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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.
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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