Georgia: Constitutional Amendments Create New Rift Between Authorities, Opposition
By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
The Georgian parliament approved in the first reading on March 4, the second reading on March 11, and the third and final reading on March 12 constitutional amendments that will fundamentally change the way the next Georgian parliament is elected.
The opposition National Council rejects one of those innovations, which it claims is designed to preserve the existing overall majority within the legislature of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, and has demanded the resignation of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whom it accuses of reneging on an oral agreement reached in February on numerous political issues, including the constitutional amendment in question.
The Georgian parliament elected in 2003-2004 comprised a total of 225 deputies; 150 mandates were distributed under the proportional system among parties or blocs that polled a minimum of 7 percent of the vote, and 75 were allocated in single-mandate constituencies; 10 mandates reserved for deputies representing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained unfilled. In a referendum in 2003, the parliament voted to cut the total number of lawmakers to 150, of whom 100 would be elected under the proportional and 50 under the majoritarian system. The most recent amendments reduce even further, to 75, the number of mandates distributed under the proportional system and lower the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system from 7 to 5 percent. The opposition did not take issue with those changes, but is adamantly opposed to a third, which increases from 50 to 75 the number of majoritarian lawmakers and envisages a new procedure for their election that they claim violates the agreement reached last month between Burjanadze and the National Council.
The new procedure abolishes the existing "first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system" for electing majoritarian lawmakers. But in its place, it introduces a system under which Georgia is divided into 19 election districts that will elect a total of 75 MPs. Before the figure was raised from 50 to 75, the mandates were divided as following, according to the "Georgian Times" on February 18:
Tbilisi -10, Samegrelo and Imereti - five each, Shida Kartli, Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, and Adjara - four each, and South Ossetia, Samtskhe-Djavakheti, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Guria, Svaneti, Racha-Lechkhumi, Abkhazia -- two each. The allocation of those mandates was seen as crucial in determining whether Saakashvili's United National Movement would preserve its two-thirds constitutional majority in the new parliament.
One of the 17 demands contained in the National Council's January 29 memorandum to parliament speaker Burjanadze was that the proposed 50 majoritarian parliamentarians be elected on the basis of regional proportional lists. That would enable parties or blocs to nominate not one but several candidates in each electoral district, and the parliament seats would be allocated according to the number of votes the party/bloc received in that specific constituency. The authorities initially agreed to the proposed regional proportional lists "in the event of reaching a consensus," civil.ge reported on February 16.
In the event, the parliament tweaked the amendments at the last minute to increase the number of majoritarian deputies from 50 to 75, and went back on the assurances given to the opposition concerning how they would be elected, opting instead to revert to the original model under which one parliamentarian was elected in each of 75 constituencies. It then adopted the amendments in the first reading on March 4 without any debate, a procedure the opposition subsequently decried as unconstitutional. Opposition parliamentarian Kakha Kukava (Conservative Party) branded Burjanadze "a liar," claiming that on February 22, during her talks with opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, she swore that the constitution would be amended to ensure that majoritarian deputies would be elected according to the system proposed by the opposition, the "Georgian Times" reported on March 10. Mamuka Katsitadze told that paper that the authorities retracted their earlier concession to the opposition over the regional proportional lists because they feared they would not win the required number of votes. Gachechiladze argued that the 75:75 proportion is not only unconstitutional but endangers national unity, and he threatened to renounce his Georgian citizenship in protest.
President Saakashvili, however, defended the amendments on March 10 as "fair," and branded the opposition "unserious and irresponsible" for protesting them instead of declaring solidarity with the country's leadership in face of the March 6 unilateral decision by Russia to withdraw from the economic sanctions imposed by CIS members states on the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia at a summit in January 1996 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). Prior to the second reading on March 11, opposition supporters staged a protest demonstration outside the parliament building, and David Gamkrelidze and five other law-makers from the New Rightists party that he heads began a hunger strike in the ante-room to Burjanadze's office, both to protest the new draft of the constitutional amendments and to demand that the authorities deliver on the other opposition demands to which Burjanadze agreed earlier.
Several dozen more opposition supporters began a hunger strike outside the parliament. Burjanadze met with the six New Rightists on March 11 and proposed resolving the deadlock by raising the total number of deputies in the new parliament to 175, but Gamkrelidze rejected that idea as "nonsense," adding that "not a single opposition party would agree to it," civil.ge reported.
