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Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Breaking the monopoly on power in Georgia, one step at a time
Breaking the monopoly on power in Georgia, one step at a time
Briefing 69 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work

Whether the smooth transfer of power Georgia achieved after October’s bitter election sets a standard for democracy in its region depends on whether the new government can strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions in what remains a fragile, even potentially explosive political climate.

I. Overview

Georgia’s peaceful change of government after the October 2012 parliamentary elections was an encouraging and rare example of a democratic post-Soviet power transfer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and the new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, each received well-deserved praise – Saakashvili for quickly accepting the defeat of his United National Movement (UNM), and Ivanishvili, who led his Georgian Dream (GD) coalition to victory after a bitter campaign, for saying he was ready to work with his arch-rival during a delicate year-long “cohabitation”. The new government now needs to use the ten months before the 2013 presidential elections to prioritise reforms that strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions.

Saakashvili, who is term-limited from standing again, is due to remain in office until October 2013, when presidential elections will be held and a new constitution will come into force. During this period, he should continue to honour his pledge to refrain from exercising the extensive powers still legally available to him under the old constitution, lest that lead, as it almost inevitably would, to a confrontation with unpredictable consequences. Given Georgia’s chronic, often violent disorder especially during its first decade of independence in the 1990s, any destabilisation of this still delicate situation could entail serious risks.

The new Ivanishvili government has an opportunity to win broader trust by demonstrating that it is concentrating on critical governance issues, not political score-settling. This is a key to managing the extremely high expectations among those who voted for Georgian Dream. Many of his supporters – whether due to campaign promises, or as a consequence of his immense personal wealth – anticipate an unrealistically quick improvement in living standards. It is vital that the reform agenda be communicated regularly to the public, for instance through cabinet meetings whose deliberations are reported in all media outlets. Regular, publicised meetings between the president and prime minister, however distasteful both may consider them, would boost stability.

Tensions have been growing between the new and old government due to the arrest of former and current officials with ties to the UNM on charges ranging from abuse of office to torture. While past abuses should be investigated, it is vital that arrests not be perceived as selective, victors’ justice, and so detract from the need to build support for institutional reform. Investigations should prioritise severe crimes; a criminal cases review commission and amnesties and compensation should be considered, so as to ensure that the still fragile judiciary is not stretched to the breaking point addressing complaints related to the past government’s behaviour. President Saakashvili’s legacy and that of his UNM party would also suffer if he and his closest allies were to attempt to portray every examination into possible misdoings as politically motivated.

The immediate priority of the new government should be to build trust in the judiciary, the penal service and the powerful interior ministry. The courts, as well as prosecutors, must be given real independence from political pressures. Without viable recourse to a legal system enjoying broad public acceptance, other state institutions will not be able to develop properly, and politicisation will continue to affect the entire governing system. Business and investor confidence, vital to economic stability and growth, requires an unbiased legal system that provides protection and guarantees against harassment from the authorities. Encouragingly, the Ivanishvili team has already prepared far-reaching legislation aimed at de-politicising the judiciary, including the High Council of Justice.

Georgia has an ethnically mixed population. Some 15 per cent are minorities, including 12 per cent who are ethnic Azeris or Armenians, so the Ivanishvili government also needs to take bold steps to make clear that inter-ethnic or inter-confessional confrontations or xenophobic manifestations – largely dormant in recent years – will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted under statutes outlawing hate crimes.

During the campaign, many Georgian Dream officials had promised to quickly improve relations with Russia, but the new government has already indicated it will not significantly change its Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy focus. It flatly rules out a full resumption of diplomatic ties with Russia while Moscow maintains “embassies” and a large military presence in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather than attempt to tackle these difficult issues first, the new government is pragmatically seeking common ground in less controversial spheres. This includes boosting the Georgian economy through the full resumption of normal trade relations. The appointment of a special representative and offer to engage in unconditional dialogue with Russia was a positive initial step.

If Georgia’s leaders succeed in overcoming the challenges of the next ten months with vigilance and patience, the country will be able to serve proudly as a true development model for the region. Compromise, considerable restraint and hands-on diplomacy are necessary to prevent squandering of fragile democratic gains or, worse yet, re-ignition of the often violent instability that marked the first decade of independence. More specifically, it will be important to:

  • abide by the spirit of the new constitution that officially comes into force only in October 2013, including by holding well-publicised meetings between the president and prime minister. If amendments to the new constitution are necessary, they should start with those recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to strengthen the parliament’s oversight powers;
  • ensure that the judiciary and the prosecution services are immune from political interference by reforming the High Council of Justice (HCOJ) and the chief prosecutor’s office;
  • focus, while investigating former officials, on their involvement in severe crimes, and consider setting up an independent criminal cases review commission and an amnesty and compensation program to help address the thousands of complaints being received.
  • de-politicise the internal affairs ministry (MIA) by legislating maximum civilian oversight and transparency and accepting capacity building and monitoring by local and international expert groups; and
  • focus on non-political areas where progress in outreach to Russia is attainable in the short term, for example, by both countries, as a first step and even while diplomatic relations remain frozen, opening trade liaison missions in Moscow and Tbilisi respectively.

