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Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has both hailed the parliament vote, which the three opposition parliament factions all boycotted, as a step forward in Georgia’s democratic development.

In the best soap-opera tradition, the ongoing process of constitutional reform in Georgia has yielded drama aplenty over the past week.

Just days after the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of legal experts made public its final comments on the proposed draft amendments, the 115 lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party unanimously approved a slightly different text in first and second readings at an emergency parliament session on June 22 and 23, ignoring appeals by President Giorgi Margvelashvili and NGOs to resume discussion of the draft with the aim of achieving the “widest possible consensus.”

The last-minute change, which triggered outraged protests from NGOs and opposition parties, reflected the decision taken by Georgian Dream on June 19 behind closed doors to postpone from 2020 until 2024 the proposed transition from the current mixed majoritarian-proportional electoral system to a fully proportional one. Observers attribute that volte-face to a rift within Georgian Dream, with a younger generation amenable to change being effectively held hostage by older majoritarian lawmakers averse to risking the loss of their mandates. One majoritarian, Kakha Okriashvili, is on record as telling the news portal InterpressNews on June 15 that “the mixed system is better for Georgia” and should not be replaced by a fully proportional system.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the constitutional lawyer who chaired the state commission tasked with drafting the amendments, have both hailed the parliament vote, which the three opposition parliament factions all boycotted, as a step forward in Georgia’s democratic development.

By contrast, parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties alike have denounced what they perceive as an attempt to codify changes aimed solely at facilitating the preservation indefinitely of Georgian Dream’s constitutional majority. The Alliance of Patriots, which has six mandates in the 150-member parliament, and the extraparliamentary Free Georgia party have threatened to launch street protests, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported.

The planned transition from the current mixed majoritarian-proportional system, in which 73 of the 150 lawmakers are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 under the proportional system, to a fully proportional system is one of the two issues that proved most contentious during the four-month discussion of the proposed amendments that got under way in January. The second is the role of the president, including as head of the National Security Council, and the planned abolition of direct presidential elections.

Those two provisions consequently figured prominently in both the preliminary comments and the more detailed and critical subsequent evaluation of the draft amendments handed down by the Venice Commission. With regard to the electoral system, the Venice Commission expressed overall approval of the planned transition to a proportional system, noting that a mixed system tends to lead to the governing party receiving an “overwhelming” parliamentary majority.

At the same time, it strongly criticized three related provisions that its experts perceived as “deviating from the principles of fair representation and equality of the vote.” Those were the imposition of a ban on electoral blocs, together with the preservation of the existing 5 percent threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation, with the party that polled the largest number of votes being granted an additional “bonus” in the form of those mandates that remain unallocated as a result of votes cast for parties that fail to surmount the 5 percent hurdle. In the five parliamentary ballots between 1999 and 2016, an average of 12.85 percent of votes were cast for parties that failed to qualify for representation; in 2016, the figure was 19.82 percent.

The Venice Commission said that, taken together, those three mechanisms “limit the effects of the proportional system to the detriment of smaller parties and pluralism, and deviate from the principles of fair representation and electoral equality to a larger extent than seems justified by the need to ensure stability.” It further questioned whether the “winner-take-all” model for distributing unallocated mandates serves to guarantee political pluralism.

The commission therefore “strongly recommended” considering other options that would ensure a more equitable division of parliament mandates. Those alternatives included lowering the threshold for representation to 2-3 percent and/or establishing a maximum upper limit for the number of wasted votes allocated to the winning party so that the latter has a workable, but not an overwhelming, parliamentary majority.

Alternatively, the commission suggested, “the constitution could provide that 9/10 of the parliament seats (i.e. 135 out of 150) shall be distributed to the parties that have received more than 5 percent of the votes according to the principles of proportional representation, while the remaining 15 seats will be given to the winning party (or the winning party and the second party) as premium.”

With regard to the election of the president, the Venice Commission expressed approval of the decision to delay the transition from a direct to an indirect ballot from 2018 until 2023. But it also advocated checks and balances to ensure that a ruling party with a large parliamentary majority would not automatically be in a position to engineer the election as president of its preferred candidate, thereby undermining the role of the president as an “impartial arbiter.”

In the event, Georgian Dream tweaked the draft amendments on June 21 to lower the barrier for representation under the proportional system in the 2020 parliamentary election to 3 percent. In line with the Venice Commission recommendations, it agreed on the maximum number of additional parliament mandates the winning party will receive as a result of votes cast for parties that do not qualify for representation. Indirect presidential elections will require a qualified majority in an open vote in the first round. In addition, candidates for the Supreme Justice Council and the Constitutional Court, and for the post of public defender, must receive three-fifths of the vote in parliament.

Sixteen opposition parties from across the political spectrum, including the former ruling United National Movement and European Georgia, which split from it earlier this year, have nonetheless addressed a statement to the Council of Europe secretary-general, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Venice Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and foreign ambassadors in Tbilisi calling for a halt to parliamentary discussions of the draft (which the three parliamentary opposition parties boycotted last week) and the submission of a revised draft to the Venice Commission, all of whose recommendations would then be incorporated into the final version. They characterized the amended constitution unilaterally endorsed by Georgian Dream as “antidemocratic,” adding that “it does not reflect the will of the Georgian people, and cannot be considered a legitimate document.”

