Changes to Georgia’s constitution that could pave the way for President Mikheil Saakashvili to stay in power are rekindling fears that the country’s ruling party is abusing its hold on Georgian political life.Parliament is set to vote on the changes in September, after giving the public the month of August to comment. The timing for the public debate -- when most Georgians traditionally go on vacation -- is raising questions about how open the process really is.If the changes are adopted, the prime minister will take over decision-making in foreign and domestic policy. The president, however, will retain his or her role as commander-in-chief and head of state.The new power system will go into effect in 2013, when Saakashvili completes his second and final term as president.Tina Khidasheli, a constitutional lawyer who is a leader from the opposition Republican Party and a former director of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, argues that the limited time available for public discussion of the final draft constitution shows that the constitutional reform process has been “a joke.”“We should all agree that this is how we are going to live the next 100 years -- or six months [since that is] how it is in Georgia,” Khidasheli said, in reference to the frequent constitution changes.Although all opposition parties were invited to send a representative to the 57-member commission that decided on the draft constitution, the Republican Party, like most other opposition parties, did not. Only three commission members -- opposition parliamentarian Jondi Baghaturia, Georgian Young Lawyers Association Chairperson Tamar Khidasheli and Liberty Institute Director Levan Ramishvili -- voted against the proposed changes.During a short parliamentary debate on July 21, Parliamentary Chairperson Davit Bakradze shrugged off opposition calls to postpone the vote.“More than a year the commission has worked . . . a large number of European experts managed to review [the draft constitution], the members of the Venice Commission managed to review it. . . it turns out that only we, Georgian politicians, have not had enough time to read it?” Bakradze scoffed. “I am sorry, but I think that is not serious.”Tengiz Sharmanashvili, the secretary of the constitutional commission and leader of a small opposition party, seconded that opinion, saying that any attempt to delay the vote is an attempt to “paralyze” the reform. Drafts of the constitution were published “on several occasions” earlier this year and the time frame for discussion noted, Sharmanashvili said.“At every stage, no one was ready to join in the process. . .Now. . . they want to take part, but that is not serious. This was a political mistake on the part of these organizations,” he said.But Khidasheli, who sat on the commission that drafted Georgia’s 2004 constitution, argues that taking part was not worth the effort; the process, she says, had a foregone conclusion.“The most important reason for why we did not join it was all about how this process was run… we believe that the constitution is something that should be a matter of a consensus not only among the political players, but among society,” she said.Sharmanashvili stressed that the mission to create a parliamentary system of government came from the public, as well as the president; last year, Saakashvili created the commission after negotiations with opposition parties intent on limiting his power.Opposition member, however, now argue the division of powers laid out by the current draft makes it too easy for Saakashvili, who heads the ruling United National Movement, to remain in power as a strong prime minister if his party wins the 2012 parliament elections.Rumors that Saakashvili is considering such a move surfaced in June after Le Monde quoted Saakashvili as saying that he had considered “the possibility” of becoming prime minister. Georgians often liken that scenario to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s appointment of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, as Russia’s prime minister – a move known locally as “Putinism.”Parliamentary majority leader Petre Tsiskarishvili, however, contends that the proposed change has nothing to do with “Putinism.”"I am not at all concerned because Putin is nominated by the president in Russia and, in our case, the prime minister will be elected by the Georgian people; through a party like they do in Europe,” Tsiskarishvili said.But opponents argue that the difference is negligible. The National Movement holds a sizable majority in the parliament and has outperformed the country’s splintered opposition in every election since the 2003 Rose Revolution.Commission member Levan Ramishvili, whose think-tank is usually classified as pro-government, believes that it is a mistake to adopt a “European” form of government simply “to send a message.” Unlike the European countries cited as models for the change, Georgia lacks strong political parties, Ramishvili said. It is also prone to corruption, which could undermine the prime minister’s role, he added.“There is no mechanism of quick resolution of a political crisis if the sitting government loses the public confidence,” Ramishvili said.Khidasheli, however, sees the proposed constitution as a temporary measure that hinges on the National Movement remaining in power through 2013.“I know this constitution is not for the future of my country,” she said. “It is for the time that Saakashvili is in power and because of that I don’t care what is written there.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.