The EU, U.S. and international organisations should help to mitigate tensions during the cohabitation period by:

  • maintaining constant diplomatic engagement.

Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 18 December 2012

Breaking the monopoly on power in Georgia, one step at a time

Originally published in Today's Zaman

For the past nine years, one party and one man have dominated political life in the South Caucasus Republic of Georgia.

That has now changed.

Since coming to power in November 2003, the United National Movement (UNM), led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, has controlled all levels of government, from the smallest municipalities and all regional authorities to the parliament, government and of course the presidency. The judiciary, police, media and many sectors of business have maintained close ties with the UNM.

The record number of voters who turned out on Monday to elect a new parliament and overwhelmingly chose the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, have now cracked that monopoly.

In a rare gesture in the former Soviet sphere, and as results were still coming in, President Saakashvili conceded that his party would go into parliamentary opposition and he would allow the Georgian Dream coalition to take the lead in forming a new government.

It was a dramatic turnaround. Until the release two weeks ago of sordid video footage of torture occurring in jail, few predicted the UNM’s defeat. But with almost all the votes now counted, the UNM has won 41.1 per cent to the GD’s massive 55.1 per cent.

GD enters a parliament that has largely been moribund, where dominance by the ruling party has meant that the legislature has shied away from aggressively overseeing public institutions and democratic debate has been limited.

Under the current constitution, the president appoints the prime minister and gives him permission to form a government. If parliament turns down the proposed government three times, the president can dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which would cause a political and constitutional crisis. The president also retains control over key ministries: justice, interior, defence and foreign affairs.

The country is thus entering a tricky period. Until 2013 and the next presidential elections, the newly elected and President Saakashvili will have to cooperate closely. This is a big challenge considering how, according to the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the campaign environment was “polarized and tense, characterized by the use of harsh rhetoric and some instances of violence.”

Cooperation was made more difficult by Ivanishvili’s calls on Tuesday for Saakashvili to resign, coming just hours after the president promised to help launch the new parliament’s work.

A change in the presidency is unlikely, as GD won a majority but did not garner the two thirds needed in parliament to start the complicated process of impeaching the president.

Ivanishvili’s inflammatory statement was quickly condemned by the head of the biggest group in the European Parliament and by several members of the US Congress. Georgia’s foreign friends should continue to follow the situation closely, encouraging over the next year the kind of difficult co-habitation many of them work under in their own countries.

In the weeks until the new parliament is convened, the sides should build bridges and identify candidates for ministerial posts that both the president and the new parliamentary majority can agree on, a difficult enough task considering the lack of ideological cohesiveness of both the GD and the UNM. It is not time for finger-pointing and threats.

This is also not a time for revolutionary changes. While the GD has many highly competent personalities among its ranks, it is a coalition of six parties with no experience in governance.

In 2003, after the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili and his team fired not only high-level officials but also mid-ranking bureaucrats. For months, many of the country’s ministries’ long halls rang largely empty. Much of the backbone of the GD’s current support is made up of those who lost their positions in 2003. The country does not need another generation of left-outs.

Justice will be a key issue in the coming months. The recent prison scandal demonstrated how impunity fosters abuse, and underlined the importance of reforming a judiciary where less than 1 percent of all trials end in acquittals. Justice will not be served by a witch hunt against former UNM members. But it will if the new government can break judicial subordination to the executive and the prosecution, and not replace it with new allegiances.

The people of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not vote in the Georgia elections, and even a new government led by Georgians who have reached out to them over the years is unlikely to make them any more keen on rejoining Georgia. Ivanishvili realizes the challenges, but explains: “We will start talks with our brothers, of course with the involvement of Russia too. We cannot promise success, but the key is in Georgia and will be found if we build real democratic institutions.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that his party is ready for dialogue. But the divisions between the two countries are deep -- not least because Ivanishvili also emphasizes his commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.

Many are heralding a rare, peaceful transition in the former Soviet sphere between the UNM and the GD, but change in the parliament is only a first step in what remains a highly centralized presidential system. In 2013, a new constitution is expected to come into force, taking away some presidential powers. Saakashvili cannot run, and Georgians will once again go to the polls.

For the stability of Georgia and its neighborhood, the best way to get there is through transition, not revolution, one step at a time.