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Caucasus Report

Thursday 25 May 2017

Herbert Salber, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, reportedly congratulating South Ossetia's de facto leader on the "recent elections" that he won and "the very important post" he now occupies.

Herbert Salber has been the target of outraged criticism from across the Georgian political spectrum for remarks he is reported to have made during a visit on May 16 to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Tbilisi condemns any effort to drive a wedge between it and the European Union -- that was the message that emerged from a meeting on May 19 between Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua and Ambassador Herbert Salber, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia.

Salber has been the target of outraged criticism from across the Georgian political spectrum for remarks he is reported to have made during a visit on May 16 to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia in his capacity as one of the co-chairmen of the Geneva International Discussions that seek to resolve the humanitarian and security issues resulting from the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Specifically, Salber was quoted by the press service of the region's new de facto president, Anatoly Bibilov, as congratulating Bibilov on the "recent elections" in April that he won and "the very important post" he now occupies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua and several Georgian opposition politicians immediately criticized Salber's imputed comments as recognition of Bibilov as South Ossetia's legitimate president, and thus as in direct contradiction of the EU's policy of nonrecognition of either South Ossetia or Abkhazia as legitimate polities. (The EU nonetheless continues to pursue a Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The brainchild of Salber's predecessor as EU special representative, the Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby, it is intended, according to British scholar Thomas de Waal, to create a political and legal space within which the EU can "keep channels and options open," and maintain communication with the breakaway regions' leaders without compromising its adherence to Georgia's territorial integrity.)

Georgia's opposition United National Movement went so far as to argue that Salber's visit to Tskhinvali in itself constituted a violation of Georgia's territorial integrity, and to demand that Georgia insist that the EU recall Salber and appoint a replacement. Independent parliament deputy and former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili argued that Salber should be designated "persona non grata."

In video footage made public after his May 19 meeting with Dondua and quoted by the website Civil.ge, Salber stressed that both the EU and he personally continued to support fully the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity. He also said that neither he nor the EU recognized the legitimacy of "the framework in which the elections took place."

At the same time, Salber stressed that the core of his mandate as special representative focuses on his role as co-chairman of the Geneva International Discussions. Those talks, of which 39 rounds have taken place to date, bring together representatives of the EU, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, the United States, Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.

In a June 2016 address to the OSCE's Annual Security Review Conference, Salber described those talks as "an original set-up built on ambiguities and broad inclusiveness." (One of those ambiguities is to facilitate the participation of representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a purely personal, rather than an official capacity in order to circumvent the question of formal recognition of those polities.) The UN and OSCE co-chairs accompanied Salber on his visits earlier this week to South Ossetia, and then to Abkhazia.

Dondua too alluded to the Geneva International Discussions after his meeting with Salber, affirming that it was "very important to do everything to ensure that no shadow is cast on the bilateral and multilateral formats, processes, and institutions which have crucial importance for Georgia and which are playing a very important role for maintaining peace, democracy, and for Georgia's development in general."

That circumspect formulation implies that Tbilisi may have construed the comments attributed by Bibilov's press service to Salber as an attempt (at Moscow's behest?) either to drive a wedge between Georgia and the EU and/or to sabotage the Geneva International Discussions.

During the most recent round of those talks (in March), "modest progress" was reportedly made toward an agreement between Russia and Georgia on the nonuse of military force, according to the Georgian Foreign Ministry. Tbilisi has been demanding such a document for years, while Moscow dismisses it as unnecessary on the grounds that the conflict is between Georgia on the one hand and South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other.

But after the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers issued a statement in early May reiterating its support for Georgia's territorial integrity and condemning the continued presence of Russian military bases on the territory of the two breakaway regions, the Russian Foreign Ministry countered with a statement questioning whether there was any point in "continuing the Geneva meetings in the current format."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to clarify that it was the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers that issued a statement in early May reiterating its support for Georgia's territorial integrity
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili announced the proposed constitutional amendments late last year.

Broad public discussion of a series of amendments to the Georgian constitution drafted by a commission dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party is currently under way.

Broad public discussion of a series of amendments to the Georgian constitution drafted by a commission dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party is currently under way.