Meanwhile, some oppositionists began voicing demands above and beyond those contained in the January 29 memorandum to Burjanadze, including Saakashvili's resignation and the holding of new presidential elections, and, in response to the Russian waiver one week earlier of sanctions of Abkhazia, that Georgia quit the CIS. On March 12, opposition supporters embarked on hunger strikes in two other major cities, Kutaisi and Batumi.
Saakashvili responded on March 13 by stressing the need "to cooperate," civil.ge reported. He urged the opposition to "sit down at the negotiating table," arguing that continued political instability undermines Georgia's chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008). Burjanadze too appealed on March 13 for a resumption of dialogue, calling on the hunger strikers to abandon their protest and warning that "the language of ultimatums" would not yield the desired results.
Human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar for his part told Burjanadze on March 13 he is ready to mediate between her and the opposition. But News Rightists leader Gamkrelidze rejected Saakashvili's call for dialogue, Caucasus Press reported on March 14. His faction also issued a statement demanding that Burjanadze resign as they no longer trust her. New Rightists faction member Pikria Chikhradze explained that "Ms. Burjanadze was the guarantor of the dialogue between the opposition and the majority, but the authorities preferred to take unilateral decisions and departed from the agreement," Caucasus Press reported.
A further opposition protest outside the parliament building has been scheduled for the early evening of March 16 to demand a recount of the votes in the January 5 presidential ballot, which the opposition believes will substantiate their suspicions that the outcome was rigged to give Saakashvili a first-round victory, and repeat elections. Giorgi Khaindrava, a former government minister now aligned with the opposition National Council, told civil.ge that "much will depend" on the outcome of the March 16 protest. Attendance at the previous opposition rally on March 9, while in the thousands, was much lower than during the initial post-election protests.
Armenia: Key U.S. Diplomat Calls For Roundtable In Wake Of Clashes
By Andrew Tully
Opposition protesters in Yerevan on March 1
Armenians have been living under strict restrictions since March 1, when police cracked down on opposition supporters who were protesting against alleged fraud in the February 19 presidential election. The U.S. administration's chief diplomat for the Caucasus, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, is calling for a roundtable meeting of Armenia's political leaders to resolve the crisis. Bryza spoke of his efforts with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully.
RFE/RL: Despite your calls on the Armenian government to stop arresting opposition activists, they're still being arrested. What can be done about it?
Matthew Bryza: It's ultimately a problem that has to be repaired by the government of Armenia, of course, and we call on the government of Armenia to cease arrests of political leaders and to restore the democratic momentum that was what had characterized Armenia's political development until the period just after this last election. So it's really up to the government of Armenia to take steps to restore this democratic momentum. So, one way besides ceasing these arrests is to restore media freedom and then to lift the state of emergency as soon as possible, and then finally launch a nationwide roundtable -- and by nationwide I mean including all major political parties -- to chart the course forward to strengthen Armenia's democracy.
RFE/RL: As many independent journalists have reported, opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian is technically under house arrest. There are indications that the government might arrest him formally. For example, today Armenian Minister of Justice Gevorg Danielian told the French news agency AFP that there is enough evidence to press criminal charges against him. Meanwhile, Armenia's general prosecutor said in his statement on March 7 that Ter-Petrossian "hypnotized the people and used psychological sabotage, all kinds of psychological tricks, mechanisms of deception." What is your reaction?
Bryza: Wow, that's quite a statement. My reaction is that [regarding] Mr. Ter-Petrossian -- it's disputed whether he's under house arrest, if you talk to the government of Armenia. If you talk to him, he probably says he's under house arrest. I went to visit him at his house and found it a useful conversation in which I encouraged him to participate fully in dialogue with the government of Armenia to do what I mentioned before: to chart a way forward to restore democratic momentum in Armenian society.
There is much criticism. People have been sending [criticism] in both directions -- both toward the opposition and Mr. Ter-Petrossian and the government -- in terms of what happened on March 1 with the violent demonstrations. Mr. Ter-Petrossian is obviously a very well-known politician who is very skillful in his oration, so he does have the ability to inspire people, and he was doing so through his repeated appearances at the demonstrations in Theater Square in Yerevan. So that's what he was doing: He was being a politician. And in the aftermath of what happened on March 1, as I said, there were a lot of allegations that both the government and the opposition sides were using violence. Now, no one accuses Mr. Ter-Petrossian himself of using violence, but there were people in the crowd who did use violence, and in many cases perhaps they would say "provoked." But in any case this wasn't an instance of a particular leader having magical powers. Mr. Ter-Petrossian was being a politician.
