On Monday, January 14, the administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili released a list of ambassadors that Georgian Foreign Affairs Minister Maia Panjikidze has requested be recalled (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25641). The list of ambassadors includes heads of missions to countries considered to be the primary partners of Georgia, as well as to key international organizations, including the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Council of Europe, the United Nations and the European Union (http://www.civil.ge/eng_old/article.php?id=25617).
Minister Panjikidze justified her request to replace these ambassadors on the fact that the coalition Georgian Dream, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, had won a majority of seats in the parliament and took over the Georgian government. Many experts find the explanation strange, however, since in all countries with a presidential form of government, ambassadors’ appointments are the exclusive prerogative of the president. The legislative body may or may not agree with the president’s choice of ambassadorial candidacies, but recalling the ambassadors before their terms are over can be done only by the president of the country.
Yet, the continuing Saakashvili-Ivanishvili political struggle exemplified further by the latest controversy over ambassadorial posts is consistent with the general situation that has prevailed in the country since the parliamentary elections. The problem is that the president and the prime minister differently understand their responsibilities and roles within the framework of “co-habitation” that the Western partners urge them to use. The foreign affairs minister’s request for changing the ambassadors is certainly a thinly veiled request from Prime Minister Ivanishvili himself. If President Saakashvili acquiesces to the government’s proposal, he will lose important leverage in the sphere of foreign policymaking and will inevitably turn into a ceremonial political figure or a “lame duck”.
Up until now Mikheil Saakashvili has acceded to Bidzina Ivanishvili all leverage in domestic policymaking. That includes “the economic bloc” of the government, as well as positions of the minister of defense, the interior minister and the general prosecutor. According to the constitution, the head of state could have appointed to these positions candidates whom he trusts more, rather than accept the candidates of the prime minister. However, President Saakashvili stated that he respected the will of the people that was expressed at the elections and did not intend to use his power to obstruct the activities of the new Georgian government domestically, including in the areas of public safety, as well as in its economic and social policies.
However, Saakasvhili always emphasized that he considered foreign policy to be his exclusive domain and that he would do everything he could to ensure Georgia continued its integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and maintained its cooperation with the US. Ivanishvili, the leader of the winning coalition and the head of the government, on the other hand, holds a different opinion of the president’s role. And despite his declarations to continue Georgia’s foreign policy direction, he still insists on changing the heads of the foreign diplomatic missions.
It would seem that Bidzina Ivanishvili should not be in a hurry, since after the next presidential elections in October 2013, Georgia officially will be transformed from a presidential into parliamentary-presidential republic, and the prime minister of the country will then have the right to appoint ambassadors overseas. So why is there this haste to replace ambassadors, many of whom have immense experience in their respective fields and know their work extremely well? Several reasons behind Ivanishvili’s insistence must be noted.
First of all, the prime minister believes the “game” with Mikheil Saakashvili is not over yet and must finish only with a “zero-sum” result. Ivanishvili is concerned about the possibility that the president may use his right to dismiss the government and theoretically disband the parliament in April, 2013. Under this hypothetical scenario, “loyal” ambassadors in Western capitals would help the leader of the Georgian Dream coalition to advance his view of the causes and consequences of a possible political crisis. In other words, the prime minister regards diplomatic missions overseas exclusively as tools for improving his position in the domestic political struggle with the president, rather than as tools for advancing the state’s interests abroad.
Secondly, Bidzina Ivanishvili is forced to take into account the ambitions of many former diplomats who worked in the overseas missions at different periods in the past, but were dismissed from the government and joined the Georgian Dream during the election campaign. Many of them, for example, the former Ambassador of Georgia to the US Tedo Japaridze (http://www.georgiatimes.info/en/articles/48553.html), the former representative of Georgia at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Viktor Dolidze (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/149110/), and the prior Georgian ambassador to the UN Irakly Alasania (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20101) regard themselves as outstanding foreign policy experts. Even though they themselves already occupy key positions in the parliament and the government, they still try to help advance the careers of their former colleagues that left the government with them in the past. These people comprise an enormous corps of “unwanted” diplomats who demand employment from their leaders.
Thirdly, a massive change of ambassadors would not go unnoticed in the partner countries of Georgia. This would be a message to them about who is in charge of the country and who they should consult with to resolve important bilateral and international issues.
Fourthly, Prime Minister Ivanishvili strives to demonstrate President Saakashvili’s weak influence over Georgia’s lower- and middle-level bureaucracy itself. The message is that “Saakashvili’s era” is coming to an end and it is in the bureaucrats’ interests to stop being loyal to him and switch to serving the new leader of the country.
In the meantime, Saakashvili has not announced his surrender yet and does not intend to bow to Ivanishvili’s demands, including on the question of the ambassadors’ replacement. “The president is prepared to agree to the recall of only those ambassadors whose terms have expired according to the diplomats’ rotation rules,” a source in Georgian presidential administration told Jamestown. However, even if all the ambassadors are recalled, the appointment of new heads of diplomatic missions overseas is an explicit presidential power. The parliament that is under the prime minister coalition’s control may try to block new presidential candidates, but the old ones will serve in their offices up until new ambassadors are appointed.
On the other hand, if the two Georgian leaders are able to agree on a list of ambassadorial candidates acceptable to both of them, the realm of overseas diplomatic missions potentially may actually become another example of “co-habitation” and cooperation between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili.