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Davit Usupashvili is a qualified lawyer and one of the team that drafted Georgia’s first post-Soviet constitution in 1993-95.

Eight months after his Republican Party suffered a crushing defeat in the October parliamentary elections, former parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili has formally launched a new centrist opposition party, the Development Movement, that he hopes will make a strong enough showing in the election due in 2020 to form a coalition government.

Such a government would be well-placed to transform a barren political landscape in which unceasing recriminations between the current ruling Georgian Dream party and its predecessor, the United National Movement, have already resulted in profound polarization, the eclipse of virtually all other political forces, and the alienation and disillusion of much of the electorate.

Announcing his planned return to politics in late April, Usupashvili said his new party will be grounded in both national and European culture and tradition. In that respect, it could be the ideological successor to the unequivocally pro-Western, liberal, center-right Republican Party that Usupashvili quit immediately after the election defeat, citing “political, value, and tactical disagreements” with other leading members over its future.

Usupashvili described the Development Movement as new in its form, its nature, and the way it will do things. That is in line with his pronouncement in October that "the 2020 election should be won by a political force of a new type, which would have the full capability to govern the country and will carry in its genetic code the values of multiparty democracy."

Usupashvili explained the need for such a new approach in a lengthy analysis posted on Facebook in late April. He argued that it’s taking “a dangerously long time” to eradicate the pernicious legacy of the communist past and that none of Georgia’s leaders over the past quarter century has been able or willing to overcome the “us vs. them” mentality and the temptation to rely on the use of state power instead of promoting broad civic cooperation in the name of building a strong Georgian state that could guarantee the liberty, welfare, and security of every citizen. Meanwhile, one in five Georgians has left the country and many who remain live in poverty.

Those failings, he argued, and the ensuing popular realization that efforts to build a modern, democratic, European-style state were largely superficial, have given rise to the devaluation and discrediting of fundamental values and to widespread hopelessness and despair. Only a competent, responsible political force that stands firmly on national and European political and cultural ground can change the situation for the better, he suggested.

Specifically, he said the Development Movement will seek to overcome the mutual antagonism and political polarization that imbues Georgian politics, bringing together “successful professionals from relevant fields” to work together to strengthen Georgian statehood and improve the social and economic environment. That emphasis on consolidation reflects Usupashvili’s seemingly tireless efforts as parliament speaker to paper over the differences between the disparate political forces aligned in the Georgian Dream coalition. In a lengthy interview he gave in August to the news portal interpressnews.ge, he described the role he played as parliament speaker as being more that of “chief political firefighter.” The Development Movement manifesto warns against the temptation for a new government to reject everything its predecessor accomplished and “start again from scratch.” Instead, the Development Movement has adopted as its credo: “We foster what’s good. We change what’s bad. We create what’s lacking.”

In light of the perceived threat posed by Russia to Georgia’s sovereignty, the manifesto also stresses the need to “build a state, which will [have] as its foundation the best practices of [our] centuries-old history; strong, democratic institutions will be its load-bearing walls; while the Euro-Atlantic cooperation and security structures will serve as its roof.”

Portly and bespectacled, Usupashvili, 49, is a qualified lawyer and one of the team that drafted Georgia’s first post-Soviet constitution in 1993-95. He is also one of the founders of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and served as its chairman from 1994-97. In 2003, he joined the protest movement that culminated in the Rose Revolution that toppled then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, but he soon distanced himself from the country’s new ruling triumvirate: Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania, and Nino Burjanadze. He was elected Republican Party chairman in 2005.

The Republican Party was one of 10 that aligned in October 2007 in an opposition National Council that took a stand against what they termed the usurpation of power by then-President Saakashvili and the corruption and “political terror” that ensued. It was, therefore, logical for the Republican Party to join the election bloc set up in 2012 by wealthy businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party with the aim of putting an end to the United National Movement’s nine years in power. The precise nature of the disagreements that stopped Georgian Dream forming an analogous election bloc last year -- of which the Republicans would again have been part -- remains unclear.

Running independently, the Republican Party garnered just 1.55 percent of the vote; Usupashvili placed third in the Tbilisi constituency, where he ran as a majoritarian candidate.

The nucleus of the new Development Movement numbers several other prominent former Republican Party members, including Vakhtang Khmaladze, who, like Usupashvili, helped draft the 1995 constitution. But it also includes several leading members of the extraparliamentary opposition National Forum, including its chairman, Kakha Shartava. (The National Forum, too, was one of the 10 founder members in 2007 of the opposition National Council.) Talks between Usupashvili and Shartava on jointly establishing a new party reportedly began late last year.

Usupashvili told a press conference in Tbilisi on June 16 that his new movement will participate in the municipal elections due this fall. Then, after its formal registration in spring 2018, it will focus on the 2020 parliamentary elections. Usupashvili was quoted by the website civil.ge on January 18 as saying he has no intention of participating in either the Tbilisi mayoral elections in 2017 or the presidential election in 2018.

While political commentators have noted the need for a new alternative to both Georgian Dream and the now divided United National Movement, some have expressed doubts that Usupashvili’s new Development Movement will prove attractive to voters who no longer trust either. On the plus side, a recent opinion poll ranked Usupashvili personally fifth in popularity among Georgian politicians, after President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Health Minister Davit Sergeenko, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and Davit Bakradze, who heads the European Georgia party that split earlier this year from the United National Movement.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (left) congratulates newly elected parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze during the first session of the parliament in Kutaisi in November 2016.

As the process of adopting amendments to the Georgian Constitution enters what is intended to be the final phase, the level of recriminations between parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the constitutional lawyer who chaired the commission that drafted the changes, and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has reached a new level of intensity after confidential interim comments on the draft amendments by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission were leaked last week to the Georgian media.

Kobakhidze publicly blamed the president's office for that breach of confidentiality. Then, when Margvelashvili's parliamentary press secretary, Ana Dolidze, denied that Margvelashvili had ever received those comments, first deputy parliament speaker Tamara Chugoshvili said she had e-mail confirmation from the Venice Commission that the comments had indeed been sent to the president's office.

Meanwhile, five civil-society organizations and two extraparliamentary political parties have made a last-ditch appeal to postpone the parliamentary debate on the amendments until the autumn parliamentary session, the website Civil.ge reported on June 8. They expressed doubt that it would be possible to hold an in-depth discussion of the Venice Commission's recommendations and reach the maximum consensus in the limited time available.

Kobakhidze and Margvelashvili have been at odds since the process of drafting the amendments got under way late last year, trading accusations of insincerity, intransigence, and ignoring the interests of democracy and the Georgian people.

Margvelashvili announced at the outset that he and his staff would boycott the work of the constitutional commission because he had not been named to co-chair it. Instead, he launched his own personal campaign under the slogan "The Constitution Belongs to Everyone." While the stated aim of that campaign was to elucidate public attitudes to the proposed changes, the primary focus was on tapping into public indignation over the proposed abolition of direct presidential elections, and to a lesser degree on the risks Margvelashvili claimed were inherent in the proposed abolition of the National Security Council subordinate to the president, which he heads.

Those controversial changes were among several proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, whose members dominated the work of the constitutional commission. Others related to the anticipated transition from the present mixed proportional/majoritarian electoral system to a fully proportional one in which all 150 lawmakers will be elected on the basis of party lists -- a change for which opposition parties have long been lobbying.

Opposition politicians nonetheless objected vehemently that two other proposed changes effectively negated the anticipated benefits of switching to the proportional system. The first was the abolition of election blocs while preserving the existing 5 percent barrier for parties to qualify for parliamentary representation that, the opposition argues, effectively leaves small parties with no chance of winning any seats. Kobakhidze's stated rationale for that change was that it would contribute to the emergence of half a dozen strong parties rather than the survival of a multiplicity of small ones.

The second was the proposal that all the parliamentary mandates that remained unallocated as a result of votes cast for parties that failed to surmount the 5 percent hurdle should go to whichever party garnered the largest number of votes. Opposition parties construed that provision as intended to ensure that Georgian Dream preserves indefinitely its current constitutional majority. (Georgian Dream won the October 2016 parliamentary elections with 115 of the 150 mandates.) In light of that repeated criticism, prominent Georgian Dream lawmaker Gia Volsky suggested in late May that it might be preferable to preserve the existing mixed system.

In early May, civil-society groups and NGOs had appealed to the Venice Commission of expert constitutional lawyers to rule on whether the proposed amendments are appropriate and acceptable in the Georgian context, even though Kobakhidze has said repeatedly over the past few months that parliament will not endorse any amendment that the Venice Commission deems inappropriate.

And during talks with Georgian officials in Berlin later in May, Venice Commission experts were quoted as expressing overall approval of the proposed amendments while at the same time stressing the need for unspecified minor changes and to reach the maximum consensus.

The Venice Commission was scheduled to unveil its formal assessment of the planned changes on June 16, after which the parliament was to vote on the amendments in the first and second readings before the end of the spring session in late June. It therefore seems likely that the interim recommendations the Venice Commission sent to Tbilisi last week were intended as both guidance and gentle pressure on the Georgian leadership to tone down the most controversial proposals in time to meet that deadline and thus save face.

Venice Weighs In

As quoted by the website Interpressnews.ge, the Venice Commission's experts concluded that the proposed changes constitute "a positive step forward that will strengthen democracy, the supremacy of the law, and constitutional order." At the same time, they noted that Georgia "lacks a lengthy tradition of independence of the judiciary." They further registered the risk that the majority will continue to dominate the parliament and called for a system of checks and balances to preclude that, such as establishing a bicameral parliament and strengthening the role of the parliamentary opposition.

As for the proposed transition to a proportional system, the commission described it as a positive step but went on to argue that taken together, the 5 percent hurdle, the proposed abolition of electoral blocs, and the proposed allocation to the winning party of all unapportioned mandates "limit the influence of the proportional system to the detriment of pluralism and the smaller parties."

The commission therefore recommended considering alternative variants, such as that the unallocated mandates either be divided among all the parties that garner 5 percent of the vote in proportion to the percentage they received, or that an upper limit be placed on the number of unallocated mandates the winning party would be entitled to, or that the barrier for parliamentary representation be lowered to 2-3 percent.

With regard to the office of the president, the Venice Commission reportedly warned that the transition to the indirect election of the president by an electoral college comprising the 150 parliament deputies and 150 regional representatives "should not lead to the constant election of the presidential candidate proposed by the majority."

The commission's experts reportedly did not offer any recommendation with regard to the National Security Council. Just days before their interim evaluation became public knowledge, the Tbilisi Strategic Discussion, a forum convened by Margvelashvili, released a communique arguing that the proposed constitutional amendments, including the abolition of the National Security Council, would further weaken Georgia's defense capacity insofar as they do not provide "a full-fledged and coherent legal and institutional framework for security policy formulation, planning, execution and oversight." The 27 signatories, among them two former defense ministers, three former deputy defense ministers, and a former deputy foreign minister, therefore called for revising the time frame for passage of the constitutional amendments in order to allow for a detailed analysis of the threats the country faces, Civil.ge reported.

The Georgian parliament is unlikely to heed that warning, however. Kobakhidze has already gone on record as saying that "all the Venice Commission's comments are acceptable [to us]. We have promised that they will all be taken into consideration." He added that Georgian Dream was discussing the optimum limit on the number of unallocated parliamentary mandates to which the winning party would be entitled. At the same time, Kobakhidze noted that the Venice Commission did not reject outright either the proposed abolition of electoral blocs, or the 5 percent hurdle for parliamentary representation, which he pointed out was characteristic of the electoral systems of most EU member states. Those remarks suggest the party is unwilling to yield on those points.

Georgian Dream is even less likely to revise its proposal to switch to the indirect election of the president. It has already made one concession by agreeing that the new mechanism will go into effect only in 2023, thereby preserving the possibility for Margvelashvili to run for a second term next year.

How the tensions between the Georgian Dream-dominated parliament and the president's office will play out in the coming weeks after Kobakhidze publicly accused the president of lies, sabotage of the reform process, and systematic attacks on the parliament can only be guessed at.

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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