Europe Briefing N°58 13 Dec 2010
Two and a half years after the war with Russia, Georgia’s political life is increasingly turning towards preparations for the 2012-2013 elections and debates around divisions of power after a recent overhaul of the constitution. The substantial amendments, which come into force in 2013 at the same time as President Mikheil Saakashvili steps down due to a term limit, will give much greater power to the prime minister. The next two years will go a long way in determining whether the country progresses toward a truly stable, modern democracy, or deteriorates into a fragile, pseudo-pluralistic and stagnating system. The government and political opposition movement need to use that crucial period to create public trust in democratic institutions. The best way to achieve this is by engaging in meaningful dialogue to ensure a fair election cycle, strengthened rule of law, economic stability and the legitimacy of the future government.
Much speculation centres on the role Saakashvili will play after he leaves the presidency. Detractors allege that the constitutional amendments are intended to allow him to continue to dominate the country from the newly empowered position of prime minister. He denies this, says that he has not decided on his future course, and the amendments were not made for any specific individual. His ruling United National Movement (UNM) argues that the constitutional changes were necessary to improve the balance of power and facilitate the implementation of reforms and that they meet long-held demands of opposition parties to cut back presidential powers. The changes in fact did very little to create a more parliamentary-based system, and the haste in which they were pushed through was criticised by international observers.
Saakashvili’s government defied widespread speculation that it would be driven from power after the 2008 war with Russia. Instead, the UNM greatly solidified its position in May 2010 local elections. It comfortably won the Tbilisi mayor’s office and a majority in all 69 municipal councils. Nevertheless, polarisation between the government and the ideologically diverse opposition parties – and the latter’s inability to formulate any common agenda or message – remain serious impediments for implementing reforms and establishing a mature democratic system. Only seventeen opposition deputies are taking part in the 150-seat parliament, while sixteen others who won seats are boycotting. Positively, the government and fifteen opposition parties agreed in November 2010 to begin negotiations to overhaul the electoral code.
The generous $4.5 billion Georgia received from 38 countries and fifteen international organisations over three years to help post-war recovery – a mix of direct budgetary assistance, humanitarian aid, loans and support to infrastructure development – guaranteed economic stability in the short term, but these funds are running out, and neither foreign direct investment nor exports have picked up. Tbilisi is thus likely to face substantial challenges to repay the foreign debt and cover the trade deficit. The government also needs to do more to support local entrepreneurs.
Over the past two years, the government initiated important reforms in the judiciary and the media, but more is needed to build public confidence in local institutions. Many Georgians still perceive judges as dependent on the executive branch and overly respectful of the prosecution, especially as the acquittal rate in criminal cases is 1 per cent. Property rights abuse continues without effective legal redress. The media is freer than elsewhere in the region but deeply polarised along political lines and tends to emphasise editorial opinion more than straight reporting; the most important TV outlets are still heavily influenced by the government.
The authorities should address these shortcomings together with those raised by international observers of the 2010 local elections, so as to facilitate smooth conduct of the next electoral cycle in 2012, as well as promote stability over the longer term. More specifically, they should:
In return, opposition groups should:
This briefing concentrates on the domestic situation and recommends areas of needed reforms as the country heads into a crucial political cycle. Subsequent reporting will examine the continuing conflict with Russia, including the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of the 2008 ceasefire agreements. While President Saakashvili usefully announced in November a unilateral non-use-of-force policy, applicable to those troops, this military presence contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty in Georgia, as do occasional violent incidents near the Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs). The international community needs to continue to press Moscow to withdraw to positions held before the 2008 conflict, facilitate the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to their homes in those two territories and allow access to the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM). A recent spate of bombings in Tbilisi, which the Georgians said had been ordered by a Russian military officer in Abkhazia – a claim denied by Moscow – adds to the uncertainty.
Tbilisi/Brussels, 13 December 2010