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Georgian Parliament Majority's Defiance Could Play Into President's Hands

Chaos erupted outside Georgia's National Library building as protesters attacked members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, forcing him to appear from the presidential residence on February 8.
Chaos erupted outside Georgia's National Library building as protesters attacked members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, forcing him to appear from the presidential residence on February 8.
The antagonism between their rival political forces has finally erupted into violence that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has unequivocally blamed on Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

On February 8, anti-Saakashvili protesters assaulted parliamentarians and senior officials from Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) outside the National Library in Tbilisi, where Saakashvili was preparing to deliver his annual address to the nation.

Both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are now seeking to turn the situation to their political advantage by affirming their readiness to reach a compromise that would ensure peaceful coexistence until Saakashvili's presidential term expires in October.

The confrontation was the direct result of deadlock between the minority ENM parliamentary faction and Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, which controls 85 of the 150 parliamentary mandates. Georgian Dream had proposed an amendment to the constitution that would strip the president of the right to name a government without the approval of parliament. On February 6, the ENM parliamentary faction said it would endorse that constitutional amendment only simultaneously with two others: one committing the government to pursue a pro-Western foreign policy, and a second raising from two-thirds (100) to four-fifths (120) the number of votes required for the passage of future constitutional amendments.

Georgian Dream responded to that ultimatum by postponing Saakashvili's annual address to parliament, which had been scheduled for February 8. Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili explained on February 7 that "we want the president's address to be made in a parliament which is empowered with the appropriate authority, and not in a parliament whose decisions might be unilaterally overturned by the president.... So our position is that the president will of course be given an opportunity to make his annual address in the parliament, but that will only happen after a decision is made on this concrete issue [on constitutional amendments related to presidential powers] or after the president and his political team explicitly express position on this concrete issue."
President Mikheil Saakashvili delivered his speech from the presidential residence in Tbilisi on February 8.
President Mikheil Saakashvili delivered his speech from the presidential residence in Tbilisi on February 8.

Speaking immediately after the violence, Usupashvili said the parliament had made it clear to Saakashvili that it was not seeking to override his constitutionally guaranteed right to address parliament, merely to postpone that address. But Saakashvili, according to Usupashvili, refused to consider a postponement and decided instead to deliver his address at the National Library. Usupashvili implied that decision was misguided in light of the problems inherent in providing police protection for people arriving to attend the address.

Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili explained that the president insisted on using the main entrance to the National Library building, although the police had provided corridors giving secure access to two other entrances. Gharibashvili further said video footage shows that Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and ENM parliamentarians deliberately incited the protesters (who numbered up to 2,000, including some people recently released after serving prison terms for participating in anti-Saakashvili protests in 2007 and 2011) to violence.

Senior ENM members have nonetheless accused Ivanishvili of orchestrating the violence, for which three men were arrested. But Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream presumably had no interest in precipitating a situation that could reflect badly on them and provide Saakashvili with an opportunity to assume the moral high ground.

In a written statement on February 9, Ivanishvili unequivocally condemned the violence, adding that he has asked the Interior Ministry to investigate who was behind it. At the same time, Ivanishvili said that "it would have been better if the president of Georgia took into consideration the offer by the ruling majority to give his annual speech in the building of the Parliament of Georgia a couple of weeks later."

Ivanishvili commended Saakashvili for having formally apologized in his annual address for unspecified "mistakes" he had made while in power. Ivanishvili also acknowledged Saakashvili's statement that he and his team support the proposed constitutional amendment curtailing the president's powers. Ivanishvili for his part reaffirmed his readiness to work with Saakashvili and his team "in full compliance with the constitution" and to "make reasonable concessions for the sake of the well-being of our homeland." On February 10, Ivanishvili told journalists that the parliament should cooperate with the president within the framework of the law.

Saakashvili responded by inviting Ivanishvili to the presidential palace on February 11 to embark on "a real dialogue" not only on the controversial constitutional amendment that he has already agreed to support, but also on "other important initiatives that require consensus, as well as on the ways to ensure...peaceful cohabitation between the various institutions that are key to the Georgian democracy." Saakashvili also categorically denied that he plans to make use of his constitutional power to dismiss Ivanishvili as prime minister.

By late on February 10, Ivanishvili had not yet responded to that initiative, possibly fearing that Saakashvili was simply playing for time. Other prominent Georgian Dream representatives have questioned Saakashvili's sincerity, including constitutional expert Vakhtang Khmaladze, whom Ivanishvili has mentioned as a possible Georgian Dream presidential candidate. Saakashvili's injunction that "political violence has to stop.... I hope that the shameful event of February 8 will serve as a lesson and put an end to the cycle of harassment and hatred that started recently in our beloved Georgia" could risk laying him open to accusations of hypocrisy and double standards in light of the far more extensive and brutal reprisals against oppositionists who took to the streets of Tbilisi in November 2007 and May 2011 to protest corruption and the repeated revisions of both the constitution and the election law to cement the advantages enjoyed by the ruling ENM.

Meanwhile, the European Union has expressed concern "at signs of deterioration of the power-sharing arrangement between the Georgian Dream and United National Movement parties in Georgia -- the ongoing standoff around constitutional issues." It called on "all actors in Georgian politics to refrain from instrumentalizing the processes or institutions of the state for partisan or for party political purposes."

The danger persists, however, that last week's standoff could lead to friction within Georgian Dream's parliamentary faction between those willing to soft-pedal in line with Ivanishvili's call for cooperation with the president, and hard-liners unwilling to risk concessions that could provide the ENM with leverage against them. An incipient disagreement has already emerged between the Republican Party and the Free Democrats. The former has informally proposed amending the constitution to abolish direct presidential elections; instead, the president would be elected by parliament. The Free Democrats headed by Defense Minister Irakli Alasania oppose any such change.

The standoff could equally encourage the "hawks" within the ENM to go for broke in their efforts to undermine Ivanishvili. Meeting with party members in Tbilisi on February 1,former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, now ENM chairman, argued that "we must not give this government four years [in power].... It does not mean that we will stage a coup and overthrow it, but we should not let this government...implement the plan it has -- to weaken Georgia."

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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