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Georgian Parliament Approves Controversial Constitutional Amendment

Critics say Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will hold on to power by seeking the premiership once his second presidential term expires.
Critics say Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will hold on to power by seeking the premiership once his second presidential term expires.
By RFE/RL
TBILISI -- Georgia's parliament has overwhelmingly approved a controversial amendment to the constitution that will shift primary political powers from the president to the prime minister.

In a 112-5 vote, with one deputy abstaining, lawmakers approved a series of changes to the constitution that its supporters say will introduce more checks and balances in Georgia's political system by curbing presidential powers and beefing up the role of the prime minister and the parliament.

"We now have a constitution that moves us from a presidential-parliamentary model to a parliamentary-presidential model, in which the president is more of an arbiter than someone who carries out domestic policy, as has been the case until now," said Levan Vepkhvadze, the parliament's deputy speaker.

"He doesn't interfere in internal politics actively -- rather, he is someone who will represent the country in the international arena. Inside the country, it will be the cabinet that will carry out the main duties of governance."

Critics say the maneuver will allow Mikheil Saakashvili to prolong his hold on power by seeking the prime-ministerial post after his second presidential term ends in January 2013.

The switch is reminiscent of a move by Saakashvili's historic adversary, Vladimir Putin, who became Russian prime minister after two highly popular terms as president, and is still widely believed to be his country's de facto leader.

WATCH: David Kakabadze, the head of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, talks about what the passage of the amendment means for the Georgian political scene.



International Approval, At Least To A Point


Saakashvili introduced the constitutional reform process last year, seeking to portray it as an attempt to bridge the gap between the ruling authorities and an increasingly hostile opposition. But Saakashvili's opponents refused to participate in the process, effectively handing all decision-making privileges on the issue to the president and his party.

The parliamentary approval is likely to unsettle Georgia watchers in the West, who have looked on with concern as Saakashvili has shaken off his Rose Revolution democratic credentials in favor of a more opaque, somewhat authoritarian style of governance.

Many Western officials had called on Tbilisi to proceed cautiously on the proposed constitutional changes. Specifically, they had urged Georgia to postpone the vote until the Council of Europe -- the leading international organization in Europe on issues of human rights and democratic development -- had made its final recommendations on the amendments.

The Council of Europe's constitutional advisory body, the Venice Commission, met to finalize its recommendations only on October 15, the same day as the final legislative vote in Georgia.

Parliament speaker David Bakradze said the Venice Commission's conclusion was "positive."
Parliament speaker David Bakradze, speaking ahead of the vote, said the Council of Europe body then sent a copy of its final statement to Georgian lawmakers, clearing the way before the parliamentary vote.

"The conclusion, in principle, repeats the document that was published last Friday [October 8], and overall rates the [constitutional] changes that we plan to adopt at today's third hearing very positively," Bakradze said.

In a preliminary draft published on October 8, the Strasbourg-based commission declined to speculate on the reasons behind the changes, but made note of allegations in Georgia that the shift was "motivated by reasons of personal power and not by a genuine desire for improving the machinery of government, as should be the case."

It did not, however, cite any reasons that would prevent Georgian lawmakers from approving the amendments.

'Dangerous' Changes?

With the change, Georgia becomes the latest country in the post-Soviet space to tinker with its governing structures even as it strives to maintain its image as an emerging democracy.

Ukraine earlier this month reversed constitutional changes passed in the wake of the Orange Revolution that handed key powers to the parliament. The latest move is seen as boosting the influence of the country's new pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Georgia's opposition rejected cooperation with Saakashvili's government on the draft.
And last week, Kyrgyzstan held elections aimed at creating the first parliamentary democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia, a region characterized by authoritarian-style presidential rule.

But in many ways, the constitutional changes in Georgia have proven the most surprising -- and for some, the most worrying.

Georgia for many years retained its luster as the most promising of the region's young democracies, due in large part to Saakashvili's charisma, fluent English, and evident comfort in Western circles.

