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Georgia's Constitutional Changes
Georgia's Constitutional Changes
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Georgia's Constitutional Changes

Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamantary system, in which much power will lie with the office of the Prime Minister. Elections later this year will determine whether current President Mikheil Saakashvili's party, United National Movement, will retain control of government. Medea Turashvili, Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, discusses what implications this might have on Georgia's domestic and foreign policy.

In this podcast, Medea Turashvili discusses what implications this might have on Georgia's domestic and foreign policy. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Ben Dalton, Communications & IT Officer, here with Caucuses Analyst Medea Turashvili in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office.

Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamentary system, in which much government power will lie with the newly created office of the prime minister. I am speaking with Medea about how this may affect Georgian governance and foreign policy. Medea, in 2010 some changes to the Georgian constitution were approved, which go into effect over the next year and half or so. What changes exactly were made to the constitution?

Georgia initiated constitutional amendments in 2009, and the constitutional commission was created which was composed of six opposition parties, the ruling party, NGO representatives and academics. They drafted the new constitution, which was adapted in October 2010, but the constitution will enter into force after the presidential elections in 2013.

The main idea of the constitution was to move from the presidential system of government to the rather mixed system, where the executive power is in the hands of the government, which is elected and accountable to the parliament. So, accordingly, the new amendments will diminish the powers of the president and increase those of the prime minister, who becomes the head of the government, with the executive authority over domestic and foreign policy. The prime minister, together with the cabinet, will be elected by a simple parliamentary majority, while the president remains head of the state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces but without the right to initiate laws, to introduce the state budget or hold an official post in a political party. 

Parliamentary powers, however, have not been increased. There are a few new functions--one of them was the approval of the cabinet--but other parliamentary oversight mechanisms--such as scrutiny of state expenditures, holding individual ministers accountable and the setting up of temporary investigative commissions--wasn’t strengthened, so the parliament has limited power. For instance, the parliament cannot amend the budget without government consent. The Venice Commission, which is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional and other legislative matters, noted that the role of the parliament in budget matters is too limited. So even after 2013, much power and influence will still remain in the executive branch. 

At this point, Saakashvili, the current president of Georgia, has served out most of two terms, and according to term limits, he will not be able to stand again for president. However, with the changes that are coming to the constitution, is there a chance that he might possibly move to stand for the newly created and empowered position of prime minister?

Technically, there is no prohibition in the constitution against Saakashvili becoming the prime minister, because naturally specific names cannot be written in the constitution. Technically, there is a possibility for him. However, publicly at least, though Saakashvili hasn’t ruled out becoming the prime minister, authorities here in Georgia realize that this could be damaging for the democratic image of the country. Especially in a situation when Saakashvili seeks to contrast himself with Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. We think it is unlikely Saakashvili will be willing to become a prime minister

Although, an interesting observation is that, according to some polls, the Georgian population still would like to see him in power. For instance, according to one poll, 24% of the population said that they want to see Saakashvili as prime minister after 2013. Another survey found that 39% of respondents are positive about Saakashvili staying in power after his second term. 

As you said, under the new system, the president is more than merely a ceremonial position. He still would retain some power over, for instance, matters of foreign affairs. Is there a chance that the prime minister and the president’s policies, or perhaps personalities, might clash, and  if so, is there is a mechanism for resolving those conflicts?

Yes, the president retains important powers, notably in the field of international relations, the armed forces and during emergency situations. He or she is in the position of establishing direct relations with the parliament, by pressing the government in cases which affect the unity of the state. Accordingly, the Venice Commission concluded that there is a concrete risk of conflict with other institutions, which is enhanced by the fact that the president is directly elected and the government is the expression of the parliamentary majority. So they advised the Georgian legislation to amend the relevant clauses. However, not all recommendations from the Venice Commission were adhered.

In addition, the president has quite a big role in parliamentary affairs. For instance, if the parliament fails to approve the new government three times, the president is entitled to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections. The Venice Commission considered the president’s ability to dissolve the parliament as not compatible with European concepts of a constructive vote of non-confidence. Also, the time-frame during which this procedure may continue is four months, which is quite long, which increases the risk of prolonged deadlock and crisis in the government.  

One last question. Saakashvili, of course, has been identified with very a pro-Western, pro-NATO policy. Georgia contributes a very large number of troops proportional to its size, for instance, to ISAF in Afghanistan. Is there a possibility that we might see a change from that policy if an opposition candidate were to become prime minister or president?

The most visible opposition at the moment is composed of four political subjects—this is a political unity, “Georgian Dream”, which has around, according to different polls, from 30 to 50% of approval by the population. 

This political subject, which is headed by a billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, this political force has indicated that they will follow the pro-Western direction, pro-Western orientation for Georgia. Bidzina Ivanishvili has also indicated that he will likely continue the Georgia contribution to Afghanistan, although the level of contribution, he said, will depend on discussions with society. So he may be reconsidering the decrease of the number of troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, this bloc is comprised of mostly pro-Western parties who have been insisting on European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, the foreign policy of Georgia is likely to continue even if there is a change of power in the country.

Thank you so much, Medea.

Thank you.

