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Thursday 23 March 2017

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Giorgi Margvelashvili insists that the Georgian people have the right to elect the president.

Giorgi Margvelashvili insists that the Georgian people have the right to elect the president.

Over the past several weeks, the long-standing tensions between Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party have reached a new level of hostility. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Over the past several weeks, the long-standing tensions between Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party have reached a new level of hostility.

Having declared three months ago that he would not participate in the work of the commission tasked with drafting a new constitution because he was not named to co-chair it, Margvelashvili recently launched his own campaign to solicit citizens' views on what that constitution should look like -- even though the draft the commission is currently working on will be published for nationwide discussion.

Central to the dispute is how Georgia's president should be elected: in a nationwide ballot, or by the parliament. Georgian Dream, which has a constitutional majority in the parliament elected in October 2016, favors abolishing direct elections for the post. This would be in line with constitutional amendments enacted in 2010 by its rival and then ruling United National Movement, under which many presidential powers were transferred to the prime minister, who thus became the country's most powerful official.

True, the president remains nominal head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, but he no longer formulates domestic or foreign policy, and has been stripped of the right of legislative initiative and the power to convene an emergency parliament session or schedule a referendum.

Margvelashvili, however, whose term in office expires in late 2018, insists that the Georgian people have the right to elect the president. So too do the two factions into which the United National Movement recently split, and which routinely seek to disparage and where possible undermine any initiative by Georgian Dream.

Margvelashvili was selected as Georgian Dream's presidential candidate in spring 2013 by then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, and was duly elected president in October of that year with 62 percent of the vote, compared to 22 percent for the United National Movement's Davit Bakradze. It was only after that ballot that the constitutional amendments passed three years earlier took effect.

Ivanishvili resigned shortly after that election, and was succeeded as prime minister by Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who is 13 years younger than Margvelashvili. Relations between them proved tense and difficult. Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who was named prime minister in December 2015 following Garibashvili's sudden resignation, has sought to establish a congenial relationship with the president despite Margvelashvili's sometimes inappropriate statements and erratic behavior.

Even before the parliament's constitutional commission convened for its first session in late December, the possibility of abolishing direct elections for the post of president was under discussion. Margvelashvili repeatedly criticized that proposal as unwarranted. He was quoted by Interpressnews.ge on February 7 as telling Iberia TV that the Georgian people should be able to elect their president, and that "I still have not heard a single cogent argument why that right should be taken from us and given to someone else."

Georgian Dream then came up with a compromise proposal. Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze announced that "in order to preclude speculation, the ruling party considers it expedient" that in 2018 the president should be elected by a direct nationwide vote, and the transition to an indirect election should take place only in 2023. Given the constitutional limit on any individual serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, Margvelashvili will not be eligible to run in that ballot.

That proposed compromise only served to exacerbate the situation, however. Margvelashvili publicly attributed that compromise proposal to public pressure to retain direct elections. At the same time, he continued to protest that the proposed abolition of direct elections is directed against him personally. Presidential-administration head Giorgi Abashishvili similarly suggested in early March that the creation of the constitutional commission was simply a smokescreen for making "a specific decision," clearly meaning abolishing direct elections for the post of president.

Kobakhidze responded with a categorical denial that the proposal to postpone the abolition of direct elections was made under pressure from the public at large, saying that the commission had taken Margvelashvili's position into account. He went on to warn that if Margvelashvili continued to make "incorrect comments," the commission might withdraw that proposal and opt instead for the indirect election of the president in 2018.

That injudicious statement is likely to haunt Kobakhidze for some time. Levan Bezhashvili, a leading member of the United National Movement, described it as "the reaction of an angry and outraged child," while Abashishvili sarcastically queried the rationale for tailoring constitutional amendments in response to statements by the president.

Even veteran lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze, a member of the constitutional commission and one of the co-authors of the 1995 constitution, conceded that Kobakhidze's statement was not entirely appropriate -- although he was even more critical of Margvelashvili.

Then, on March 10, Margvelashvili convened a special press conference, to which NGO representatives and foreign diplomats were invited, at which he announced his The Constitution Belongs To All campaign. Civil.ge quoted him as stressing that the campaign was not intended as an alternative to the parliamentary commission's deliberations, but to further that process by democratic means. Whether by oversight or design, that press conference was scheduled to coincide with a plenary parliament session; consequently, Georgian Dream parliament members failed to show up.

Kobakhidze, who unlike Margvelashvili is a trained constitutional lawyer, construed Margvelashvili's initiative as deliberate defiance of both the parliament and the constitutional commission, and as demonstrating regrettable lack of respect for the parliament as an institution. He recalled that the parliament alone is empowered to conduct the process of public review of the proposed constitutional amendments, and appealed to Margvelashvili to "set aside his narrow political interests" and involve himself in the constitutional commission's work.