But critics like Vakhtang Dzabiradze, a member of a public constitutional commission grouping Georgian legal experts and NGOs, are concerned this latest move may represent a serious step back for Georgian politics.

"This is a very, very dangerous thing for Georgia's political and social environment," Dzabiradze says. "Because in reality, this amounts to double governance in the country. It is a constitution that is tailored to the needs of gray cardinals. Whoever those people will be -- whether they'll even be Georgians, or whether they'll serve the interests of Georgia or some other state -- no one will ever know. This constitution is extremely dangerous for the future of the country."

written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague with material from RFE/RL's Georgian Service
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jacob from: Canada
October 16, 2010 03:26
I read rferl regularly in spite of the blatant western agenda because the content is still useful to the critical reader. I never post comments but this article is just terrible. How can you equate the movement of power from parliament to president in Ukraine to the move from president to parliament in Georgia? Saakashvili would still have to win the parliamentary election which is by no means a certainty. Secondly, the author equates Saakashvili actions with those of Putin prior to his stepping down as president of Russia. Putin did not do a great deal of empowering of the prime ministerial post before stepping down. His power comes from the way the people, the politicians and the siloviki perceive him. His power comes from his powerful connections, not any significant constitutional amendment. As far as I know, Medvedev still has constitutional control over the majority of the critical state ministries but he chooses not to make any dramatic changes. Lastly, the article describes the constitutional amendment as "controversial". Since when is a vote of 112-5 controversial? Okay, so it might be controversial in the public and not in the parliament but this is no rubber stamp parliament so clearly they all agree on something. Why don't you right about that instead?

Unless I'm missing something, Georgia's shift to parliamentary system, if done carefully (and under the watchful eye of a supportive Europe), can only bring Georgia more in line with Western European systems of governance. I hope rferl still thinks that to be a good thing. I know I certainly do.

What I find most interesting is the fact that rferl chose to publish this article. Might it suggest that rferl and consequently, US foreign policy, is shifting its gaze away from Saakashvili? Maybe they feel he has embarrassed them enough (insert tie eating joke here). Saakashvili is an embarrassment but he's OUR embarrassment (the Western OUR), and despite the problems he's caused I don't think they outweigh the positive, Western, changes that have come about in Georgia since he came to power. He's a mediocre politician but his ideology is in the right place. Let the Georgian people decide if they want him as prime minister. And rferl, you might want to reconsider this little gem of an article.

Thanks. I feel better now.
In Response

by: Levan from: USA
October 16, 2010 23:51
The recent constitutional changes adopted or more precisely "rubber-stamped" by the parliament, are aimed at one and the only objective - keep Saakashvili in power. If you look back to 2004 when he came to power after a "rose revolution", the consitution was also chenged and the presidential power was strengthened.
All of sudden, when Saakashvili's 2nd term is expiring, "its time" to adopt more European-style constitution. Anyone can see the real motives behind all of these changes. I'm sorry to see Putin-style autoritarianism in Georgia.
In Response

by: Dimitri from: Tbilisi
October 19, 2010 22:45
Jacob, I agree with you 100%. Saakashvili is the best thing that ever happened to Georgia. I think people forget the terrible state the country was in before Saakashvili. Georgia was a failed state Period! The western reforms and the leaps Georgia made in stamping out corruption, adopting and promoting Democracy in the country are nothing short of remarkable! Saakashvili needed a strong presidential post because he was fighting against the most corrupt mafia political clans in the country! Now that his presidential term is coming to an end, these reforms are vital to guarantee that these democratic Institutions he had build remain strong and Independent, so I am very happy that he is empowering the Parliament, and distributing the power away from just the post of the President.

by: Dato from: Tbilisi
October 16, 2010 16:23
The Parliament is a rubber stamp where the United National Movement of Saakashvili has almost all the seats, and the President he has not ruled out staying in politics after 2012. Here everyone thinks he wants to do a "Putin" and that constitutional changes are part of this. Radio liberty got it right and you don't.

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