Summary: The past months have proved very tense times for Georgia which is experiencing an uneasy period of “cohabitation” between arch rivals Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Saakashvili. Many observers have been concerned that the political landscape will descend into ongoing fighting between their two parties in a way that will prove deleterious to the country as a whole.
Since Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition won the parliamentary elections of last October, unseating the ruling United National Movement party of President Mikhail Saakashvili, there have been serious issues regarding the ‘cohabitation’ of the two parties. The viciousness of the race for control of the parliament has made this new period extremely difficult particularly because the President believes that a number of his political allies have been persecuted by the Georgian Dream coalition since they came to power. Matters came to a head on February 8, when the President attempted to give his last annual address in that role (he will leave the presidency in October) and was initially thwarted by protestors. Key issues remain divisive for the two sides, among them the location of the legislature, the prison system, and the methods by which the president can be elected.
The tensions between the rival factions were all too manifest during the run up to the parliamentary elections of last October. The pre-election campaign saw accusations of dirty tricks fly around and many accuse Mikhail Saakashvili of attempting to diminish the opposition by the use of unfair tactics. When billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition came to power, they oversaw a wave of arrests of Saakashvili cohorts. Among them was former Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who is accused of overseeing torture in the prison system. Former Energy Minister Aleksandre Khetaguri and former Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia have both been investigated for embezzlement. Saakashvili was quick to argue that these actions constituted a witch hunt and government by recrimination. On November 26, on a visit to Tbilisi, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, warned of the necessity of the two sides attempting to reconcile with one another in order to serve the needs of Georgia’s citizens best. Fears began to grow that a political crisis akin to that which racked Ukraine after the Orange Revolution in 2004 could result and this would significantly retard the country’s progress.
One of the first bilateral issues to emerge was that of a proposed amnesty for political prisoners. In December, Saakashvili presented a list of convicts he believed should be released. Meanwhile the Georgian Dream coalition suggested a list of 3,500 convicts or possibly up to as many as 5,000 whom they believed should be released or whose sentences should be commuted. This comes amid a wave of concern about conditions in Georgia’s penal system which has been the subject of a recent expose. Georgian Dream argued that a large number of those on their list had been the victims of political persecution under the Saakashvili regime and now should be released. Naturally the president did not agree with some of these choices, and also disputed the usage of the term ‘political prisoner’ because he believed that it tarnishes the image of Georgia as a country, by drawing a comparison with Belarus or other regimes which are known for rights abuses. On January 13, an amnesty was approved for 3000 prisoners. Saakashvili called the amnesty a “mass release of criminals”, and warned of serious consequences.
The tensions continued to mount into the New Year. An issue of particular divisiveness was that of a constitutional amendment which would limit the president’s right to dissolve the government without parliamentary approval, something which has come perilously close to a reality during this disputatious co-habitation period. Matters come to a head on February 7, when a majority in Georgia’s parliament voted to postpone the President’s annual address because of ongoing unresolved constitutional matters. On February 8 he attempted to give his annual address at the Georgian National Library, but hundreds of protestors attempted to prevent him from entering the building. The protestors complained that the President had no legitimacy and accused him of authoritarianism. Saakashvili’s colleagues determined that the protest had been masterminded by Bidzina Ivanishvili and his supporters.
The Presdent was thus obliged to give the speech from the presidential palace. In the address, he attempted to calm fears by stating his belief that the dismissal of a government would be catastrophic for the political force that institutes it, as well as the state. He did, however, also outline several points which were a major source of contention with his adversaries from Georgian Dream. He expressed his opposition to the new initiative to cancel direct presidential elections in Georgia. Another point that has frequently reoccurred is the question of moving the seat of the government from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, which Bidzina Ivanishvili staunchly opposes and wishes to block. Those who hold the belief that Saakashvili has autocratic tendencies see the attempts to move the legislature to the West as a means of removing a rallying place for popular discontent and undermining opposition to his rule. Following the President’s speech, three people were detained on accusations of assaulting law makers from his party at the National Library protest.
Following these incidents, however, a sense of reconciliation seemed to descend upon Tbilisi. President Saakashvili expressed his willingness for immediate talks with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the government regarding “constitutional changes and other issues affecting the development of the country.” He was not alone in the conciliatory gesture. On February 9, Ivanishvili expressed his “willingness” to cooperate with the president “in accordance with the constitution and the rule of law.” A one-on-one meeting on March 9 was described by Saakashvili as a ‘positive step’, and only the second of its kind since the elections of last October. On April 19, Saakashvili addressed thousands of supporters in Tbilisi, telling them that he has offered the “hand of friendship” to rival Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanisvhili and his supporters.
One area in which it is clear that there is a sense of unity is with regards to the pro-Western direction of the state. In a bipartisan resolution passed unanimously late on March 8, the legislature affirmed the country’s commitment to its European and Euro-Atlantic foreign-policy course. It is also interesting to note the changes to Tbilisi-Moscow relations since the advent of Georgian Dream. Mikhail Saakashvili has been at loggerheads with Vladimir Putin since the five-day war of 2008. Since then diplomatic relations have been almost entirely frozen. In the past six months there have, however, been some signs of progress.
In terms of trade ties, on April 16 it was announced that Moscow would lift the ban on importing a number of Georgian mineral waters, among them the popular Borjomi brand. Since Ivanishvili made a considerable amount of his money in Russia, he had made the re-establishment of ties a priority of his platform. Georgian wine is also a product that business would like to see once again exported in quantity to Russia. On February 6, Ivanishvili spoke of a surprisingly warm reception” by Russian lawmakers at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was reported that at the forum, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had a conversation with his Bidzina Ivanishvili, indicating the first direct contact between the governments of both countries in some years. With the Georgian president, whom Putin once threatened to “hang by the balls” relations remain chilly. In February Georgian deputy and Saakashvili ally Givi Targamadze was convicted in Moscow in absentia on the charge of plotting opposition riots, interlinking Saakashvili’s supporters with the domestic enemy. The issue of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia also remain unresolved. Ivanishvili has given no indication that he would change the state’s stance on these controversial sovereignty issues, which will doubtless continue to be a sticking point.
Despite this, Ivanishvili maintains that the Western orientation of Georgia’s approach is unshakeable, and that any change to its pro-NATO, Euro Atlantic-oriented foreign policy would be “unimaginable.” It is fortunate that this policy can be shared on a cross party level, given that there are so few in that category. It is also fortunate that the crisis, cohabitation seemed to be leading to in February, may have been averted. It appears that an olive branch is being held at the moment by both sides. Georgians can only hope that it does not snap.
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