The 16 signatories warned that failure to reopen the discussion and amend the draft could undermine democratization and long-term political stability.

Meanwhile, 16 of the 23 NGOs aligned in the Coalition for a European Georgia launched a parallel appeal to suspend discussion of the proposed amendments in order to enable foreign experts to advise on those provisions, such as the planned abolition of the National Security Council hitherto chaired by the president, that directly affect the country’s defense capacity.

Individual opposition parties and political figures have been even more outspoken in their criticism. European Georgia, which has collected 150,000 signatures in support of its demand that the proposed constitutional amendments be submitted to a nationwide referendum, branded the document approved by Georgian Dream’s parliament faction as “not the constitution of Georgia, but that of constitution of Georgian Dream and [its founder, billionaire] Bidzina Ivanishvili.”

(European Georgia split earlier this year from the former ruling United National Movement, which in 2010 similarly pushed through parliament, disregarding opposition criticism and without the monthlong public debate Georgian Dream conducted, constitutional amendments intended to enable then-President Mikheil Saakashvili to remain in power as prime minister after the end of his second presidential term.)

Opposition claims that the text of the amendments voted on by the Georgian Dream parliament faction last week “was completely different” from that approved by the Venice Commission appear to be a classic example of Georgian hyperbole. Similarly open to question is the opposition parties’ claim that during the discussion of the proposed changes by the state constitutional commission, not a single proposal by the president, the public defender, or opposition parties was taken into consideration.

That assertion is at odds with parliament first deputy speaker Tamar Chugoshvili’s statement that 80 percent of such proposals were taken into account. It also ignores the fact that President Margvelashvili and his staff chose to boycott the work of the commission from the outset, a decision that the Venice Commission deemed “regrettable.”

Among the concessions Georgian Dream made in the course of the discussion were the postponement from 2018 to 2023 of the transition from direct to indirect presidential elections and that beginning in 2023 the president should be elected not by the 150 lawmakers as initially envisaged but by an electoral college that would also include representatives from all of Georgia’s regions, including the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Under the existing constitution, the proposed constitutional amendments will be submitted for a third and final reading at the start of the autumn parliamentary session. The hypothetical possibility thus exists for further revisions to be made. Whether the “widest possible consensus,” which both the Venice Commission and President Margvelashvili have called for, is realistic is questionable, however, in light of the intense animosity that exists between Georgian Dream and the United National Movement on the one hand, and between Margvelashvili and his team and parliament speaker Kobakhidze on the other.

Minister for Internally Displaced Persons Sozar Subari, who in 2009 publicly excoriated then-President Saakashvili for turning a blind eye to corruption and police brutality, summed up the perception that the United National Movement and its offshoot European Georgia systematically challenge and criticize every single statement by Georgian Dream, regardless of its merits.

“Reaching consensus with the United National Movement is impossible...If we announced that tomorrow we shall win back [the breakaway republic of] Abkhazia, they would stand up and walk out of parliament [saying] ‘You shouldn’t do that,’” InterpressNews quoted Subari as saying on June 22.

As for the well-documented hostility between Margvelashvili and Kobakhidze, the two crossed swords yet again last week: When Kobakhidze invited the president to engage in a live televised studio debate about the merits of the proposed constitutional changes, Margvelashvili countered by proposing that a debate be held in the presidential palace in the presence of representatives of all political parties and NGOs, an audience that would be largely on his side. Kobakhidze rejected that format, complaining that the president’s role with regard to amending the constitution “has been destructive from start to finish.” Margvelashvili for his part complained that the only “substantive” constitutional changes “are directed against the president.”

Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio is scheduled to travel to Georgia later this week, Caucasus Press reported on June 23, quoting Buquicchio’s spokesperson. Whom he intends to meet with is not clear. Kobakhidze’s credibility may have been damaged by the postponement of the transition to a fully proportional system, given his constant assurances, which the Venice Commission noted “with satisfaction,” that the Georgian authorities would not adopt any proposed amendment that the commission assessed negatively.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Ethnic Nogais rally in March in Daghestan against the proposed changes.

Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov has incurred Russian President Vladimir Putin's displeasure on two occasions over the past two years.

First, he failed to meet the deadline for renovation of the Caspian town of Derbent in the run-up to its 2,000th-anniversary celebrations in September 2015. Then, egregious procedural violations were registered during the elections a year later to the Russian State Duma and the new republican parliament.

A third such scandal may now be imminent following a decision last month by the republican government that, if implemented, will deprive the predominantly ethnic Nogai population of three districts in northern Daghestan of the use of huge tracts of agricultural land.

