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Georgia: PACE Gives Saakashvili Warm Reception But Warns Over Democratic Process

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Germany today as part of a series of foreign visits aimed at gathering international support for his government. The newly elected southern Caucasus leader yesterday sought the endorsement of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Strasbourg-based parliamentarians vowed to help their former colleague restore Georgia's democratic institutions, but urged him to urgently address a number of concerns.

Prague, 29 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Berlin today for talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, President Johannes Rau, and other German officials.

Saakashvili is expected to seek Germany's financial help and political support for his efforts to break with the legacy of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had to resign last November amid election controversy.

Saakashvili's visit to Berlin is his first to a foreign capital since his landslide victory in this month's early presidential polls. Georgia's former opposition leader and the main figure behind the street protests that led to Shevardnadze's resignation, Saakashvili won more than 96 percent of the vote in the 4 January election -- a result political experts ascribe not so much to his personal charisma and political skills as to widespread frustration among Georgians at the outgoing ruling team.

Yesterday, the Georgian leader pleaded the cause of his administration before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in the French city of Strasbourg. Saakashvili is not unknown to the assembly, having served as Georgia's former chief delegate to PACE after Tbilisi joined the Council of Europe in 1999.

Addressing his former colleagues alternatively in English, Russian and French, the 36-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer reiterated earlier pledges to end endemic corruption, restore the prestige of state institutions, improve national legislation, and eliminate poverty. He also vowed to push for Georgia's integration into the European Union: "Georgia can contribute to Europe as a partner, as an ally, and as a member. Our single ambition today is nothing less but to become a full member of the EU."

Abandoning his traditional references to "Georgia's enemies," the Georgian leader had conciliatory words for Russia, another Council of Europe member state. Saakashvili, who is expected in Moscow next month (25 February), once again vowed to restore bilateral relations marred by the Kremlin's support for the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the presence of two Russian military bases in Georgia: "We have a common history, common cultural ties, and we want to improve relations. Indeed, I gave my hand of friendship to Russia, and I hope President [Vladimir] Putin is going to take [that hand] during my visit to Moscow."

Rejecting accusations that he is simultaneously courting the U.S administration and the Kremlin, which both played a crucial role in the outcome of the November crisis, Saakashvili yesterday claimed a European identity: "I do not want to be pro-American or pro-Russian. I am pro-Georgian. I am Georgian, and I am European by being Georgian. [Those are] my fundamental identity and values."

Yet, despite the warm reception they gave the young Georgian leader, PACE delegates issued a number of warnings. A report on the functioning of democratic institutions in Georgia debated after Saakashvili addressed the assembly raises concerns at recent political developments in that country.

"The assembly notes its concern about the current reshaping of Georgian political life and the risk of a disappearance of all parliamentary opposition after the forthcoming elections and, in consequence, of any true institutional counterweight," reads a resolution adopted at the end of a one-hour debate.

A rerun of last November's disputed parliamentary polls that precipitated the downfall of Shevardnadze's administration is scheduled for 28 March. Following Saakashvili's takeover after the so-called "Revolution of the Roses" that followed the controversial vote, some Georgian political observers have raised concerns at the possible concentration of power in the hands of a single party or coalition.

The Tbilisi-based "Civil Georgia" information website earlier this month (12 January) quoted an independent opinion survey showing that Saakashvili and his allies could garner nearly 80 percent of the votes in the next election. The survey also showed that none of the current opposition parties would overcome the 7-percent barrier required to enter parliament.

"If the elections were to culminate in the sole representation in parliament of the ruling coalition, the assembly might fear for the future of democratic pluralism in Georgia," the resolution adopted yesterday in Strasbourg says.

Meanwhile, in Tbilisi, Saakashvili's National Movement and the United Democrats party of State Minister Zurab Zhvania announced they will merge with a view to winning a majority of seats in parliament.

"The decision to unite was taken during the 'Revolution of the Roses' of last November. We want to create a party that expresses the interests of the majority of the Georgian population," Georgian media yesterday quoted Zhvania as saying.

In the report they submitted to the Strasbourg-based assembly, PACE monitoring committee members Matyas Eorsi from Hungary and Evgueni Kirilov from Bulgaria noted the absence of political alternatives offered to Georgian voters in this month's presidential election.

Opposition leaders who did not call for Shevardnadze's resignation despite reservations about the outcome of the November polls boycotted the vote, thus leaving Saakashvili with no serious competitors.

"The January vote should be better considered as a plebiscite in favor of the transition of power, or a referendum of confidence to the new coalition in power. It is realistic to consider that a large portion of the vote supporting Mikheil Saakashvili was a protest vote against the previous regime and a hope vote for radical changes," the PACE report said.

Warning that "the political honeymoon is soon over," PACE co-rapporteur on Georgia Eorsi yesterday expressed hope the country's new leaders will ensure that the next election does not see a repetition of the many irregularities noted during the January polls: "The past presidential elections were far, far, far much better than the previous elections, but far, far, far from being good enough. We believe that the parliamentary elections will be more competitive and that all the irregularities that are still being experienced will be fixed and improved for the March parliamentary elections."

Demands made by PACE include lowering the threshold required to enter parliament to 5 percent and upgrading voter lists. Shevardnadze's administration was criticized for failure to update Georgia's election rolls. It was the main argument cited by Saakashvili and his allies to challenge the outcome of the November vote.

Despite pledges made by the interim leadership that took over from Shevardnadze, the lists could not be updated in time for the January election. PACE co-rapporteur Kirilov yesterday warned Saakashvili against deceiving the expectations of his fellow countrymen and the European assembly: "The [same] way we took care of the rights of the opposition before, we would like very much also [to see] that there is an opposition in Georgia [now] and that things are run in a democratic way. You understand that because you are a former opposition [leader]. At the same time, let me say that we are full of hope. We would like to give you a chance. We would like to give you the possibility to use all of the resources [at the disposal] of the Council of Europe. You have [our] goodwill now behind you, and it would be really deplorable if this window of opportunity -- which, as [you] mentioned is a narrow window of opportunity -- is used in the most ineffective way."

One Georgian delegate added her voice to these warnings. Parliamentarian Elena Tevdoradze chairs the human rights committee in the Georgian legislature and has been a long-time critic of Shevardnadze's regime, despite being a member of the pro-presidential party. Yesterday, she welcomed the pledges made by Saakashvili before the European assembly.

Yet, she said her support for the new regime will not prevent her from voicing criticism whenever she deems necessary. "I can assure you that I will be carefully watching the steps taken by my new political family," Tevdoradze said. "Although we are now in power, I cannot see another role for myself than that of an inside opponent who is here to help the president and his team fulfill the obligations Georgia has taken before the Council of Europe," she added.