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Georgia's Constitutional Changes
Georgia's Constitutional Changes
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East
Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East

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.

A tank from the Ukrainian Forces is stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka, just north of the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk, on 2 February 2017. AFP/Alexey Filippov

Ukraine Flare-Up Lays Bare Fears in Europe’s East

Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia. 

Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine in the first weeks of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has laid bare fears in Europe's East about Russia’s declared intent to restore its former dominance in the region – and about whether or not the U.S. will continue to provide a counterweight to Moscow’s assertiveness.

Fighting that broke out on 29 January in eastern Ukraine, around the Kyiv government-controlled industrial town of Avdiivka and separatist-controlled railway hub of Yasynuvata, has continued for six days. Violence has also swept from this traditional hotspot across the whole Donetsk region: the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has registered more than 7,000 ceasefire violations in the area on 1 February alone. 

Some things seem clear for now: most of the fighting is being carried out at a distance, using artillery and rockets. But neither side has crossed the front line and tried to seize territory, which could fatefully undermine the Minsk peace process. As they have done in the past, both sides seem to be testing their adversaries’ resolve. Kyiv probably hopes that the fighting will once again convince their U.S. and European backers that any reduction of support would be disastrous. Moscow is probably trying to remind Kyiv that it is not going to give up the separatist entities. As usual, however, politicians are scoring points at the price of civilian deaths and further destruction of vital infrastructure in the war zone.

The current fighting has destroyed power lines and water systems, producing a new humanitarian emergency. People in and around Avdiivka, long among the most directly affected by the conflict, are without electricity. Around 1 million people in the region have suffered from disrupted water supplies or lack of heating in temperatures that are well below freezing. More water infrastructure damage could lead to an environmental disaster if chlorine supplies were to leak. 

The two sides trade accusations on who is to blame for the new violence in the nearly three-year-old conflict, which has killed almost 10,000 people and pits Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed separatists in a band of territory across eastern Ukraine. Rebels, and their backers in Moscow, may simply be testing how far they can go and how much Western support the Ukrainians have.

Kyiv’s positions are bound to get more entrenched if U.S. support weakens. If the U.S. were to lift sanctions on Moscow relating to its actions since 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, some in Kyiv have informally told Crisis Group that Ukraine’s only choice may be to escalate. 

An official close to the Minsk talks said, and many commentators agree, that the escalation is directly linked to shifts in the geostrategic environment since the election of President Trump in November. The local, regional and geostrategic levels at which conflicts in Europe’s east play out are all directly linked, as must be any resolution. 

Ukraine, which seeks to integrate into Euro-Atlantic political and economic institutions, was concerned about lessening support from Washington even before the new U.S. administration took office. The European Union’s reach is weakening as its own challenges grow, and Russia is seen as undermining Western unity on sanctions by multiple means, including both open and covert support to populist and nationalist parties ahead of key 2017 elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. In late 2016, a former senior Kyiv official told Crisis Group that Ukraine feels abandoned, especially on security matters. Kyiv, for its part, could have done more to increase Ukraine’s resilience, including by addressing corruption that is chipping away support for President Petro Poroshenko’s government.

The dangers for Kyiv increase if it loses resolute Western support, and especially if the U.S. wavers or drops its backing for continued sanctions on Moscow. President Trump has hinted that a deal is possible if Moscow cooperates on the anti-terrorism front. Trump refused to rule out the dropping of the sanctions in a press conference with United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May on 27 January. The next day, the first call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin covered opportunities for closer cooperation, and reportedly touched on the war in Ukraine with no public reference to sanctions.  U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s 2 February remarks to the Security Council stressed that the U.S. would not lift the sanctions until Crimea is returned to Ukraine. Her words need to be backed up by President Trump’s unambiguous statements and actions. Otherwise, the U.S. role will remain open to speculation, and continued uncertainty will further increase tensions.

Any more general escalation of fighting would have unpredictable political repercussions throughout Europe. Ukrainian families have borne the brunt of displacement of 3.8 million people within the country, but their capacity is overstretched. Those displaced internally today could well become the next wave of refugees pushed into Central and Western Europe. 

From the Western Balkans to Central Asia, the wider geostrategic shifts are creating insecurity and entrenching positions. Georgia is a good example. Its conflicts have been protracted: the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have defied Tbilisi’s control for over twenty years, but Moscow’s direct role reached a new level with recognition of their independence in 2008 after the Russian-Georgian war.  

Hopes rose that there could be some progress towards reconciliation in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian disputes after the Georgian Dream party overwhelmingly won last autumn’s parliamentary election. The ruling party’s constitutional majority has provided space to advance its long-discussed plan to reach out to the Abkhaz and Ossetians and start addressing divisive issues. Meanwhile, Tbilisi is trying to cope internationally with what it sees as Russian occupation, which Moscow has shown no interest in discontinuing. 

Any steps to address local conflict legacies are welcome. Any future settlement must address longstanding grievances in mutually acceptable ways and build bridges between divided societies. But this is only possible if Georgia is securely fixed and supported within a predictable international framework that will help address its own grievances vis-à-vis Russia.

If the Ukrainian and Georgian governments feel that they cannot genuinely trust the West to protect them against Russia, they are likely to become increasingly nervous and unpredictable.  They may also be less willing to invest in reconciliation with those living in breakaway areas, whom they too often see as willing Kremlin proxies.

There is an immediate need for all international actors to prevent the present escalation in eastern Ukraine from getting out of hand and to address the growing humanitarian needs of the affected population. The primary responsibility for this lies with Russia. At the same time, however, the U.S. should join the European Union in giving their partners in the East strong reassurances of firm backing. The West must make clear that it will not compromise on their territorial integrity — nor will it hypocritically say the right things while in fact looking away, which is perhaps more plausible and scarier. With the U.S. course being far from certain, the EU’s confident and undivided support is more important than ever.

If Western backing is solid, Ukraine and Georgia – each with their different conflicts and in different ways – may have the geopolitical space to start addressing existing local divides. This is not a given and would not alone deliver a full-fledged settlement – for that, Moscow would have to change its calculations and course.  But without Western backing, Ukraine and Georgia will find themselves getting ever more deeply enmeshed in insoluble conflicts, with dire consequences for affected populations and increasing risks for security on the continent.