February 20, 2013

Turmoil in Tbilisi: Georgia’s Dream Imperiled

On February 8, democracy took a step backward in Georgia, when violent protestors prevented the country’s democratically elected president from delivering his annual state of the nation address. A mob reportedly beat President Mikheil Saakashvili’s supporters, dazing and bloodying the face of Chiora Taktakishvili, a spokeswoman for the president’s political party.

On February 8, democracy took a step backward in Georgia, when violent protestors prevented the country’s democratically elected president from delivering his annual state of the nation address. A mob reportedly beat President Mikheil Saakashvili’s supporters, dazing and bloodying the face of Chiora Taktakishvili, a spokeswoman for the president’s political party.

At the heart of the melee was the insistence of Georgia’s ruling coalition, which controls the government and parliament but not the presidency, that President Saakashvili deliver his annual speech to the people who elected him only if he relinquished his constitutional right to dissolve parliament and the government. Refusing to succumb to political blackmail, Saakashvili decided to deliver his speech at the Georgian National Library, where the violence ensued.

This spectacle took place against the backdrop of political tension that has been brewing since last October, when a broad coalition known as the Georgian Dream, centered on billionaire and first-time politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, surprised many observers by defeating Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement. Previously, parliamentary elections were of secondary importance in Georgia, where the power to form and run the government lay with Georgia’s president.
But, in 2012, President Saakashvili convinced parliament to amend Georgia’s constitution to transfer decisive political power from the president to the prime minster. Many of Mr. Ivanishvili’s supporters cried foul, worrying that Saakashvili was preparing a soft landing for himself at the helm of Georgian politics when his presidential term expired in late 2013.
Meanwhile, many supporters of Mr. Saakashvili worried that Mr. Ivanishvili planned to reorient Georgia toward Russia, (where he earned a fortune equaling half of Georgia’s GDP), and away from Georgia’s march toward the Euro-Atlantic community that Saakashvili champions and Moscow loathes.

Mr. Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream won the October 2012 parliamentary election decisively. President Saakashvili immediately recognized this result, to the surprise of his critics. Though he retained his constitutional authority as president to dismiss Georgia’s government and parliament, Saakashvili instead called for a “cohabitation” government between his party and Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s coalition. Many of us in the international community cheered this outcome, as the Georgian people and their political leaders seemed to have cleared the way for the first democratic transition in Georgian history.

But, those democratic gains are now under threat. After dismissing Saakashvili’s bid for political cooperation, Prime Minister Ivanishvili and his legislative allies escalated tension by blocking the president’s right to address the nation unless Saakashvili relinquished core constitutional powers as head of state. This constitutional tug-of-war culminated in the violent attack of February 8 on Saakashvili’s supporters.

Violence was anathema to those who participated in the Rose Revolution of November 2003, which toppled the post-Communist regime of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze through two weeks of peaceful protests of a fraudulent parliamentary election. As the member of the National Security Council Staff with responsibility for U.S.-Georgia relations, I witnessed how Saakashvili and many of his erstwhile allies who now oppose him avoided violence even when infuriated by a stolen election, and how President Shevardnadze restrained his security forces. This commitment to non-violence marked a human triumph of the Rose Revolution and set a hopeful precedent for peaceful political transitions in defense of democracy in the post-Soviet space. Last week’s violence in Tbilisi betrayed these universal values.

Perhaps even more worrisome than last week’s violence was the ruling coalition’s demand that Georgia’s president surrender key constitutional powers in exchange for his democratic right — and duty — to address the Georgian nation. Democracy is absent when the right of free speech is treated as a commodity to be bartered away, especially when such a trade would weaken a fledgling democracy’s system of checks and balances.

For Americans, the thought that our President’s State of the Union address could be blocked by Congress is incomprehensible. There is no reason why the Georgian people do not deserve these very same democratic expectations. Hopefully, the shock of last Friday’s street violence, which Prime Minister Ivanishvili condemned, will get Georgian democracy back on track.
The key to restoring this positive trajectory will be to empower those in Mr. Ivanishvili’s ruling coalition who realize Georgia’s real dream is not humiliation of their country’s elected president, but full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies.

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