvili said. “The country and voters should win in the elections.”
“The European political culture is to try to win in elections, instead of trying to destroy [opponents],” he said.
The President also raised the issue of electoral system reform; he has been advocating, like many of the opposition parties, for scrapping the majoritarian component of the electoral system by 2016 parliamentary elections. The Georgian Dream ruling coalition, however, offers to do it by post-2016 elections.
The President said that although there is a consensus that the system should be reformed, differences remain on timing of this reform.
“I call on the political forces to carry out these changes in 2016,” Margvelashvili said.
He said that media freedom is especially important in the election year and added that broad range of media outlets is currently available in Georgia. The President has called on the politicians to impose “self-limitation” and refrain from “assessing” media sources’ editorial policies.
Representatives from 11 parliamentary factions (six factions within the GD majority group; five from the UNM minority group, and Free Democrats opposition party’s faction) spoke in response to President’s address.
Some UNM opposition lawmakers criticized the President’s speech for, as MP Akaki Bobokhidze put it, “lacking critical tone.”
A senior UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili said sarcastically that the main news about President’s speech was the fact that the government was present at the event. “So the anomaly [referring to previous PM’s refusal to attend Margvelashvili’s annual addresses in the parliament], introduced by the government, has now been eradicated,” he said. MP Gabashvili also said that all talk of freedom, mentioned by the President, was pointless in the country, which is “ruled informally by a single person” – ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili.
UNM opposition lawmakers said that holding of free and fair elections this year was impossible in the condition when some UNM leaders remain behind bars; they also reminded the President of his refusal to grant pardon to ex-mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava.
MP Gia Volski, who chairs the largest faction within the GD majority group, said that the President mentioned “many interesting points” in his speech, which “give food for thought” and are worth of being taken into consideration. He, however, criticized President’s stance in favor of scrapping majoritarian component of the electoral system for 2016 elections.
MP Victor Dolidze of the opposition Free Democrats party hailed the President’s “comprehensive speech”; he also said that “the only positive development” since Margvelashvili’s previous address last year was the fact that this time the government was present at the event.
A former UNM MP, Pavle Kublashvili, who is now with a newly launched party New Political Center-Girchi (pine cone), said that he was “disappointed” by the President’s address and although it covered all the key issues, the speech lacked specifics.
Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili said that since late December the legislative body has heard addresses by new PM Kvirikashvili and the President. “I want to note with satisfaction that we have seen shared approaches, vision over the country’s long-term and short-term priorities, which is a source for optimism,” Usupashvili said.
PM Kvirikashvili told journalists: “It was an interesting address in which many important points have been made. I am glad that he [the President] has welcomed government’s four-point reform program. In general I have to say that from the institutional point of view this process [president’s annual address] is very important.”