TBILISI -- Georgia’s president says she has pardoned two jailed opposition leaders -- a former Tbilisi mayor and an ex-defense minister -- in a bid to salvage a foreign-brokered deal between the opposition and the ruling party on election reforms.
President Salome Zurabishvili made the announcement late on May 15, a day after opposition parties threatened to abandon the agreement if "political prisoners" were not released.
The sides have failed to move forward since the deal was inked on May 8, triggering what Zurabishvili called a “political crisis” that threatened the “democratic and European future” of the South Caucasus nation.
Georgia’s opposition parties also vowed to boycott parliamentary sessions until several jailed politicians who they say have been convicted on politically motivated charges are freed.
They claim the release was a condition of the May 8 deal, which the governing Georgian Dream party denies.
The two pardoned politicians are Gigi Ugulava, a former mayor of Tbilisi and leader of European Georgia-Movement for Freedom, and former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who leads the Victorious Georgia party.
Describing the two as “odious figures,” Zurabishvili insisted she was not pardoning political prisoners.
“I declare with full responsibility that today there are no political prisoners in Georgia,” the president said.
Ugulava, who helped organize anti-government protests in summer 2019, was sentenced earlier this year to 3 years and 2 months on charges of misusing public funds. It was his second conviction on similar charges.
Okruashvili was sentenced to 5 years in prison after being found guilty of organizing and taking part in the violence that marred the rallies, which lasted for weeks.
Opposition parties insisted that Georgia's electoral system unfairly favored Georgian Dream, and demanded it be changed to a proportional system ahead of parliamentary elections set for October this year.
Under the March 8 memorandum of understanding facilitated by U.S. and EU officials, parliament should consist of 120 members elected through a proportional voting system, while 30 members would be elected through a majority system.
The electoral threshold for proportional elections will be set at 1 percent and a capping mechanism will mean that no single party receiving less than 40 percent of the votes cast will be allowed to hold a majority of seats in parliament.
Under the current electoral system, 73 of 150 parliamentary seats are claimed by candidates who finish first in district races. The remaining seats are distributed proportionally to the national share of the vote that a party wins.
This led to Georgian Dream, led by billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, winning 76 percent of the legislature's seats even though it won just less than half of the popular vote.
The U.S. and European Union ambassadors welcomed the pardon as a positive move for "political de-polarization" and a contribution toward implementing the March 8 agreement ahead of upcoming elections in the autumn.