The Georgian president, parliament leadership, and government are engaged in a dialogue with opposition leaders about legislative changes in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. One immediate goal of the authorities is to defuse the potential for confrontation and destabilization that this group of opposition leaders has displayed. The authorities seek to spare the country another round of the “geopolitics of Rustaveli Avenue,” to which the opposition threatens again to resort (Davit Darchiashvili in 24 Saati, November 2, 2007; see EDM, January 14; Mze TV, February 4). Beyond this immediate concern, though also in the short run, the authorities seek to ensure a credible legal and institutional framework for the parliamentary elections that are expected to be held in early May. Thus, sheer pressure of time is a factor affecting both sides to this incipient dialogue.
The leaders of a dozen opposition groups — as well as three of the six losing presidential candidates — have issued a set of 17 demands in an ultimatum-like document on January 29. They also threaten to launch permanent demonstrations by February 15, unless their demands are met (see EDM, January 30). Parliament Chair Nino Burjanadze and vice-chairman Mikheil Machavariani have responded by holding preliminary political consultations with the opposition leaders. In turn, parliamentary deputies from some of these small parties have ceased their boycott of the legislature and returned to its work. These include notably New Right and Industrialists Will Save Georgia, two moderate groups that are allied with, but not part of, the National Council alliance of ten hardline groups. Beyond this nuance, however, all these groups do not recognize the legitimacy of the January 5 presidential election, consequently treating the reelected President Mikheil Saakashvili and the newly formed government as illegitimate.
At the moment, opposition leaders single out three demands as immediate priorities: to change the composition of the board at the Georgian Public Broadcaster (the public TV channel), similarly change the Central Electoral Commission, and amend the electoral law by lowering the parliamentary representation threshold and eliminating what remains of the district-based winner-take-all system.
The authorities had already consented to these demands well before the opposition’s publication of the January 29 document. Only final details remain to be negotiated. Looking to score tactical points, opposition leaders seek to impress voters that the authorities are making “concessions” under pressure. The authorities by their nature are more concerned with creating a viable institutional framework than with political posturing. On January 18 the government launched an open competition for membership on the new Board of Trustees of the Public Broadcaster, with the final selection to be made by political consensus of the government and opposition. The opposition demands parity on the Board and the appointment of a mutually acceptable director-general.
Similarly, the opposition alliance demands parity on the Central Electoral Commission and the selection of a CEC chairman mutually acceptable to the government and the opposition. On the electoral law, the authorities have already agreed to lower the parliamentary threshold from 7% to 5% for political parties on the country-wide lists and to introduce the proportional system in the electoral districts also. The winner-take-all system in the districts, where one-third of the total number of deputies were elected, had inherently favored the governing National Movement until now.
With this, the authorities are also responding to the European argument that these changes would enable a larger number of parties to enter a parliament now solidly dominated by the governing majority. In Georgia’s circumstances, however, a widely diversified parliament (particularly with an opposition that is both antagonistic to the government and splintered internally) would carry the risk of becoming a less functional parliament.
A further element of risk may ensue from regulating government–opposition relations in part by political arrangements, rather than clear-cut institutional ones. Thus, the membership of the Public Broadcaster’s board would be more credibly selected from among politically neutral figures, as the prestigious Media Council recommends, rather than from among political partisan figures in a tenuous parity, as the opposition suggests. While the selection committee would carry maximum credibility if based on parity, the Board itself could become dysfunctional if politicized (media.ge, January 29).
Two additional proposals seem to point toward politicization rather than institutionalization. One, as initially announced, would create an arbitration mechanism to adjudicate tax disputes of concern to the opposition or the government. The accompanying proposal would create a special commission under the Public Defender’s (Ombudsman’s) Office, chaired by the Ombudsman and open to opposition representatives, to arbitrate property disputes. Any political arrangements outside, or parallel to, the institutional system, could generate volatile situations and adjudications potentially based on partisan bargaining.
The opposition alliance is carefully distancing itself from their recent ally, fugitive billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, and the two political parties that Patarkatsishvili is now spawning in Georgia by remote control. By the same token, opposition leaders refrain from demanding the reopening of Patarkatsishvili’s Imedi Television — a demand that had only recently topped the opposition’s list of grievances. Patarkatsishvili is wanted in Georgia on an arrest mandate, charged with planning a coup d’etat, as shown on video and audio recordings. Georgian courts have frozen his assets, including Imedi TV, pending court proceedings on those charges.
(Civil Georgia, Messenger, Prime-News, Rustavi-2 TV, February 1-5)