In his annual state of the nation address, President Saakashvili announced, what he called, “the launch of a new wave of democratic reforms.”
“The goal of these reforms is to have stronger parliament and more effective means for control and oversight between the branches of government; to strengthen the inviolability of private property; to make media more free and unbiased; and to make the judiciary more just and independent,” Saakashvili said.
The address was not pre-planned. President Saakashvili said he had planned to deliver his annual address on September 15 when he was due to meet 26 ambassadors from the NATO North Atlantic Council in Tbilisi.
The address took place late in the evening, shortly after President Saakashvili held a joint news conference with visiting NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. The latter reiterated in earlier remarks that the crisis in Georgia should no way hinder democratic reforms. At a press conference, Saakashvili told foreign journalists to follow him to Parliament to listen to his new democratic reform proposals.
In respect of Parliament, Saakashvili said in his state of the nation address that proposals would involve constitutional amendments according to which any newly elected parliament would have the right to pass a confidence vote in the government.
On May 20, just one day before the parliamentary elections, Saakashvili pledged measures to increase Parliament’s powers and he vowed “to re-submit the cabinet to a confidence vote in the new parliament” – something that has not happened so far.
In his state of the nation address, Saakashvili also pledged “to simplify procedures” to allow Parliament to call for a vote of no confidence, as well as “to make it more difficult for the president to dissolve Parliament.”
“We will work out the details of how to do that,” he added.
He also reiterated a commitment “to speed up” the process of giving the parliamentary minority additional seats in the Group of Confidence – a special parliamentary group charged with monitoring defense spending, including that related to top secret projects. Parliament has already endorsed such proposal with its first and second hearings.
In his address President Saakashvili reiterated his commitment to revise the authorities’ controversial decision to suspend funding for those parties, which have refused to enter into the new Parliament in protest of, what they called, rigged May 21 parliamentary elections. He voiced this commitment for the first time on August 29.
Saakashvili in addition pledged to increase funding for the parties and also to set up a special fund, “which will finance political research for the opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.”
The president reiterated that he was ready to propose a constitutional amendment “that would allow the seizure of private property only with a court decision.”
The government announced about launch of work on an initiative similar to this in December, 2007.
In March, 2008, Public Defender Sozar Subari submitted to Parliament for consideration a draft law envisaging setting up an independent commission to probe into private property disputes between the state and owners. The ruling party, however, gave cold-shoulder to the proposal.
In his address Saakashvili acknowledged for the first time that the lack of media freedom “remains a challenge for our democracy.”
“Regarding public TV, we should secure institutionalization of debates,” he said. “And we should secure more openness of the public TV for every – even the smallest – groups. There should be frequent debates. It may be twice a week or as you decide – it is up to you to decide [referring to lawmakers].”
Currently, there is no political talk-show on any national TV station. The Georgian Public Broadcaster’s bi-weekly program Comment of the Day was suspended under the pretext of summer holidays, originally till September, but the program has yet to resume.
Saakashvili said he was focusing on the public TV because he had no intention “to stick his nose into in private TV stations’ business.” Two national private television stations – Imedi and Rustavi 2 TV – are both regarded as being under the control of the authorities.
President Saakashvili said that “the backbone and guarantor of our democracy” was the judicial system.
After “cleaning the judiciary of corruption,” Saakashvili said Georgia now “needs a more just, more independent and stronger judiciary.”
“That’s why we have to launch a new wave of judicial reform aimed at building a more independent and more just judicial system,” he said.
Saakashvili proposed that judges be appointed for life. “This is an additional guarantee that judges will feel more protected, hence they will be more independent,” he said.
Another reform, he continued, would be the appointment of opposition figures to the Supreme Council of Justice - the body overseeing the judicial system. The proposal has already been endorsed by the Parliament this June.
He said that the introduction of a jury system was also on the cards. Its introduction has been in the pipeline for a long time with a start date sometime next year, according to an initial plan. At the first stage, juries will only be used in trials dealing with homicide and other grave crimes.
‘Ready to Cooperate with Opposition as Never Before’
President Saakashvili said in his address that unlike Russia – where the authorities, according to him, had further strengthened their grip on the media and business – Georgia’s response to post-war reconstruction would be “more democracy and freedom.”
“Many countries might have said that less democracy and less transparency and more control by a small group of people was needed against the background of war,” Saakashvili said. “Georgia, which is a beacon of democracy in this region, however, says that our response to Russia’s aggression will be more democracy, more freedom and more progress.”
He said that the authorities recently had undertaken a number of “important steps” to help increase the role and powers of the opposition in Parliament.
“I welcome the fact that we have managed to find a common language with the opposition on such key issues as Georgia’s unity,” Saakashvili said.
He again reiterated that he was ready to grant some executive powers to the Anti-Crisis Council – a body, which he has proposed for overseeing the distribution of humanitarian aid and foreign aid funds. Only some opposition parties, mainly those from the parliamentary minority, have agreed to cooperate with the authorities in the frames of the Anti-Crisis Council. Most of the opposition parties, however, rejected the proposal claiming that it was part of the authorities’ propaganda.
Saakashvili described those opposition parities as “a small part of the opposition… which has preferred to get Georgia back into the situation of permanent quarrels and political confrontation.”
“Do not forget that today Georgia as never before needs our unity and our cooperation,” he told those parties. “I am ready for cooperation with you as never before.”
He, however, did not name specific issues on which he was offering cooperation.
“We did not want this war, but as it turned out to be impossible to avert this war, let us not allow the plotters of this war to achieve their major goal, which was the destruction of Georgia,” he continued. “We should now become stronger and afterwards we all – the authorities and the opposition – will have better prospects, our grandchildren will have better prospects.”
He then reiterated earlier statement about an official readiness to answer all questions about what had led to the war.
“Of course there are questions; I welcome them,” Saakashvili said. “I want the process to be fully transparent; I have called for an international inquiry and I have called for parliamentary debates [on the matter]; I request you to set up a group of rapporteurs and hold political debates about the events of recent weeks; let the opposition be in the majority in this group; all the ministries and officials – I myself am ready to meet this group – are ready to answer all questions.”
The president focused mostly on an intra-parliamentary formatted inquiry, which is unacceptable to most opposition parties, especially those who are boycotting Parliament.
Saakashvili also called on the opposition to initiate their own proposal and “we are ready to seriously consider them.”