Unparliamentary Language in Tbilisi

Georgia's newly adopted constitution is just a ploy to increase President Mikheil Saakashvili's grip on power.

Upon learning that Georgia has adopted a new constitution transforming the country from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, most people will assume that it is yet another step by the former Soviet republic toward European standards. But a closer examination shows that is anything but true.

But what is actually happening? On October 15, the Georgian Parliament accepted the proposed new constitution, which will go into effect in 2013. Considering that every prior change was initiated in order to make the ruling elite more comfortable (such as in 2004, when the power of the president was increased and the role of Parliament downsized), there are many in Georgia who believe that the entire purpose of the new constitution is to prolong the reign of President Mikheil Saakashvili—hardly a reflection of the desires of the Georgian people or a move toward greater democracy. In order to clarify this issue, it is helpful to illuminate several aspects of the new constitution:

The major problem is that the new document does nothing fundamental to eliminate the dependence of the parliament on the executive branch or to reduce the concentration of powers in the hands of one man. On the one hand, power is now to be concentrated in the office of the prime minister rather than the president. But on the other, the ability of the parliament to cast a vote of no confidence in him is severely curtailed. Indeed, under the new draft, the executive power is strengthened rather than weakened at the expense of the legislature, something Europe’s Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters) recognized when it commented that the constitution’s provisions for no confidence votes must be “reconsidered and revised.”

In addition, the new rules make it virtually impossible to oust the prime minister once he is in power. The proposed new constitution gives exactly the same impunity guarantees for the prime minister as the president now has. The final report of the Venice Commission clearly states that the different branches are still unbalanced, which could become the source of a serious crisis. The new constitution represents a “super prime ministerial” model, which may guarantee the current regime an unlimited stay in power.

And while the draft document bolsters the role of prime minister, it further weakens the Parliament’s power as a whole. Under the new constitution the Parliament would lack two major functions and rights: the ability to craft legislation and to check executive power. For example, the consent of the government will now be needed in order to propose amendments to the budget. Nowhere in the democratic world is there a parliamentarian model with such a weak assembly. And the new versions of many other procedures presented in the draft contradict the principles of constitutional law and logic. As the Venice Commission diplomatically but clearly underlined in its conclusion:

The Commission considers nevertheless that it would be desirable to further strengthen the powers of Parliament. In this respect, the provisions on the formation of the government and especially those on the motion of non-confidence, as well as those about the Parliament’s powers in budget matters, should be reconsidered.

And the new constitution undermines the judicial branch as well, putting it under the threat of blackmail from the executive. By introducing a three-year probationary period, the new version threatens the independence of judges, as the Venice Commission and other international legal authorities have said.

Such “details” show that the new constitution is simply a façade behind which Saakashvili and his team are planning to remain in power. It is now clear that the government of Georgia involved the Venice Commission neither because it looked for practical recommendations nor because it desired to advance and improve the constitution. The result is that Georgia, once a budding democracy, is moving toward a soft dictatorship. In fact, the new constitution is yet another retreat from democratic procedures and thus a threat to the rights of the Georgian people and to international security in the Caucasus.

 

 

Nino Burjanadze is the chairman of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, and a former speaker of Parliament and acting president of Georgia.