Prague, 6 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At the core of the controversy is a constitutional reform critics say may substantially alter Georgia's political power arrangement in favor of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his closest associates.
Parliament yesterday gave first-reading approval to the changes. Most notably, they see the restoration of the post of prime minister that briefly existed after Georgia regained independence in 1991.
Under the modified constitution, the prime minister would be responsible for the day-to-day duties of the government while the defense, interior, and state security ministries would be placed under the direct purview of the head of state.
In addition, the president will be able to block any "unconstitutional" decision made by the parliament and will have the power to dissolve the legislature should it fail to approve the state budget after three successive attempts.
Lawmakers, in return, would be authorized to dismiss the cabinet of ministers with a three-fifths majority of the votes.
Saakashvili claims that his aim is "to create a European model of government" and that the changes -- which he says were approved by experts at the Council of Europe and the French Senate -- would make the parliament stronger. But such remarks have so far failed to silence critics.
Many in Georgia fear the reforms may play into the hands of a tight circle of political allies that includes State Minister Zurab Zhvania, whom Saakashvili wants to head the future cabinet of ministers.
Shevardnadze's former right-hand man, Zhvania split with the veteran Georgian leader two years ago and allied himself with the opposition. In the disputed November 2003 polls that paved the way for the change of regime, Zhvania ran on a ticket with Parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who appointed him state minister during the interim period that followed the demise of the Shevardnadze administration.
Talking to reporters yesterday, former parliament speaker Akaki Asatiani said that, in his view, the planned changes aim to redistribute power among Saakashvili, Zhvania, and Burdjanadze -- the three main figures who spearheaded the anti-Shevardnadze movement three months ago.
"This project is unacceptable. It's not a change of [political] system, it is just a play on words. That's it. The state minister will now be called prime minister. It's a power-sharing agreement among three people, nothing more. They're playing like kids," Asatiani said.
Asatiani, who heads the Union of Georgian Traditionalists parliamentary group, joined forces with Burdjanadze and Zhvania during the November 2003 polls. But he then parted company with them at the peak of the anti-Shevardnadze street protests and is now a leading opposition figure in the legislature.
The proposed constitutional changes are the reported result of a last-minute compromise between Burdjanadze on one side and Saakashvili and Zhvania on the other.
Addressing reporters this week, Burdjanadze said she was not entirely satisfied with the changes. But she said she will nonetheless ask parliament to support them, saying they are needed to allow Saakashvili deliver on his pre-election pledges.
"I believe this attempt at introducing constitutional amendments should end conclusively, because it is very important that the prime minister and the president have the leverage they demand to meet those obligations they have pledged to the population," Burdjanadze said.
A few days earlier, however, Burdjanadze had threatened to resign from her post, fearing a drastic reduction of parliamentary powers under the new constitution.
Whatever compromise was reached among the three leaders of the so-called "Revolution of the Roses" -- as Shevardnadze's ouster is now known in Georgia -- the planned reform has drawn much criticism in the country.
In remarks cited earlier this week by the Tbilisi-based "Civil Georgia" information website, the head of Georgia's Association of Young Lawyers, Tina Khidasheli, accused the country's new leaders of placing their personal or political interests above those of the nation.
Civil rights campaigners and opposition leaders have also deplored the fact that the reform plan was not submitted for public debate and was decided confidentially.
Addressing parliament yesterday before the vote, opposition lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze accused the Georgian leadership of drifting away from democracy.
"If we adopt these [constitutional] changes, we will in fact legalize dictatorship in Georgia, and legalize it for an indefinite period of time. Wouldn't it be better to return to the Roman legal system under which the Senate would appoint a dictator for a limited period of time -- say six months -- and would restore democracy after this period of time? Wouldn't that carry fewer dangers for Georgia than to legalize dictatorship for an indefinite period of time?" Khmaladze said.
Critics can also be found within Saakashvili's own party.
Koba Davitashvili, the secretary-general of the National Movement, earlier this week said he had resigned to protest the planned reform. Davitashvili, who topped the list of candidates supported by Saakashvili in the November election, also denounced plans to unite the National Movement with Zhvania's United Democrats party ahead of the 28 March parliamentary re-run.
The merging ceremony was due to have taken place earlier this week, but was postponed with no explanation. Opposition parties and nongovernmental groups had criticized the plan, saying it raised the prospect of a legislature dominated by a single party.
Davitashvili on 3 February said both the constitutional reform and the planned merging were designed to serve Zhvania's ambitions.
"I cannot accept constitutional amendments that are designed to make Zurab Zhvania a prime minister. Nor can I agree to remain in a party that has Zurab Zhvania among its members," Davitashvili said.
Davitashvili yesterday went a step further in his criticism, saying Saakashvili had tried to win his support for the constitutional reform by offering him the post of defense minister. Davitashvili also blamed Shevardnadze's successors for leading Georgia along an undemocratic path and trying to silence critics.
"This project is unacceptable. It's not a change of [political] system, it is just a play on words. That's it. The state minister will now be called prime minister. It's a power-sharing agreement among three people, nothing more. They're playing like kids."
"The proposed changes will help establish an authoritarian regime which may turn into a dictatorship any time. The first signs that [the country] is drifting away from the principles of freedom of speech are already visible," Davitashvili said.
Saakashvili yesterday denounced Davitashvili's claims as "sheer demagogy."
Addressing reporters in Tbilisi, the president argued Georgia needs "strong leadership" to revive its moribund economy and restore the rule of law. But he denied any plans to restrict personal liberties.
Levan Ramishvili heads the Tbilisi-based Liberty Institute, a nongovernmental organization that supported Saakashvili during the November 2003 street protests.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Ramishvili said he saw no threat to democracy in Georgia. Yet, he believes recent moves taken by the young Georgian leadership have put the country at risk of political instability:
"I wouldn't look at things as dramatically as [some people do]. I don't think there will be substantial problems with human rights. In any case, I do not foresee any aggravation of the human rights situation. But there will be problems with the stability of the political system. The chances of Georgia plunging into a circle of continuous crises are very high. As a result of these crises -- and because there will be no political alternative -- [Georgian] society and voters will lose faith in democracy, Western values and reforms, and will turn their backs on them," Ramishvili said.
Meanwhile, opposition to Saakashvili is mounting among his allies.
Davit Berdzenishvili, the leader of the Republican Party -- a small but influential group that ran on a ticket with the National Movement in the November polls -- yesterday told RFE/RL's Georgian Service he had decided to join the opposition to protest what he said was a "dangerous drift toward authoritarianism."