In an extended address to parliament on July 20, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili outlined a package
of proposals intended to assuage the opposition's repeated demands for his resignation. Some of those proposals duplicate those he put forward two months ago at a meeting with opposition leaders on May 11; a couple are new.
In that respect, Saakashvili appears to be duplicating the approach he adopted in 2004-2007 with regard to creating the impression of willingness to resolve the differences between the Georgian central government and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That approach entailed couching successive restatements of his offered concessions in terms that would appear moderate, reasonable, and convincing to the international community, but that failed, whether deliberately or inadvertently, to address the long-standing grievances of those two ethnic groups, and for that reason stood no chance of being accepted.
At the May 11 meeting, Saakashvili outlined several measures that would expand the role of the opposition in the political process. More than half the 31 opposition candidates who won election in the pre-term parliamentary ballot in May 2008 subsequently refused their mandates, alleging that the ballot was rigged, leaving only a tiny opposition minority in the new 150-mandate legislature.
Most of those measures, however, had been floated before but not implemented. They included establishing a constitutional commission on which the opposition would be represented; revising the electoral code to eliminate any loopholes the opposition could adduce to substantiate allegations of fraud or malpractice; reforming the judiciary; and naming opposition representatives to the supervisory board of the Georgian Public Broadcaster.
To date, however, only one of those repeat proposals has been implemented. Since May 11, a commission has indeed been formed and tasked with drafting amendments to the constitution that will simultaneously guarantee "strong presidential power, a strong parliament and an independent judiciary." Radical opposition parties have refused, however, to participate in the work of that commission, which will not finish work on those proposals before November. Nor is it clear whether, as commission chairman Avtandil Demetrashvili hopes, the draft amendments will be put to a nationwide referendum.
Saakashvili reiterated on July 20 the need to reduce the president's leeway to dissolve parliament while preserving the "strong presidential system" he argued is essential at a time "when a great part of the country is occupied."
He further proposed, as he had done on May 11, bringing forward from autumn 2010 to May 2010 the date of the next local elections. To that end, he said, the election code should be reformed by the end of this year, and a new Central Election Commission chairman should be selected through "a broad consensus" among various political groups. Saakashvili also repeated his earlier proposal that in future the mayor of Tbilisi should be elected in a direct popular ballot, rather than by the municipal council. Incumbent Mayor Gigi Ugulava, a close Saakashvili associate, is reportedly already preparing his election campaign.
As in May, Saakashvili suggested on July 20 offering four of the nine seats on the board of trustees of the Public Broadcaster to the opposition. Four more members would be nominated by the authorities, and the fifth would be a representative of civil society.
Perhaps the most substantive innovation Saakashvili offered on July 20 was to open up the second channel of the public broadcaster to all political parties, even the smallest. Doing so would, however, require amending the law on the public broadcaster, and Saakashvili tasked the parliament with doing so by the end of September. He also said that all television stations should have access to satellite broadcasting, which at present entails obtaining a special license from the Georgian National Communications Commission.
Saakashvili also reiterated on July 20 the invitation he floated at a meeting on June 9 with Levan Gachechiladze, his closest challenger in the January 2008 pre-term presidential election, that the opposition should participate once a month in sessions of the National Security Council. He also again proposed amending the relevant legislation to enable those opposition figures who rejected their parliament mandates in May 2008 to participate as full-fledged deputies in the work of the legislature.
Saakashvili concluded his address by announcing the start of "a large-scale dialogue with the public," starting immediately, that would continue until September 10. That time period coincides with the summer vacation period during which political activity and debate grinds to a halt.
During the five-hour debate that followed Saakashvili's address, opposition criticisms were few but trenchant. Petre Mamradze, who served under President Eduard Shevardnadze as state chancellery head and recently defected from the parliament majority to former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's Movement for A Just Georgia, alleged that Georgia is ruled by six or seven people loyal to Saakashvili and who are above the law. Deputy parliament speaker Levan Vephkhvadze of the Christian Democratic Movement argued that Saakashvili said "nothing new."
But his failure to consider alternative, and more substantive concessions to the opposition is arguably less pernicious than Saakashvili's clear conviction that both the constitution and the body of legislation are temporary constructs that he can order to be amended at will when circumstances dictate in order to maintain his hold on power.