Margvelashvili has not yet responded to that appeal, or commented on a new proposal floated by Khmaladze last week. That proposal, namely, that the president should be selected by the 150 lawmakers plus 150 representatives of local government, represents a retreat from the commission's offer to postpone the abolition of direct elections for president. Khmaladze said it would give greater legitimacy to the election process.

The dispute over electing the president is likely to resurface in early April, when Margvelashvili is scheduled to deliver his annual address to parliament. Meanwhile, it is likely to be eclipsed by his veto on March 20 of the revised law on electronic surveillance the parliament passed in the third and final reading three weeks ago.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Troops serving with South Ossetia's military forces attend an allegiance ceremony in Tskhinvali in 1015.

Troops serving with South Ossetia's military forces attend an allegiance ceremony in Tskhinvali in 1015.

After a year of negotiations on the small print, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his formal approval this week for the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on the modalities for the incorporation of "some military units" of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian armed forces.

After a year of negotiations on the small print, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his formal approval this week for the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on the modalities for the incorporation of "some military units" of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian armed forces.

Details of precisely how many South Ossetian servicemen are involved remain unclear, although the revised version of the agreement reportedly preserves at least partially the independent military capacity that the region's de facto president and defense minister have consistently insisted is essential to deter and/or repel an anticipated attack by Georgia.

The agreement in question is one of a series of ancillary accords deriving from the framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Ossetia (RYuO) signed in March 2015. That treaty made provision for "individual units" of the South Ossetian army to be subsumed into the Russian armed forces within the framework of a "common defense space."

That provision encountered stubborn resistance, however, from within the South Ossetian Defense Ministry, which construed it as heralding the downsizing, or even the abolition of the region's armed forces.

In his annual address to parliament in February 2016, South Ossetia's de facto President Leonid Tibilov declared that "in order to preclude a repeat of the August 2008 [entrance into South Ossetia by the Georgian army], South Ossetia needs its own national military formation, not necessarily a large one, but disciplined, mobile, well-armed, and professionally trained to conduct military operations effectively in mountainous and forested terrain and within populated areas."

Tibilov recalled that, in 2012, he succeeded in persuading President Putin to annul an agreement his predecessor Eduard Kokoity had concluded with Moscow on downsizing South Ossetia's military, and thus "we managed to preserve our army."

Maximum Benefit For Moscow

De facto Defense Minister Ibragim Gasseyev similarly argued that "the republic should have an army that is capable of resisting aggression in the event of an attack on our country," and for that reason, "the Defense Ministry is not prepared for a significant down-sizing of the RYuO armed forces."

Piecing together sporadic cryptic references to the negotiation process, it would seem that the Russians sought to extract the maximum benefit in terms of gaining additional manpower, but were hindered by the need to ensure the final text of the agreement does not violate existing Russian laws.

Alan Djussoyev of the social movement "Your Choice, Ossetia" had already pointed out that there is no such legal concept as the subsuming of military units of one national army into another, and no precedent for doing so.

Tibilov told journalists in early April 2016 that in order to bring it into line with Russian legislation, the provision of the initial draft providing for the transition [переход] of individual South Ossetian army units into the Russian armed forces would be amended to refer to the acceptance [прием] of individual servicemen into the Russian army.

The revised version of the treaty makes it clear, however, that individual South Ossetian servicemen who opt to sign up as contract servicemen serving at Russian military bases must first resign from the South Ossetian army. The official designation of the agreement as "regulating the inclusion of South Ossetian army units into the Russian armed forces" is therefore both inaccurate and misleading.

Moreover, according to an unnamed RYuO Defense Ministry official quoted by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, only some 200 South Ossetian servicemen meet the standards set for Russian army contract servicemen. It thus appears that South Ossetia will retain a tiny army, given that President Putin has told the Russian Defense Ministry it may make only any minor changes that may prove necessary prior to the official signing of the agreement. The fate of the General Staff is not clear. Defense Minister Gasseyev was quoted in January by civil.ge as saying "we managed to preserve the number of armed forces of South Ossetia … this way, the ministry of defense will keep its combat units." At the same time, he said, unspecified "changes to the organizational and staff structures" will be implemented after the agreement is signed.

Georgia has denounced the agreement as "yet another Russian provocation aimed at destabilizing the region." The news portal Caucasian Knot quoted Deputy Defense Minister David Dondua as admitting that it will not change the situation on the ground. At the same time, he said it constitutes a violation of the cease-fire agreement of August 12, 2008 that ended the so-called "four-day war."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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