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Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze has appointed Interior Minister and Vice Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia secretary of the powerful new National Security Council. Critics said the move was another consolidation of power in the hands of a trusted confidant of Georgian Dream party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Gakharia, who is also a deputy prime minister, was appointed to the position on 30 April. The newly reinstated council held their first meeting, chaired by Bakhtadze, on 1 May.
According to the Prime Minister’s office, ‘the National Security Council will be a coordinating body of all agencies that are involved in ensuring the security of the country’. They plan to hold their next meeting in a month.
In addition to Gakharia, other permanent members of the Security Council include the defence, foreign, and finance ministers, the heads of state security and intelligence services, and the chief of the armed forces.
Pankisi and Davit Gareji on Gakharia’s agenda
Immediately following the meeting, Gakharia told journalists that members of the Security Council ‘received specific instructions from the Prime Minister on the Pankisi [Valley]’, but did not elaborate further, promising to talk more on this during his ministerial hour in the parliament set for the next day.
In his address to parliament on 2 May, Gakharia complained of ‘campaign-like efforts to discredit police and police officers’, which was met by protestations from members of the opposition United National Movement party.
He insisted that the police were ‘apolitical’ under him and urged ‘some people’ to abstain from trying to turn the police into ‘a side’ during controversies.
Gakharia also told MPs that the police could not be ‘restricted from certain geographical areas, clubs, etc.’
The interior minister was personally engaged in negotiations with Kist leaders, ethnic Chechens living in Pankisi Valley, during 21 April’s clashes between local people and police. Protesters had tried to prevent the construction of a hydropower plant in the region from resuming.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian riot police deploy rubber bullets and tear gas in Pankisi hydropower protest]
Talking to journalists on 1 May, Gakharia also addressed the controversy over the Davit Gareji Monastery Complex on the border with Azerbaijan. He promised to ‘finalise the demarcation of borders’ with Azerbaijan soon and in a way that ‘would ensure the preservation of the cultural legacy and interests of the Georgian Orthodox Church’.
He ‘unequivocally’ called on people to abstain from ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ and ‘treat this delicate subject with utmost caution’.
Azerbaijan restricted access to Udabno Monastery, a part of the Davit Gareji complex, to clergy and visitors soon after Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili's visit to the site on 20 April. Standing with Georgian border guards, Zurabishvili said that 'the issue of border delimitation […] should be resolved soon’.
The monastery is located on the Azerbaijani-Georgian border which was not fully delimited after both countries gained independence from the Soviet Union.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijan restores Georgian access to Davit Gareji monastery]
‘A violation of the constitution’
Levan Alapishvili, a constitutional lawyer and lecturer on national security law at Tbilisi State University criticised the revived Security Council.
‘This is a restoration of the council created under [former Prime Minister] Irakli Gharibashvili and abolished by [former Prime Minister] Giorgi Kvirikashvili, an institution not envisioned properly, and therefore, destined to be fictional’, Alapishvili told OC Media.
Amid 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 chaired by himself.
Kvirikashvili abolished the State Security and Crisis Management Council in late 2017.
Meanwhile, within the 2016-2017 constitutional amendments, the ruling party also axed the security council under the president, a decision that legally came into force with the inauguration of Zurabishvili on 16 December last year.
Alapishvili criticised the new Security Council for a lack of parliamentary oversight, which he said ‘violates the constitution’.
He said the newly formed NSC was responsible for discussing the ‘invitation of foreign armed forces onto Georgian soil’, something the constitution mandates must be done by the entire cabinet.
‘This means the five cabinet members [the NSC] includes would discuss this matter while the other members of the 12 member cabinet that occupy political posts would not be asked anything’, Alapishvili said.
‘The security council was and will remain a mechanism of informal control over the government bereft of parliamentary oversight’, he added.
Speaking to TV Pirveli on 30 April, former Deputy Secretary of the NSC, Vano Machavariani, said that the latest decision suggested that Georgian Dream chair Bidzina Ivanishvili had opted for ‘some kind of post-Soviet model, basing his power on law enforcement agencies’.
‘This Council won't even be under the prime minister. The prime minister, I think, is in fact already removed from these topics. It will be led by Giorgi Gakharia, who already occupies three governmental positions. The fact that everybody would now have to coordinate with and inform him is a direct testimony that his positions are being strengthened according to Ivanishvili’s will’, Machavariani noted.
Tina Bokuchava, an MP from the formerly ruling United National Movement party (UNM), also criticised the government’s latest move.
‘In all his dirty works, including pressuring people during the elections, Bidzina Ivanishvili relies on Gakharia […] therefore it is not surprising that now Bidzina Ivanishvili wants to grant him a formal position’, Bokuchava told journalists on 1 May.
In April, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) criticised the latest amendments to the Law on National Security Policy Planning and Coordination for its lack of safeguards against the ‘politicisation of the Council’, including risks that the council’s chair and secretary would have excessive influence over the work of security and law enforcement agencies.
No more (public) disagreement from president Zurabishvili
The statement released by the Prime Minister’s office after the NSC’s inaugural meeting on 1 May said that a ‘representative of the President of Georgia also attended the meeting’.
In February, President Zurabishvili insisted on having a permanent seat on the new NSC as ‘a supreme commander of the armed forces’.
On 5 March, representatives of both sides said they achieved an agreement by including a ‘plenipotentiary representative’ of the president in NSC meetings in order to keep Zurabishvili updated.
Talking to Voice of America's Georgian service a day before the latest NSC meeting, Zurabishvili said that as the new council was chaired by the Prime Minister, the president’s participation in it ‘would be inappropriate’.
However, she confirmed that she and the ruling party had come to an agreement for the president’s representative to have a seat at the table to ensure the head of state was ‘fully informed when needed’.
The participation of the president’s representative is still not mandatory for the NSC.
‘Being informed post factum, even through the Prime Minister, would not have always been enough. A compromise has been achieved and now we are in full agreement on this’, Zurabishvili said.