The planned changes include abolishing direct elections for president, and fine-tuning the electoral system in a way that would benefit whichever party garners the largest number of votes.

Georgian Dream argues that those changes will strengthen multiparty democracy. The opposition, by contrast, argues that they are intended and will serve solely to enable Georgian Dream to remain in power indefinitely.

Several opposition parties are therefore campaigning for the amendments to be put to a nationwide referendum, which Georgian Dream is reluctant to condone, even though the current constitution stipulates that referendum results are nonbinding.

Meanwhile, civil society groups and NGOs have appealed to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission of expert constitutional lawyers to rule on whether the planned amendments are appropriate and acceptable in the Georgian context.

Plans for amending the constitution were announced late last year by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili following the reelection of Georgian Dream in the October parliamentary ballot.

The objective, Kvirikashvili explained, was to replace what he termed "the very unbalanced constitution" Georgian Dream inherited in 2012 from the former ruling United National Movement with "a truly European, democratic constitution" that would "preclude the possibility of a single party ever again usurping and monopolizing power."

That statement is a clear allusion to the way the United National Movement had systematically tweaked the constitution in the hope of ensuring its reelection in 2012 and facilitating then-President Mikheil Saakashvili's transition to the post of prime minister after the end of his second presidential term one year later.

Dogged By Disagreement

The process of drafting the amendments has been dogged by disagreement and controversy from the outset, however. It has also exacerbated the already strained relations between Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's successor as president, Giorgi Margvelashvili.

The most contentious changes affect how the president is to be elected, some of his prerogatives, and the distribution of parliamentary mandates.

Others include adding to the constitution a definition of marriage as "the voluntary union of a man and a woman with the aim of creating a family" and removing the stipulation that the seat of the parliament is Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city. (The transfer of the legislature from Tbilisi to Kutaisi was one of numerous constitutional amendments pushed through parliament by the United National Movement between 2004 and 2012.)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (file photo)
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (file photo)

At present, Georgia's president is elected by a nationwide vote. Initially, switching as of 2018 to the indirect election of the president by the parliament had been proposed.

That proposition elicited an outraged response from Margvelashvili, who is widely expected to seek a second and final presidential term next year.

Margvelashvili had declared in December that he and his staff would boycott the work of the constitutional commission because he was not named to co-chair it.

Electoral College?

The constitutional commission then suggested a compromise whereby the transition to an indirect presidential election would take place only in 2023, after Margvelashvili's anticipated second presidential term expired. From that juncture, the president would be elected by an electoral college comprising the 150 lawmakers plus a further 150 representatives from all of Georgia's various regions, including the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

That failed, however, to mollify Margvelashvili, who declared in a TV interview in early March that "I still have not heard a single cogent argument" why the Georgian people should be stripped of the right to elect their president.

Margvelashvili apparently enjoys overwhelming public support on this point: his parliamentary secretary Ana Dolidze was quoted on April 18 by InterpressNews.ge as saying the latest opinion polls reveal that 98 percent of Georgians favor retaining direct presidential elections.

WATCH: Georgian Protest Proposed Constitutional Amendments

Margvelashvili is also against the proposed abolition of the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the president in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces.

According to parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the constitutional lawyer who chaired the constitutional commission, the abolition of the National Security Council was recommended by the Venice Commission on the grounds that the council advises the president on issues that are the prerogative of the government, not of the president.

At the same time, Kobakhidze explained that, while the president will retain the post of commander in chief under the amended constitution, the armed forces are not directly subordinate to him, InterpressNews.ge reported on May 5.

Kobakhidze's related assertion that the proposed amendments do not affect other presidential powers is not strictly speaking true insofar as the amendments deprive the president of the right to request that the cabinet address specific issues and participate in discussion of them, and of the right to nominate a certain number of Supreme Court judges.

Margvelashvili has duly launched a personal campaign, under the slogan: "The constitution belongs to everyone." His stated aim in doing so is to solicit citizens' views on what the revised constitution should look like, but some observers suspect that pique and injured pride were also a motivating factor. Margvelashvili is simultaneously participating in the ongoing public discussion of the amendments.

Controversial Voting System

The proposed revision of the voting system in parliamentary elections has likewise proven controversial.