Outraged by that decision, the legality of which is open to question, some 5,000-6,000 Nogais from across the Russian Federation converged last week on the village of Terekli-Mekteb for an All-Russian Congress of the Nogai People. Delegates argued that the government's initiative will exacerbate the problems of an already economically backward and disadvantaged region, intensify popular resentment of the republic's leadership, and possibly spark a new conflict between the Nogais -- who account for just 1.5 percent of Daghestan's population -- and other ethnic groups, even if that is not their intention. They therefore endorsed a formal appeal to President Putin to intervene and quash it.

The Nogais are a Turkophone people descended from the Golden Horde. They settled in the 17th century on a swath of lowland territory, now known as the Nogai steppe, that extends from the northwest Caspian coast to the Black Sea. Russia's Nogai population is currently estimated at a little over 100,000, of whom some 38,000 live in Daghestan; there are also Nogai communities in neighboring Chechnya and Stavropol Krai, and in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where the estimated 13,000 Nogais enjoy formal national-cultural autonomy and, since 2007, their "own" small district. There is a huge Nogai diaspora in Turkey, and a far smaller one in Romania.

The Daghestani government plans that served as the catalyst for last week's congress entail granting official municipal status to 199 small settlements in the predominantly Nogai-populated Kizlyar, Nogai, and Tarumov administrative districts. Those settlements were established illegally by herders from mountain regions who pastured their herds of sheep there during the winter months. The herders were mostly ethnic Avars, as is Abdulatipov.

The newly legalized municipalities will be deemed part of the administrative district from which the herders originated, which means that Kizlyar's indigenous Nogais will be deprived of the right to lease that land -- reportedly already at risk of desertification -- for agricultural purposes. Consequently, the 1,500-2,000 residents of the newly legalized settlements will have the use of some 600,000 hectares of agricultural land in Kizlyar, which the Nogais will thus be unable to lease, while the legitimate 20,000 Nogai population will have just 300,000 hectares at its disposal.

In addition, residents of the newly legalized settlements will pay taxes in the administrative district from which they originated, thereby depriving the Kizlyar district of income. (The profits from oil extracted on the Kizlyar lowlands are likewise channeled into the republican budget, depriving the municipality of badly needed funds.)

The lack of available agricultural land in Kizlyar has already given rise to large-scale out-migration by young Nogais in search of employment elsewhere in Russia. But the Nogais' collective grievances, as chronicled by Svetlana Chervonnaya in her useful compendium, Tyurksky Mir Yugo-Vostochnoy Yevropy, go far deeper, and date back decades. The Nogais still remember, and resent, the failure of the Soviet leaders in the early 1920s to make good on a promise to designate Kizlyar a separate autonomous okrug; instead, the region was subsumed into the Daghestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Then, when the Chechens and Ingush were rehabilitated and their republic reestablished in 1957, its borders were expanded to encompass part of the Nogai steppe; the Nogais' traditional territory was thus carved up between Daghestan, Chechnya, and Stavropol Krai.

In the early 1990s, immediately before the demise of the Soviet Union, the Nogai national movement Birlik (Unity) campaigned unsuccessfully for a revision of those borders in the North Caucasus that divided the Nogai-populated lands, and for the creation on those lands of a separate Nogai territorial entity within the Russian Federation. To compensate for the blanket refusal to create separate territorial entities for the Nogais and other small ethnic groups, the Russian leadership passed legislation, which Abdulatipov was instrumental in drafting, formalizing the concept of "national-cultural autonomy." That concept was intended to guarantee the preservation of small ethnic groups' national culture and language.

A similar appeal to Russia's Constitutional Court in April 2017 to annul the Soviet-era decree reconstituting the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was likewise rejected.

Photos posted online of the congress in Terekli-Mekteb, and of gatherings of Nogais elsewhere in Russia that preceded it, show that the age of the overwhelmingly male participants ranges from young men in their early 20s to men in the 60s. Some congress delegates stressed to journalists the extent and importance of the younger generation's commitment to the national cause.

The congress delegates adopted a 10-point resolution, the first point of which was to address a formal appeal to Putin, given that the republic's leaders refuse to meet with them to discuss their grievances. They further demanded the abolition of the 1996 Daghestani law "On The Status Of Territory For Transhumance" that served as the basis for that seasonal use of grazing grounds because it allegedly violates not only federal legislation on the use of agricultural land but also the relevant provisions of the Russian Federation constitution; an audit of the land currently used for transhumance; and measures to improve socio-economic conditions, including the modernization of medical facilities and schools.

A government program for developing the district's economy in 2015-18, with a budget of over 1 billion rubles ($16.77 million), has not been implemented, businessman Rustam Adilgereyev was quoted as informing the congress.

The congress delegates did not, however, call for a revision of the borders between the various federation subjects where the Nogais live, possibly anticipating that such a demand would only render them vulnerable to charges of attempting to foment interethnic enmity. Neither the federal nor the Daghestani leadership has made any official comment to date on the Nogais' demands. But two days ago, Abdulatipov named former Minister for Youth Affairs Zaur Kurbanov, a Dargin from Kizlyar district, as deputy head of his administration.

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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