RFE/RL: Armenian authorities say security forces used no firearms when they dispersed the demonstration on March 1. The opposition says Special Forces fired indiscriminately on demonstrators and that there are more casualties than the government has reported. There was a suggestion by the EU presidency to conduct an independent investigation. Do you support the idea?
Bryza: We support the idea of an independent investigation, and it's useful. But, that said, I think it'll be very difficult ever to assess exactly how the tragically violent events transpired. Now what we need to do is move forward; to repair the damage of the election by prosecuting people who used violence unlawfully or who were violating election law. So that is looking back a little bit, but we need to get beyond the backward-looking and move forward.... We urge Mr. Ter-Petrossian to participate constructively in a dialogue with all the political leaders, including the government of Armenia, and find a way to repair the damage done by the election, and also chart a way to strengthen Armenia's democratic institutions.
RFE/RL: There are only a few countries that block citizens' access to the Internet, and now Armenia is one of them. The media in Armenia is in fact not operational today. No opposition or independent newspapers can be published, only progovernment media. RFE/RL has also been prevented from broadcasting. Despite your requests, the Armenian government has shown no intention of lifting the media restrictions. In your interview with the Associated Press, you said, "It seems clear that the reaction by the government was harsh and brutal." Do you think it is time for President George W. Bush to get involved in solving Armenia's crisis?
Bryza: I think we have a very useful and effective means of communication with the leadership of Armenia and the opposition. I also think it's essential, as does my government...that these media freedoms be restored. And I also have a feeling that in the government of Armenia, people are thinking through how to do that, and so we can only urge them to restore those media freedoms as quickly as possible.
Brutality occurred on both sides, and I also tried to make that clear; in fact I've tried to make that clear in all of my interviews. The problem is that once people get into a confrontational situation in the street, and if there is not a free flow of information through an independent media, each side tends to demonize the other. And it's much more difficult to bring back under control the emotions that are stoked when government and opposition people are confronting each other in the street. So the brutality refers to what happened overall.
Ultimately, of course, governments have responsibility for the use of government force against civilians. Civilians have a responsibility as well to protest peacefully and to use mechanisms within the rule of law to express themselves. So that's what we call on everybody to do, and again we underscore that to keep tension at the lowest possible level, it's important that there be free media so that all sorts of unfounded rumors don't percolate through society and raise tensions even higher.
RFE/RL: And what about President Bush's possible involvement?
Bryza: As I said, we have very effective channels of communication right now, we're communicating at many levels, so I'm comfortable that the way we're communicating now with the government is satisfactory. President Bush will make his own decision, and if he wishes to become involved, that's of course his decision. He's the head of our government, he is the ultimate determiner of our foreign policy, and it's up to him to decide when to get involved in any issue.
RFE/RL: As you mentioned earlier, the United States is urging Armenians to start a dialogue, and a roundtable was suggested as a possible format of talks between the government and the opposition. Could you be more specific?
Bryza: We would like to see representatives of all the largest political parties -- opposition, progovernment, coalition members -- we'd very much like to see them all coming together for a discussion representing all the voters of Armenia for talks about the future of Armenia's democratic institutions, and talks about how to strengthen those institutions. What the specific topics would be is up to the participants, of course, but the process of them resolving their country's political future through discussions at the bargaining table rather than in the streets is the way to build a healthy democracy.
RFE/RL: What is Russia's role in this political crisis? Are you also talking with Moscow about the events in Armenia? Will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raise the issue in her meetings with Russian officials when she visits Moscow later this month?
Bryza: We talk to our colleagues in the Russian government and Russian diplomatic circles about many issues that have to do with the Caucasus. We remain in constant contact about developments in Armenia as well as in Azerbaijan, so of course we're in general contact. We're not coordinating, however, our overall diplomatic responses in terms of what step we think needs to be taken next. The United States has a clear vision of what developing a genuine democracy means, and we're pursuing that objective on our own, but in close collaboration with the private citizens and the government of Armenia.