True, the amendments meet the opposition's demand for switching from the current mixed system, under which 73 of the 150 parliamentary deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 under the proportional system, to a fully proportional system. But Georgian Dream insists on retaining the existing 5 percent barrier to qualify for parliamentary representation, and also on abolishing the option of forming electoral blocs.

Georgian parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze (file photo)
Georgian parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze (file photo)

The rationale for those changes, as outlined by Kobakhidze, is to promote the emergence of some six or seven strong and viable political parties by weeding out smaller political groups that enjoy only minimal support.

Of the 27 political parties and six electoral blocs that were registered for the October 2016 parliamentary ballot, just three qualified for parliamentary representation. Kobakhidze's predecessor as parliament speaker, former Republican Party leader Davit Usupashvili, similarly affirmed during a long interview he gave to InterpressNews.ge in August 2016 that "unless we make the transition to a parliamentary system of government, political parties will never become any stronger."

To that end, in future, political parties not represented in the outgoing parliament must submit the signatures of no fewer than 25,000 supporters to register for a parliamentary election. Smaller parties reject those changes as discriminatory, and have demanded that the barrier for parliamentary representation be lowered to 3 percent of the vote.

'Unfair' Proposal

The opposition is even more incensed by the proposal that those parliamentary mandates not allocated under the proportional system be given to the party that garners the largest number of votes, rather than shared among all parties that surmount the 5 percent hurdle.

It was precisely that system, according to United National Movement lawmaker Otar Kakhidze, that kept Italy's World War II Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in power.

Georgian Dream lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze, who has participated in the drafting of Georgian constitutions since the late 1980s, branded that proposal "unfair," while President Margvelashvili commented during a public discussion in Gori on May 11 that "not only does it sound unfair to me, I think a strong party should not need to resort to this."

In a joint appeal to the Venice Commission, 85 civil society organizations aligned in the Georgian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum pointed out that, in all elections between 1995 and 2016, the average votes wasted because of the 5 percent threshold stood at about 20.1 percent. That would give the winning party 30 additional mandates.

Despite such criticisms, Georgian Dream continues to maintain that the amended constitution will guarantee the optimum balance between promoting political pluralism and preserving stability.

Parliament speaker Kobakhidze argues that "we are changing a very bad constitution for a very good one." He says the switch to the proportional system would virtually preclude any single party gaining a constitutional majority in parliament (which Georgian Dream currently has), and that in this respect "for the first time ever, the constitution is being amended to the detriment of the ruling force."

Those assertions have proven less than convincing. In early April, the opposition parties represented on the constitutional commission walked out one after the other, complaining that none of their proposed revisions had been taken into account, and therefore failed to participate in the formal vote approving the finished draft.

Rival Initiative

One month later, the United National Movement and the political parties European Georgia, the New Rightists, the State for the People, and the National Democratic Party established a rival initiative, named Defend the Constitution, to Margvelashvili's "The Constitution Belongs to All," the news portal Caucasian Knot reported.

At the same time, the European Georgia party, which split in January from the United National Movement, called for a nationwide referendum on the planned changes, Caucasian Knot reported on April 22. To date, four other parties the United National Movement, the Alliance of Patriots, and the extraparliamentary Free Democrats and the Republican Party, have added their voices to that demand.

Khmaladze, however, argues that a referendum is inappropriate because the majority of the electorate does not understand the nuances of the issues involved.

Georgia's leaders may also be unwilling to risk the charges of manipulation of the outcome that have plagued similar referendums on constitutional amendments over the past two decades in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

It is not clear whether Georgian Dream's seeming obduracy was simply a negotiating tactic, and the party will ultimately agree to modify the proposed changes in order to demonstrate both good faith and the depth of its commitment to a genuinely democratic electoral system.

Even before the constitutional commission got down to work, Kobakhidze stressed that the parliament will not endorse any proposed changes to which the Venice Commission raises an objection.

If Georgian Dream goes back on that pledge, the confrontation between Georgian Dream and the political parties and NGOs that oppose the amendments could prove reminiscent of the Soviet-era Radio Yerevan joke: "Will there be a Third World War? "No, but there will be such a struggle for peace that not a single stone will be left standing."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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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