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Georgia: Government Critics Scathing of Reform Push

They say talk of radical democratic reform highlights past failings.
By Natia Kuprashvili
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili appointed a new prime minister earlier this week in what he says is an attempt to inspire new democratic reform in his country – but critics suggest the policy shift is an admission of failure.

“New challenges and enormous threats are facing us,” announced the president. “An existential threat, like a sword of Damocles, hung over Georgia (in a reference to Russia). To face these challenges we need new strength and new people.

“The only answer to these challenges will be radical democratic reforms. I have no other recipe other than to propose to the new government that we need a more liberal economy.”

In a move that took everyone by surprise, Saakashvili appointed Grigol Mgaloblishvili, the 35-year-old Georgian ambassador in Turkey as the new prime minister, replacing banker Lado Gurgenidze who had been in office less than a year.

The president said that Mgaloblishvili had done a good job of attracting foreign investment from Turkey and would do the same as prime minister.

The health of Georgian democracy is now a matter of national debate, following western criticism and with many former allies of the president now accusing him of failing to make the country more democratic.

In a speech to parliament on September 16, Saakashvili said, “Our aim is to receive a stronger parliament, guarantee the inviolability of private property, make the media more free and unbiased and the courts more just and independent.”

The speech was not planned and followed a session of the North Atlantic Council of NATO the day before in which Secretary General Jap de Hoop Scheffer said Georgia’s best route to membership of the alliance lay through the pursuit of democratic reforms.

Supporters of the president say that democratic reforms provide the best hope for Georgia to emerge from its current crisis. Critics say the promises show that the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 which brought him to power five years ago has not delivered democracy.

So far the “new wave” of reforms looks set to reverse many of the reforms instituted by Saakashvili after the Rose Revolution.

For example, according to new constitutional amendments, the procedure whereby parliament can dismiss the government has been made easier. This reverses the first constitutional amendment that Saakashvili made after he came to power.

Likewise, parliament is set to approve a resumption of public financing for opposition political parties who were not elected to parliament. But the very same parliament took the unanimous decision three months ago to curtail funding for the opposition.

Parliament is also working on a new constitutional amendment, according to which only a court can withhold a person’s property rights. This contradicts one of the most visible policies of the new administration after the Rose Revolution, when property and goods were dramatically seized from prominent people accused of tax evasion, frequently in full view of the television cameras.

Pro-government parliamentarians say the new policies show courage on the part of President Saakashvili and his team.

“It suggests that we have a government which takes heed of its people, which is not ashamed to admit its mistakes and moreover is trying to correct them itself. It shows the strength of our government, its high democratic level,” said Eka Kherkheulidze of the governing party.

Kote Kublashvili, chairman of the Supreme Court, said there would now be a new phase of judicial reform.

“We are talking about introducing a rule whereby judges are appointed indefinitely, which was impossible before without a well functioning court structure,” said Kublashvili. “The indefinite appointment of judges occurs in democratic states in which an independent and objective judicial system has been created.”

A major line of criticism against the government over the last few years is that once popular political debate programmes on television have been shut down and the electronic media has become more loyal to the government.

In his speech to parliament, Saakashvili said that he wanted to see televised political debates on Georgia’s Public Television channel, “so all political forces are guaranteed equal representation”.

Media expert Ia Antadze said that this part of the speech reflected badly on the president.

“This is a country where the president personally decides what will be broadcast on which channel, what questions will be asked and who will respond to them – this statement from Mikheil Saakshvili was absolutely sincere,” she said. “But in a normal democratic country it’s not normal that you have to pass a law to get debates on television.”

Georgia’s ombudsman Sozar Subari shares this scepticism. “What kind of ‘new democratic wave’ can we talk about when there is no democracy in the country,” he said. “We can only dream of the quality of democracy which we had before the Rose Revolution during [Eduard] Shevardnadze’s rule.”

Subari has now formed his own movement, For Freedom and Justice. He says it is not a party and has no ambitions for office. However, his stand against the government has been warmly welcomed by much of the opposition.

Another critic of the government is the former speaker of parliament and one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution, Nino Burjanadze.

Burjanadze is increasingly critical of Saakashvili – her former ally – and says that she is leading a battle against an “authoritarian regime”. She is convening the first congress of her new party, the Democratic Movement of United Georgia, on November 23, the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution “because I still believe in the ideas for which I fought five years ago and which still need to be realised”.

Before that date, Georgia faces another potentially difficult anniversary, when the country marks the first anniversary of last year’s crackdown by riot police on opposition protesters in central Tbilisi on November 7. Saakashvili himself is sounding penitent about the episode.

“November 7 is approaching, which brought us a grave lesson,” said the president. “A day which showed us our mistakes and taught us to listen to people.”

Following the November crisis, Saakashvili responded to criticism by calling early presidential elections and putting the emphasis on meeting the social needs of the population rather than on democratic reforms. Analyst Archil Gegeshidze says this shows that the new presidential initiative is not a response to the Georgian people, but to the comments of western partners.

Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.

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