A Breathing Spell for Political Reforms in Georgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 218

n the aftermath of the war with Russia, the Georgian leadership is refocusing its attention on the development of the political system in a broader institutional framework. The main initiatives in this regard originate from the top and are set for easy passage by the United National Movement’s (UNM) parliamentary majority.

Multiple challenges to Georgia’s security and stability had forced the leadership to relegate its own institution-building agenda to the back burner for almost two years. In late 2006 and early 2007 the president and government anticipated, correctly as it turned out, a high-risk set of threats and challenges for 2007 and 2008, including: acceleration of Russia’s forcible annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, from “creeping” to “sweeping”; some Russian retaliation for Georgia’s NATO membership plan application (on top of Russia’s continuing embargos, blockades, and political warfare); and, against such a backdrop, Georgia’s parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in quick succession. Other challenges were unanticipated: attempts by Badri Patarkatsishvili and his allies to overthrow the constitutional order (with resources at Patarkatsishvili’s disposal almost rivaling those of the state) and, ultimately, the Russian invasion in August.

Overwhelmed by these overlapping challenges, the Georgian government was forced to deal with them first: successful internally, unsuccessfully against Russia. The war’s aftermath seems finally to have brought a breathing spell, enabling the leadership to revert to its initial agenda of political reforms.

In late October President Mikheil Saakashvili and Parliamentary Chairman Davit Bakradze unveiled a reform program in connection with the appointment of Grigol Mgaloblishvili as prime minister. This program has in effect become a political commitment after being outlined on television to the public, discussed by the executive branch with the parliamentary majority, and introduced to some of the parliamentary committees (Civil Georgia, 24 Saati, Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, October 27-November 4). Legislative proposals and initiatives, some of them involving constitutional amendments, include:

— Strengthening the oversight prerogatives of parliamentary commissions toward the government;

— Simplification of the procedure for parliament to dismiss the government;

— Judgeships to be made permanent; and trial by jury to be introduced in Tbilisi courts in 2009;

— Court orders to be required for any confiscation of property (confiscation and transfer to the state budget was practiced after the 2003 Rose Revolution, in out-of-court settlements with tax-evading businesses, leading ultimately to a dramatic improvement in tax collection rates, coupled with low taxation);

— Resumption of public financing for parties that failed to gain parliamentary representation in elections (the threshold is currently 5 percent, lowered from 6 percent last year);

— Creation of a public-affairs television channel dedicated to political parties’ activities, live coverage of parties’ news conferences, and political talk shows and debates, all to include non-parliamentary opposition parties alongside the parties in parliament. Public Television’s Channel Two would be dedicated to this type of programming, its range to be extended to the entire country. (Channel Two currently shows parliamentary plenary sessions, committee hearings, and some discussion-club political debates, its range covering most urban areas and some rural ones.) Saakashvili and the public broadcasting director general, Levan Kubaneishvili, propose to follow the model of the U.S. Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-Span) on this Georgian channel.

During the first week of November, elections were held for two vacant parliamentary seats in Tbilisi and for the regional legislature in Ajaria. The Tbilisi seats, vacated by two radical opposition deputies who do not recognize this parliament, were won by the Christian-Democrat and National-Democrat parties, both identified with the moderate opposition. The governing United National Movement, heavily dominant in parliament, decided not to campaign for those two Tbilisi seats, so as to increase the opposition’s parliamentary representation. In the Ajaria elections, the UNM won 15 out of 18 seats. According to the Council of Europe’s observer mission chief, Guenther Krueger (a Berlin legislator), “The election system was really improved in comparison with previous years,” and observers noted “fair access to the airwaves and administration resources by all participants” (Mission’s press release, November 5; Civil Georgia, Rustavi-2 TV, November 4-7).