Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called on the country’s political parties to work together and pursue the goals of European Union and NATO entry after protesters forced a change in venue for his state-of-the-nation address.
Tension is rising between the U.S.-backed president and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who scored an upset over his party in October parliamentary elections. Saakashvili, who delivered his last address before a presidential vote in October, had to leave the National Library and deliver his speech from the presidential palace after protesters stormed the building in the capital, Tbilisi.
Georgia, which borders Russia, Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, hosts the BP Plc-managed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Baku-Supsa oil pipelines, as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas link. The government has been stung by warnings from the EU and U.S. over arrests of former officials since the elections.
“The very moment we slow down our European and Euro-Atlantic integration, our independence and our sovereignty will be hungrily swallowed by a former empire that has an unmistakable tendency to misunderstand the concept of borders,” the 45-year-old U.S. trained lawyer said, referring to the country’s rule under the Soviet Union.
Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in banking and metals in Russia, met Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev briefly at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month and has pledged to work on improving relations and boosting investment between the two countries. Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia in August 2008.
Lawmakers allied with Ivanishvili yesterday prevented Saakashvili from giving his address in parliament as retaliation for his party not supporting constitutional changes that would remove the president’s right to fire the Cabinet. Saakashvili said today that he never intended to use that power and warned that the government may change the rules of presidential elections.
Parliament, based in Kutaisi, 230 kilometers (143 miles) west of Tbilisi, in December approved legislation freeing 3,000 prisoners and reducing the sentences for thousands of other inmates starting last month.
Some of the protesters were former “political prisoners” jailed by the previous administration led by Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, while others were government supporters, the television station Rustavi 2 reported. Tbilisi’s mayor, Gigi Ugulava, a Saakashvili ally, was attacked by protesters and sustained minor injuries, according to lawmaker Chiora Taktakishvili.
In calling for politicians to put aside their differences, Saakashvili said it’s “time for the winners of the elections to build a new floor in our collective house, rather than undermining its basement.”
Since the new government took power, at least 38 former officials tied to the previous administration have been charged with offenses such as illegal wire-tapping and abuse of office from actions taken before the elections.
“Our democracy and our constitution do not require us to be friends or allies,” he said. “But they require us to cohabit, to cooperate for the sake of our national project and for the good of our people.”