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Stalemate In Georgia Continues Despite Consensus On Pro-Western Foreign Policy

It seems almost as if Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (right) and President Mikheil Saakashvili attended different meetings in Tbilisi last week.
It seems almost as if Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (right) and President Mikheil Saakashvili attended different meetings in Tbilisi last week.
The Georgian Parliament unanimously adopted on March 7 by 96 votes a resolution affirming the shared commitment to a pro-Western foreign policy of the majority Georgian Dream (KO) coalition headed by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM).

The adoption of that resolution has lessened the risk of an open confrontation between the two parties next month: ENM Secretary-General Vano Merabishvili had earlier announced his intention of convening a mass meeting on April 19 to demonstrate the extent of popular support for the ENM's Euro-Atlantic orientation.

But despite a landmark meeting between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili on March 4, the two camps still remain divided on other issues, in particular proposed constitutional amendments curtailing the president's powers and moving the parliament back to Tbilisi from the grandiose new building Saakashvili had constructed for it in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city.

Saakashvili and Ivanishvili have been at odds since the October 2012 parliamentary elections in which KO won 85 of the 150 parliament mandates and the ENM the remaining 65. Saakashvili and senior ENM members have since repeatedly accused Ivanishvili and the government he heads of the systematic political persecution of ENM members; of seeking to roll back the reforms implemented by the ENM during its nine years in power; and of abandoning the ENM's pro-Western foreign policy that prioritizes membership of NATO and the European Union.

Ivanishvili rejects all those allegations as unfounded. A recent study funded by the German Marshall Fund delivers a cautiously positive assessment of the new government's moves to deal with the "grim" legacy of human rights abuses. It makes the specific point that "Georgia's judiciary has so far expressed relative leniency in relation to the defendants associated with the Saakashvili government."

In late December, KO proposed amending the Georgian Constitution to strip the president of the right to dismiss the government, name a new cabinet, and then dismiss the parliament if it fails to approve two successive sets of cabinet nominees, after which the president may form a new government without parliamentary approval.

As political analyst and former Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili recently pointed out, no other country in the world empowers the president to dissolve parliament in those circumstances.

But the constitution also sets restrictions on when the president may exercise that power: he may not do so for a period of six months after, and for the six months preceding a national election. That gives Saakashvili a one-month window of opportunity beginning in April, six months after the parliamentary elections. Saakashvili's successor as president will be elected in October.

Georgia's 'Euro-Atlantic Orientation'

The ENM responded to KO's efforts to push through the constitutional amendment stripping the president of the power to name a new government without parliamentary approval by demanding the constitution also be amended to make the pro-Western foreign policy launched by Saakashvili on his election in 2003 binding for all future national governments. KO retaliated by declaring its faction would not permit Saakashvili to deliver his annual address to the nation from the parliament chamber until its proposed amendment was passed.

"We want the president's address to be made in a parliament that 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 a position on this concrete issue," parliament speaker David Usupashvili was quoted as saying.

Rather than yield to that pressure, Saakashvili decided to deliver his address at the National Library in Tbilisi on February 8. Several prominent ENM members were assaulted outside the building by former prisoners jailed by previous ENM governments.

In the wake of that standoff, Ivanishvili proposed a dialogue with the ENM on four specific points: the planned curtailing of the president's powers; drafting and adopting a parliamentary declaration on foreign policy; creating a parliament commission to amend the constitution to reflect the European orientation favored by the Georgian people; and creating working groups to focus on unspecified "important issues."

Over the next 10 days, parliament speaker Usupashvili and the head of the ENM parliament faction, David Bakradze, met several times in an attempt to narrow the differences between them. According to Usupashvili, by February 15 they managed to reach a consensus on the constitution-related issues as a result of concessions by KO on specific demands by the ENM. Those demands included raising from 100 to 113 the number of votes necessary to pass constitutional amendments and delaying until after the October presidential election a vote in parliament on relocating the parliament back to Tbilisi.

Agreeing To Disagree

But over the next two days, the ENM added a further precondition: an unconditional and complete amnesty for all former public officials, from the president to the lowest municipal official, for all nonviolent crimes. KO rejected that demand as "unfair" and a retreat from the coalition's election-campaign pledge to bring to trial ENM members suspected of serious crimes. KO proposed, instead, excluding from any such amnesty the president, parliament deputies, and former government ministers. That proposal proved unacceptable to the ENM.

Reaching a provisional agreement by wresting concessions and then reneging on that agreement is a tactic the ENM has used before, notably during its horse-trading with the opposition in the spring of 2008 over constitutional amendments rewriting the ground rules for parliamentary elections.

In a televised statement on the breakdown of the talks, Saakashvili denied point-blank that the ENM had sought blanket immunity from prosecution for its members. He affirmed his interest in "maintaining stability." As on several previous occasions, including in his televised annual address to the nation on February 8, Saakashvili also stressed that he had no plans to dismiss the government.

Those repeated affirmations apparently failed to convince Ivanishvili, who posted on his Facebook page a few days later an open letter to Saakashvili demanding that he "state clearly and unambiguously within the next two-three days whether or not you reject constitutional dictatorship and whether or not you support a ban on replacing the government without the parliament's approval."

Saakashvili convened a press conference the following day to comment on that "ultimatum," but failed to clarify his position. He subsequently agreed to a one-on-one meeting with the prime minister -- their first since October -- on the grounds that "the country is in political crisis" and "we want to get back on the path of development."

In the event, the meeting on March 4 failed to agree on reaching a mutually acceptable formula for cohabitation between the KO and the ENM that would guarantee political stability until the presidential election in October. The separate accounts both men subsequently gave of their 90-minute conversation show that they simply talked past each other.

According to Ivanishvili, Saakashvili complained in very general terms about unspecified government pressure on the media and the judiciary and about "blanket persecution of the people."

Saakashvili, for his part, told journalists after the talks that he rejected the concept of an "amnesty" because the 25,000 people to whom it could apply "built modern Georgian statehood." Saakashvili nonetheless affirmed his readiness for further talks, but no such meeting has been scheduled.

In other words, Ivanishvili and KO remain adamant that members of successive ENM governments who violated the law should admit to having done so, after which the vast majority would be subjected to only token punishment. Ivanishvili told journalists it was his "great desire to make it possible for the members of the National Movement to remain worthy members of Georgia, although some of them might have violated the law and they will have to answer before the law."

"There should not be endless trials and endless prosecutions," he added. Saakashvili, by contrast, argues that the merits of the outgoing administration exonerate its members of any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the KO parliament faction plans to vote before the end of March on the constitutional amendment divesting the president of the power to name a new cabinet without parliamentary approval. During the March 4 meeting, Saakashvili described the constitutional provision empowering him to dissolve both the government and the parliament as "customary" for a presidential republic, but failed to cite a single other country where the president is similarly empowered.

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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