President Saakashvili specified some of his previous proposals to the opposition and named some new ones in his address to the Parliament on July 20.
Proposals involve early local elections and reform of Central Election Commission; public broadcaster; judiciary. One of the proposals involve, as the President put it, giving more political rights to Georgian expatriates.
The opposition, including some lawmakers from the parliamentary minority, described the President’s address to the Parliament and follow up debates as Saakashvili’s PR stunt ahead of the U.S. Vice President’s visit, who will arrive in Tbilisi on July 22.
Local Elections/Reform of CEC
On elections, Saakashvili offered to hold early local elections on May 30, 2010 instead of planned autumn 2010. The authorities had already offered holding of local elections before the launch of protest rallies in April, but without putting forth an exact date.
Saakashvili reiterated the previous proposal to have direct election of Tbilisi Mayor, instead of the current practice when a Mayor is elected by members of elected City Council – Sakrebulo.
Saakashvili also said that the election code should be reformed by the end of 2009 to ensure that “the principle ‘I lost, so the elections were rigged’ does not exist any more.”
On Central Election Commission (CEC), he said new chairperson of the commission should be selected through “a broad agreement” among the key political groups.
“Old methods of political struggle will no longer work in Georgia; power transition will be carried out through elections and not through coups, weapons, foreign money and through ‘cages’ [reference to the opposition improvised prison cells blocking the Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare] and barricades,” Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili reiterated that he was in favor of cutting the presidential powers by limiting the president’s rights to dissolve the Parliament.
He, however, said “an effective presidential system” was important for Georgia, especially at the time “when a great part of the country is occupied… we need to find a balanced model.”
A state commission has been recently established to develop amendments to the constitution. The opposition parties, which were behind the protest rallies, which started on April 9, refused to join the commission.
Political Rights for Expats
Saakashvili said that he planned to initiate constitutional amendments allowing ethnic Georgians living abroad, including those who have been born aboard, to have more rights in Georgia’s political life.
He said the initiative would allow expatriates to participate in “elections of any level” in Georgia. He, however, also added that “minimal” restrictions would remain including “minimal living term” in Georgia.
According to the constitution, “any person may be elected the President of Georgia if he/she is a native-born citizen of Georgia… has lived in Georgia for at least fifteen years and lives in Georgia by the day on which the election is scheduled.”
The issue of more political rights to expatriates has never been among the top issues of Georgia’s political agenda. One of the first politicians to raise this issue was French-born Salome Zourabichvili, leader of Georgia’s Way opposition party. The issue reemerged again when Georgian-born, Russian-based tycoon, Alexander Ebralidze, made a surprise announcement about having intention to run for presidency in 2013. He has not lived in Georgia for over thirty years.
“Do not think that I am preparing someone living aboard as my successor,” Saakashvili told lawmakers when announcing this initiative, details of which have yet to be specified. “Nobody should be brought in as a gift box especially from that country, which is interested in destabilizing Georgia.”
Saakashvili said that he planned to initiate a draft law envisaging “stricter” punishment for those who would try to influence court’s decisions.
He said that introduction of jury system in the courts would help to increase transparency of the judiciary. Jury system is planned to be introduced only in Tbilisi on the first stage starting from next year and it only be used in trials dealing with homicide.
The President offered create a new board of trustees of the public broadcaster, wherein four seats would be allocated to members nominated by the authorities and four seats to the opposition-nominated persons. The remaining one seat, Saakashvili said, would go to a civil society representative.
“We should make these amendments within the next 90 days,” he said.
He also said that the proposal to give one seat to a representative of the civil society aimed at gradual “depolitization” of the public broadcaster.
The proposals, he said, also involved giving more powers to the public broadcaster’s board of trustees. The board of trustees has little say in the broadcaster’s editorial policy. It’s function is limited with only setting the broadcaster’s programming priorities in general.
He also reiterated his earlier initiative on turning the public TV’s second channel into political programming, wherein “even the smallest political groups will be able to express their opinions and to hold open discussions.”
“I ask the parliament to complete by the end of September all the procedures in this regard,” he said.
In his speech he also said that journalists recently faced cases of “insult, pressure and violence” and in this context only mentioned so called ‘corridor of shame’ which was part of the opposition’s street protest rallies, when the public broadcaster’s premises was picketed by the protesters. Saakashvili said it was “one of the most shameful things” that happened in Georgia in recent months. “’A corridor of shame’ arranged by shameful people against journalists who we are proud of… We will not allow persecution and physical insulting of journalists,” he added.
Saakashvili also said all the television stations should have an access to satellite broadcasting. A television station willing to have satellite broadcasting has to apply for license to the Georgian National Communications Commission. Such license has been recently granted to pro-opposition Maestro TV.
Cooperation with Opposition
President Saakashvili reiterated his earlier proposal to the opposition to take part in sessions of the National Security Council once in a month to discuss issues related with the country’s foreign policy.
“From the next month we will launch sessions of the National Security Council with involvement of all political parties,” Saakashvili said. “This new format of cooperation will help us cooperate more closely and exchange our opinions.”
He also reiterated an offer involving allowing those opposition politicians, who refused to take parliamentary seats after the May, 2008 elections, to restore their MP credentials. Saakashvili said he planned to initiate a relevant draft law. The previous such proposals has already been rejected by the opposition.
He also said that in recent months the opposition had an opportunity to express its protest “without any obstacles” and in some cases, he said, the authorities were even “turning a blind eye on illegality.” He, however, said now it was time to move political processes from the streets to the Parliament.
‘Large-Scale Dialogue with Public’
President Saakashvili said that from July 21 to September 10 the authorities would launch “a large-scale dialogue with the public” with the population in all regions, where “ordinary people will speak about their priorities.”
“I mean dialogue not only with the minority [non-parliamentary opposition], which was expressing protest in one street in Tbilisi, but dialogue with the rest 95% of the population,” he said. “From tomorrow our lawmakers, our ministers, governors, mayors will start trips to various cities and villages to listen to the people to identify their major priorities.”
“We can turn this large-scale dialogue with the public into a new large wave of democracy in Georgia,” he added.
Before the President’s arrival in the Parliament activists from the pro-opposition youth groups were rallying outside the legislative body, demanding release of what they call political prisoners and calling on the President to veto package of rally-related bill. Police pushed activists away from the entrance of the Parliament and arrested seven activists. One of them was released after being fined with GEL 400 for petty hooliganism and others sent by the court to jail for 14 and 12 days for resisting police orders.