Saakashvili Accused of Plotting to Retain Power

Georgian constitutional changes raise fears among opposition, who suspect president may be trying to emulate Putin.

A commission set up last year to appease opposition protesters has backed changes to the constitution stripping power from the presidency and awarding it to parliament - though opposition leaders see a plot by the president to hang on to power.

President Mikhail Saakashvili created the commission, which includes some opposition figures, to attempt to defuse opponents’ anger over his leadership record. The proposed amendments would seem to satisfy some of their demands, however serious reservations are now being expressed.

Saakashvili is legally obliged to relinquish the presidency in 2013, but some of his critics fear the changes could see him follow the example of Russian ex-president Vladimir Putin, who retained power when obliged to step down by becoming prime minister.

“Mikhail Saakashvili will remain before us in the role of prime minister or chairman of parliament. In one form or another, he will try to remain at the roots of power,” Jondi Bagaturia, a member of parliament from the opposition Kartuli Dasi party, said.

The Constitutional Commission considered two other potential constitutional amendments – one creating a vice-president, and the other making the country into a federation with wider powers for the president – but rejected them.

Instead, it favoured a plan to increase the powers of the parliament and prime minister at the expense of the president.

Georgia’s constitution, which was adopted on August 25, 1995, has already been changed several times, with all the amendments strengthening the president. The most significant reforms came after the Rose Revolution of 2003, which brought Saakashvili to power.

Davit Usufashvili, leader of the Republican Party, was an ally of the president during the bloodless revolution that overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze, but moved into opposition specifically because of Saakashvili’s changes to the constitution.

“Under Shevardnadze Georgia had a strong and irresponsible president. But then the head of the state did not have constitutional levers to influence parliament. But within a few months of the revolution, after serious changes of the constitution, parliament practically lost its functions and became an organ approving the instructions of the president,” he said.

“Then, with those changes, Saakashvili created a constitution for himself, and now he once again is preparing amendments for himself.”

Saakashvili’s allies angrily denied any suggestion that the president was modelling his departure on Putin, who is a fierce opponent of the Georgian government.

“Such statements are a slander on Georgian society, which would never allow the establishment of a Putin-type regime in this country,” Pavle Kublashvili, head of parliament’s legal affairs committee, said.

“As for the constitutional changes, for me the priority is a constitution that balances the powers of the executive and legislative branches and gives an effective mechanism for the creation of a strong and democratic state.”

The constitutional commission denied that it had been set up to serve any individual’s interests, saying it was following advice already offered by international bodies such as the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

“Why was constitutional reform put on the agenda? It was specifically done so as to create balance in the governance of the country. In fact, this is specifically what the Venice Commission demanded when it criticised the changes to the constitution aimed at increasing the president’s powers,” Sulkhan Meladze, spokesman for the commission, said.

He did not deny, however, that the proposed changes could provide a mechanism for Saakashvili to remain in power.

“But that must not be an obstacle to reform. We do not know what will happen tomorrow, but we definitely know what is necessary to improve democracy in the country. And specifically, it is necessary that the powers of parliament and the executive branch are put into balance.”

Bakar Berekashvili, who is a lecturer at the University of Tbilisi and chairman of the Institute for Democratic Reforms think tank, said the commission had studied all the options and concluded there was a definite need for changes to the constitution.

“A high level of democracy can be attained in both a parliamentary and a presidential model of government. But in a country like Georgia, I think a mixed model is more pragmatic and acceptable; a constitution that as little as possible allows someone to usurp power,” he said.

“Suspicions that the current president is using the amendments to the constitution so as to remain in power are legitimate. But I think that, if the amendments are adopted in the form that they were worked out by the constitutional commission, then it is unlikely that the country could expect one man to hold all the power.”

The president must now send the draft law to parliament, and before he does so, the Venice Commission is expected to examine it and make its observations.

“Maybe a few points will be changed, but the main principles -- greater independence for local authorities and courts, a reduction in power for the president and a strengthening of parliament and the government - will remain unchanged,” Meladze said.

“We cannot write into the constitution that Saakashvili must not come to power.”

Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.