Georgian President denies former refusal to pardon Saakashvili as ruling party warns her against decision

Zourabichvili in 2021 said “my position about pardoning the ex-President is unchanged and unwavering – no and never”. Photo: President’s press office, 14 Dec 2023 - 16:09, Tbilisi,Georgia

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has claimed she had “never explicitly refused” to pardon Mikheil Saakashvili, the imprisoned former President of the country, telling Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Georgian service this week she “refrain[ed] from commenting on pardons unless I [openly] state my intention to pardon someone”.

Zourabichvili’s comment on her stance on pardoning Saakashvili appears in contrast to statements she made in 2021, in a press briefing after the arrest of the former President following his clandestine return to the country, when she stressed “my position about pardoning the ex-President is unchanged and unwavering – no and never”. 

Zourabichvili, who served as Foreign Minister under Saakashvili’s United National Movement Government before moving to opposition, also commended the latter, along with his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze and late former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, for “opening the gate [to Europe]” for the country, while also pointing to “unfortunate tendencies” of Georgian governments to “become somewhat autocratic after promising starts”.

Members of the ruling Georgian Dream party, who in October backed Zourabichvili’s impeachment for her visits abroad without the Government's consent, on Thursday said if Zourabichvili pardoned Saakashvili she would “experience the wrath” of the country’s citizens. 

I advise the President to conclude her term peacefully”, Irakli Zarkua, a GD MP, said, claiming her rating and political capital were “equal to zero".

Kakha Kaladze, the Secretary General of the ruling party, said the President had previously held a “principled position” on the issue, which has “somehow changed today”, and added" I do not rule out anything. She makes such statements and has such an agenda, everything is expected”. 

Roman Gotsiridze, an opposition MP and a former member of UNM, however, hailed the President’s latest wording and claimed the supposed revision of her view meant a “progressive” stance on Zourabichvili’s behalf. 

Saakashvili, who was arrested on his return from Ukraine in October 2021, and is now serving a six-year-term for abuse of power while in office, on Wednesday joined Zourabichvili’s campaign Our Voice to Europe, which involved a petition, signed by more than 45,000 citizens, urging the European Union to grant Georgia its membership candidate status this week. 

Zourabichvili’s term as the President officially expires next year, and she will be the last President of the country to be directly elected by citizens, as her successor will be elected by a 300-member electoral college approved by the Central Election Commission, in line with 2017 amendments to domestic laws.  

Zourabichvili, the granddaughter of political émigrés who fled from Georgia in 1921 after the Red Army invasion of that year, served in the French diplomatic corps before taking the post of the country’s Ambassador to Georgia in 2003, under the country’s presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze.  

After the 2004 Rose Revolution she was offered the post of the Foreign Minister by the then President Saakashvili, which she took for about a year before slamming policies of the UNM Government and joining the opposition in October 2005.

However, she failed to form a competitive political power and left the country in 2010, returning in 2012, after the GD coalition defeated UNM in the parliamentary elections. She was elected as an independent MP in 2016, after GD removed its candidate to support her victory in the majoritarian race. 

Zourabichvili also ran as an independent candidate in the 2018 presidential elections and was openly backed by GD in the race.

Relations between the President and the ruling party became tense last year, with discrepancies emerging between the Government and her stance on topics related to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and Georgia’s European integration.