Visiting Tbilisi last week, Gianni Buquicchio, who heads the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs, challenged some of Saakashvili’s accusations. At the same time, Buquicchio expressed qualified support for some of the constitutional amendments drafted by the KO with the aim of curtailing the president's powers.
The message that Saakashvili and the ENM consistently seek to convey is that the KO, and Ivanishvili personally, is pro-Russian, and for that reason not interested in membership of either NATO or the European Union; and that the new government’s domestic policies will undo everything the ENM achieved during its nine years in power in terms of democratization and strengthening the rule of law.
In recent weeks, the focus of Saakashvili’s criticism has shifted from “political persecution,” meaning the arrest of up to a dozen former senior officials suspected of corruption, to the KO’s foreign policy and the New Year amnesty under which some 3,000 prisoners were released from Georgia’s overcrowded jails.
The amnesty bill was signed into law by parliament speaker David Usupashvili after Saakashvili refused to do so. The beneficiaries included 190 people the KO considers political prisoners, some of whom had been sentenced on dubious evidence on charges of espionage for Russia, and six criminal kingpins who have since left Georgia.
Former Prime Minister and current ENM chairman Vano Merabishvili has predicted that the release of the latter will inevitably result in a significant upsurge in crime.
Meeting with party members in Tbilisi on February 1, he 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 to implement the plan it has – to weaken Georgia.”
Buquicchio criticized the KO for not waiting for the Venice Commission’s evaluation of the amnesty bill before voting on it.
Saakashvili, for his part, singled out for special mention the release under the amnesty of Vahagn Chakhalian, a campaigner for the rights of the predominantly Armenian population of Georgia’s southern region of Djavakheti, which borders Armenia.
Chakhalian was sentenced in April 2009 to 10 years in prison on charges, which Armenian civil rights organizations said were unsubstantiated, of illegal possession of weapons, participating in mass disorders, resisting arrest, and "hooliganism."
Saakashvili reacted to Chakhalian’s release by branding him “an enemy of the Georgian state” and an agent of Russian military intelligence.
He said the decision to release him from jail prematurely poses a serious threat to Georgia’s national security. (That allegation may have been based on the assumption that Chakhalian was in some way connected with a recent appeal to the Georgian leadership by natives of Djavakheti living in Russia to grant the economically-depressed region the status of a free economic zone. Saakashvili dismissed that suggestion as a manifestation of separatism.)
Georgia’s Minister for the Penitentiary System Sozar Subari asked why, if the previous leadership had evidence that Chakhalian was indeed in the pay of Russian intelligence, that charge did not figure in the indictment when he went on trial.
Both Ivanishvili and members of his government have repeatedly reassured Western officials that they have no intention of abandoning the pro-Western foreign policy espoused first by then President Eduard Shevardnadze and then by Saakashvili. Georgia’s commitment to seeking NATO membership was reaffirmed most recently at the annual Munich Security Conference by Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze.
Notwithstanding those repeated affirmations, the ENM last week announced a legislative initiative that would make a pro-Western policy legally binding for all future national governments.
The KO responded by proposing that all parliament factions jointly draft and sign a document affirming their shared foreign policy vision.
But that offer failed to satisfy the EMN, which 24 hours later advocated drafting jointly with the KO a separate constitutional amendment “to reaffirm that Georgia’s only future is [a] European future and that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration should continue.”
Buquicchio indicated on January 31 that he considers such a constitutional amendment inappropriate.
Buquicchio conceded nonetheless that some articles of Georgia’s constitution urgently need amending. But at the same time, he said this should not be undertaken with undue haste, and that the maximum popular consensus is desirable.
Specifically, Buquicchio expressed qualified approval of the proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the president’s power to dissolve parliament.
“I understand that for the sake of stability of the government and the parliament after the last parliamentary elections it is necessary to change the constitution in order to limit powers of the head of state [the president] to dismiss the government and appoint a new government without the authorization of the parliament,” Buquicchio was quoted as saying after meeting with Ivanishvili.
Some analysts and politicians have expressed concern that Saakashvili could abuse that power to deliberately bring down Ivanishvili’s government and force a pre-term parliamentary election.