Political War in Georgia Shows No Signs of Easing

The war of words and increasingly of actions between Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continues unabated as the two political rivals hammer away at each other in a continuing struggle for control of the country’s future.  Saakashvili’s final term in office comes to an end later this year, and Ivanishvili is bent on forcing him to step down before the election.  Failing that, his ruling Georgian Dream coalition seems prepared to take almost any action to de-legitimize Saakashvili’s minority United National Movement.  Saakashvili, too, has been somewhat less than graceful since his party was swept from power in parliament last year, repeatedly calling Ivanishvili’s plans “fundamentally unacceptable,” and seemingly questioning Georgian Dream’s commitment to an independent Georgia.

The latest flare-ups surrounded Saakashvili’s planned annual address to parliament.  Georgian Dream legislators, in an act of pure pettiness, used their majority to indefinitely postpone Saakashvili’s address.  Ivanishvili used a February 5th press conference in advance of the speech to denigrate Saakashvili, telling reporters that he would not be present for the speech whenever or wherever it was held because he didn’t want to listen to Saakashvili’s “lies.”  “We control the situation,” the prime minister said, “and nobody in Georgia will be able to stir it up again. Believe me, Saakashvili’s era is over in Georgia, the era of lies is over in Georgia.”

In that press conference, Ivanishvili stated his intention to normalize relations with Russia, suspended since the 2008 war between the two countries over the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.   Ivanishvili insisted that Russia’s occupation and recognition of the provinces as independent states should not delay the rekindling diplomatic ties.  “We have every opportunity to settle relations with our big neighbor. It will not happen quickly. We are aware of [that]…but we should try our utmost to do it as quickly as possible.  Our hope is growing that we will be able to restore both our territorial integrity and friendly relations with Russia.”

Ivanishvili’s softer stance on Russia has been a persistent Saakashvili criticism of the new prime minister – one that he has not shied away from any opportunity to deliver.  Speaking to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly last month in Strasbourg, France, Saakashvili decried Russia’s flouting of the internationally brokered cease-fire that ended the 2008 conflict, pointing out that Russian troops continue to occupy the territories.  Saakashvili went further, however, openly questioning Ivanishvili’s foreign policy plans and accusing Georgian Dream of planning to abandon Georgia’s long-sought membership in NATO.  Saakashvili used the address to call for changes to the Georgian constitution that would mandate a pro-Western outlook.  The attack on the democratically elected prime minister while on foreign soil was unwise and unnecessarily provocative.

Barred from speaking before Parliament, Saakashvili delivered his annual address from his office.  He had intended to give the speech at the National Library, but some 200 protesters – doubtless supporters of or otherwise organized by Georgian Dream – blocked the entrance and refused to allow United National Movement party officials into the venue.  The Interior Minister predictably blamed the resulting scuffles and fighting on the United National Movement, claiming that the officials had refused to use “corridors” set up by the police for their access.

In the address, Saakashvili laid out two major areas of “fundamental disagreement” with Ivanishvili:  Georgian Dream’s proposals to move the parliament to Tbilisi and to end direct popular election of the president.  Saakashvili said the proposals are intended to cement Georgian Dream’s hold on power, and cryptically hinted that forces outside the country are directing them.  “This is what the fight is all about, so that the next elections are not held in Georgia,” he said.

Both men seem to have dialed back the rhetoric in recent days, with Saakashvili voicing agreement with some Georgian Dream proposals for amending the constitution and Ivanishvili pledging his willingness to “make reasonable concessions for the sake of the well-being of our homeland.”  Saakashvili has proposed direct talks between the two men.  We hope they come to pass.  The continued broadsides against each other serve neither the Georgian people nor the political parties.  Democratic governance – as the Western-educated Saakashvili should understand and the Russian-groomed Ivanishvili must accept – requires compromise.  This does not mean that the sides should not passionately and aggressively advance their ideas.  Rather, it means suppressing their personal antipathy and desire to triumph over a rival, and finding some basis on which they can serve the people’s interests over their own.