Meeting Brings No Progress in Georgia’s Political Standoff

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili have been slugging it out politically since last fall when Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept Saakashvili’s United National Movement out of control of parliament.  The vitriol came to a head last month, as Georgian Dream lawmakers refused to host Saakashvili’s annual address to parliament, then organized supporters to block the president from giving the speech at the National Library.  Saakashvili questioned Ivanishvili’s commitment to an independent Georgia; and in a speech to the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg, France, accused Georgian Dream of planning to abandon Georgia’s long-sought membership in NATO.

In the days after Saakashvili’s national address, both men seemed to dial back the rhetoric.  Saakashvili voiced agreement with some of Georgian Dream’s policy proposals – a first.  Ivanishvili stated his willingness to make, “reasonable concessions,” with the United National Movement, “for the well-being of our homeland,” also a first.  Saakashvili proposed direct talks, which Ivanishvili accepted.  The meeting was held last week in Saakashvili’s office.  By all accounts, it was unsuccessful at bridging the yawning divide between the two leaders.

Discussions between parliamentary leaders for both sides had broken down in the run up to the meeting.  At issue were a Georgian Dream proposal to amend the constitution to strip the president of the power to dissolve parliament and the prosecutions of former government ministers and Saakashvili allies, which the United National Movement accuses Ivanishvili of pursuing too aggressively. The failed discussions provided the backdrop for the Saakashvili-Ivanishvili meeting and likely doomed it to failure.  Afterward, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili met the press separately, both characterizing the meeting as “interesting.”

Saakashvili spoke first, saying he was glad for the chance to discuss his differences with Ivanishvili openly, and stressing that he has no desire to use his constitution power to dissolve parliament.  “I want to make it clear – any speculation, that I may use the presidential powers and dismiss the Georgian government or dissolve the Parliament, is simply not true, because this government has been elected by the Georgian people.  Thus, any talk [that] such an intention may emerge should be ruled out.”  On the prosecutions, Saakashvili said that he rejects talk of an amnesty for former government officials since that would imply they had engaged in wrongdoing.

“What does amnesty mean? It means that some people, let’s say 25,000 people, committed crime[s], but I see it otherwise – these 25,000 people built the modern Georgian statehood,” Saakashvili said.

Ivanishvili met the media second, telling reporters that his government does not plan to drag out prosecutions of former administration officials beyond what is necessary.  “I have a great desire to make it possible for the members of the National Movement to remain worthy members of Georgia, although some of them might have violated the law and they will have to answer before the law.  There should not be endless trials and endless prosecutions.”  He refused to give ground on the constitutional changes, saying the burden was on the president to show that the provisions are justified.

“When I asked [Saakashvili] to specify whether the President can appoint the government without approval from the Parliament, he responded that he would make a public statement and name several countries, where the presidents have similar rights, but he failed to name any country as an example,” Ivanishvili said.

There is a reasonable middle ground for an agreement here, but as yet, both sides seem unwilling to be the first to give ground.  Ivanishvili’s campaign against former Saakashvili deputies and cabinet members is clearly intended to cement Georgian Dream’s hold on power by de-legitimizing his political opposition.  The constitutional power granted Saakashvili to unilaterally dissolve parliament is undemocratic and largely without precedent in the West, as Saakashvili mostly recognizes.

If he truly has no intention of using the power, Saakashvili should agree to changes in the interest of furthering democratic progress in Georgia.  Likewise, if Ivanishvili really does not want an endless parade of convicted political opponents for the television cameras, he should agree to some sort of limitations in the interest of national unity.  Georgia stands on the precipice of a political crisis.  Right now neither of its leaders has the courage to step back.

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