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Georgia: Weak Constitution, Government Corruption Provoke Crisis

Prague, 6 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Public discussion of the political situation in Georgia entered a new phase last week following the resignation of Minister of State Niko Lekishvili and virtually all government ministers.

Initially, debate had focused on constitutional changes as the optimum solution to the perceived crisis within the executive branch. The existing Georgian constitution offers minimal scope for the president to exert leverage over either the government or the parliament: he may not fire the former, and no provision is made for the dissolution of the latter.

Moreover, as Parliament Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili had pointed out, under the present system the country is administered by a bureaucratic apparatus that is virtually immune to any outside influence. The laws enacted by parliament are not implemented, and the parliament has no leverage over the executive.

Saakashvili therefore proposed amending the constitution to reintroduce the post of prime minister and to broaden his duties and those of the government ministers, who, he said, "should not be simply economic functionaries."

This would alleviate the burden on the president by shifting responsibility for day-to-day affairs to the premier, thus enabling the president to concentrate on "strategic tasks." In addition, the president would be empowered to dissolve parliament and to dismiss individual ministers, with the consent of the prime minister.

The parliament would likewise be empowered to monitor the performance of individual ministers and the cabinet as a whole, and to raise the question of their individual or collective dismissal. This, Saakashvili reasoned, would facilitate the appointment of what he called a "more responsive, saddle-ridden and bridle-wise" government. The appointment to the executive branch of 200 to 250 "honest and competent individuals," Saakashvili concluded, would fundamentally change the face of the country.

But during a roundtable discussion last week moderated by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau, both Saakashvili and philosophy professor Kakha Katsitadze acknowledged that the crisis that has arisen in recent months was not solely the result of shortcomings in the system. Saakashvili affirmed that he still believes that what he describes as the "half-presidential model" is the most appropriate system for Georgia, and cannot be overcome simply by amending the constitution.

Katsitadze pointed out that other factors had contributed to the crisis, above all corruption, for which the government that resigned last week had become a byword, but also the Georgia leadership's handling of the renewed hostilities in Abkhazia in May, and the fact that relations between the central government in Tbilisi and the periphery are not clearly defined in the constitution.

Both roundtable participants agreed that the existing division of powers is conducive to abuse. Saakashvili admitted that over the past three to four years, corruption has attained previously unheard-of dimensions, and that the Georgian people have never had a competent and honest government whom they could trust. He cited the example of Communications Minister Pridon Indjia who, Saakashvili claims, owns radio stations, TV channels and newspapers, and succeeded in accumulating a fortune at a time when the rest of the population was struggling to survive.

But Saakashvili noted with relief that despite the perceived symbiosis between what he dubbed "Mafia clans" and political parties, the former have not yet gained such a strong foothold in the political system that they are impervious to structural changes.

What is needed, both interlocutors agree, is structural changes plus sweeping cadre changes, in order to preclude an endless cycle of replacing one corrupt minister with another who proves to be equally corrupt.

Saakashvili proposed restricting the functions of specific ministries and transferring part of their duties to the private sector. In this context he singled out education, where he said the survival of Soviet-style curricula and Soviet-style teaching staff continue to yield Soviet-style results. Katsitadze also noted the urgent need for a reform of the system of local administration to curb the virtually unlimited powers of provincial administrators.

But Saakashvili made it clear he does not consider the present situation hopeless. If, he reasoned, the Georgian officials retain the competent cadres from the old government while bringing in new faces, and also work hard in the year that remains before the 1999 parliamentary election, then the government may succeed in winning back popular trust.

If not, Saakashvili predicted that he and his closest associates within the present parliament, including speaker Zurab Zhvania, would assume the role of what they call "constructive opposition" --an option that Zhvania had raised in his address on the final day of the Spring parliament session. The composition and future performance of the new government are thus key factors in deciding the future course of the country. But in Katsitadze's words, "the formation of a new government is a weapon that can only be fired once."