After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Originally published in World Politics Review

This summer’s protests in Georgia led to changes to the country’s electoral system. But the country’s new Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, is a man protesters wanted ousted from the last government, in which he led the Interior Ministry. In this interview with World Politics Review, Europe & Central Asia Program Director Olga Oliker and Analyst for EU Eastern Neighbourhood Olesya Vartanyan consider what Gakharia’s tenure will bring, and how the parliamentary elections next year might play out in this atmosphere.

Earlier this month, Georgia’s Parliament approved a new government led by Giorgi Gakharia, a controversial former interior minister who was nominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party despite his role in a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that rocked the capital, Tbilisi, this summer. Gakharia will now try to restore public confidence in the government ahead of parliamentary elections that are expected to be held early next year. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the United National Movement, or UNM, also has work to do if it hopes to retake power. In an email interview with WPR, Olga Oliker and Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group discuss the challenges facing both the ruling party and the opposition in Georgia.

What kind of message does the approval of Giorgi Gakharia as prime minister send to the opposition?

It’s something of a “put up and shut up” message from Georgian Dream, not just to the opposition in Parliament but also to protesters. During the mass demonstrations that took place last summer, protesters demanded changes to the electoral system to allow for more proportional representation, which the government agreed to. Protesters also subsequently demanded that Gakharia step down as interior minister, a role from which he had ordered the violent dispersal of the protests. But instead of being ousted, he was promoted to prime minister, in a vote boycotted by opposition parties. That’s a pretty clear message.

Gakharia’s appointment is also a message to the opposition and to the country as a whole that Georgian Dream is planning to win the parliamentary elections that are expected early next year. The party’s popularity has been declining for some time; in the 2018 presidential election, Georgian Dream’s preferred candidate, Salome Zourabichvili, only won after being forced into a runoff, a far cry from the landslide victories of years past. Gakharia is close to Georgian Dream’s founder and chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as are the new defense minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, and the interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri. With these personnel moves, the ruling party is ensuring that the government is united going into the campaign.

The next election will be an important test for Georgian Dream. The recently passed electoral reforms eliminated the required minimum threshold for parties to enter Parliament, which means there will be a greater diversity of parties. The majority party will therefore need to work harder to secure majorities for its laws. But a unified party will not be enough for Georgian Dream to secure a win; it will also need a policy agenda that rebuilds its popularity. Whether its leaders have a real plan for that is unclear.

What policy issues is Gakharia likely to focus on as prime minister? What are the most pressing challenges he faces in implementing his agenda?

Gakharia and his team have two goals that don’t fully align with one another. First is to win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which means we can expect the government to focus on social programs to help the most vulnerable. But voters are frustrated that Georgian Dream has failed to spur the economic development and growth they expected during the party’s seven years in power. Finally making good on that promise would require a different sort of reform agenda: one that could attract foreign investment but might also involve public sector spending cuts, which could prove less popular in the short term.

Implementing reforms in the midst of an election campaign would be difficult, but Gakharia may be up to the task. He forcefully pushed through reforms during his time as interior minister, including the creation of a human rights department, the professionalization of regional law enforcement investigators, and increased transparency for crime statistics.

He will still have to deal with the fact that protesters and the opposition blame him for the violent crackdown on protests, which caused several injuries and resulted in the prosecutions of some demonstrators. More protests are likely, and would test the government’s ability to respond appropriately.

The other question for Gakharia is how to deal with simmering disputes in the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tensions have risen again this year over a police observation station that Georgia placed along its administrative boundary with South Ossetia. The latter responded by closing border crossings and a war of words erupted between leaders on both sides, tempered only by Russian and European efforts to mediate. Gakharia and his team will need to prevent the dispute from escalating, while at the same time standing up to Moscow and repairing economic ties with Russia. Balancing those priorities will be a tall order.

Given Georgian Dream’s declining popularity, how well-positioned is the United National Movement to prevail in the upcoming elections?

The UNM has loyal supporters, especially in the western regions of the country. It hasn’t been able to garner enough support to win previous elections, but its fortunes could turn next year, depending on the strength of opposition to the Georgian Dream-led government.

But the UNM has its own problems. It remains unofficially helmed by the divisive Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013. His supporters remember him fondly for the sweeping democratic reforms he implemented during the 2000s, but his detractors blame him for the many domestic challenges facing Georgia in the aftermath of the five-day war with Russia in 2008.

He has also been away from Georgia for more than five years, and during that time he has fallen out of touch with the country he once led, while gaining considerable international notoriety. In 2015, he switched his citizenship to Ukraine in order to serve as governor of the Odessa region under then-President Petro Poroshenko, but the two subsequently had a falling-out and Saakashvili was deported last year. His Ukrainian citizenship has now been restored by President Volodymyr Zelensky, but a Georgian court convicted him in absentia of charges related to abuse of power last year, so he cannot return to his country of birth. A UNM victory next year would likely result in that conviction being reversed, but Saakashvili’s personal travails do not help the party’s chances.

The UNM has a good chance at maintaining its position as the dominant opposition force, but in order to win, it will need to cooperate with other parties. In some ways, this could be easier with the new electoral system, as there will be more parties to align with after the elections. But those parties’ members and leadership will balk at diktats from Saakashvili, so the UNM will need to find a way to become more independent of his influence.

Contributors

Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
OlyaOliker
Senior Analyst, South Caucasus
olesya_vart