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Opposition criticises President’s address

By Mzia Kupunia
Wednesday, July 22
“Georgia’s policy can be described in just one word – reform, reform and once more reform,” Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in his 45 minute address to Parliament on Monday, assessed by opposition politicians as “yet another PR stunt.” Speaking to lawmakers, Ministers and diplomatic corps representatives, Saakashvili called for starting a “public dialogue, where the ordinary people will have the chance to express their own priorities.” “When I demanded the start of a dialogue I meant not only a dialogue with politicians, but first of all with the people,” Saakashvili stated, adding that the Georgian Government has already listened to the minority’s views and now it’s time to listen to the absolute majority of Georgia.

Another initiative voiced by President Saakashvili was holding the 2010 local elections in May rather than Autumn. He said that a new Election Commission should be approved by the end of 2009 and the CEC Chairman should be identified through consensus between the political parties. The President said old methods of fighting will not work in the new Georgia. “Governments will change only through the ballot box and not military or any other kinds of coups, blockades or foreign money, cages nor barricades. The Government will change via a civilized, European, constitutional election process and through the free choice of the people,” Saakashvili said.

He reiterated the administration’s call for dialogue with the ‘radical’ opposition. “Discussion should move from the general to the specific and from general talk to real action, from ideas to tasks, and indefinite time periods should become concrete dates,” Saakashvili noted. He asked the non-Parliamentary opposition to move into a regime of civilised dialogue, instead of holding protest meetings and adopting civil war terminology. He proposed once again that the elected opposition members who refused to enter Parliament after the May 2008 Parliamentary elections, should return and attend “at least” Joe Biden’s address to Georgian MPs on Thursday.

President Saakashvili also stressed the necessity of reforming the court system, enhancing media freedom and holding broad sessions of the Security Council, calling upon all political forces to participate in its sessions. “No matter how big the differences between us are, we should be united against the external enemy,” the President noted. Saakashvili said he will end his Presidential term when its constitutional term expires and will only hand over the governance of Georgia to the Georgian people, not a force run from some other country.

Debates followed the President’s address. Parliamentarians from both the minority and majority were given the chance to express their own views. Opposition MPs criticised the President for mishandling the Russian aggression in August 2008, ignoring democratic principles. Petre Mamradze from the Movement for Fair Georgia said the country is governed by six or seven people who “stand above the law.” Magda Anikashvili from the Christian Democratic Movement criticised the Government for its unsuccessful healthcare policy. Christian Democrats also demanded that the recently adopted law on Manifestations should be subject to Presidential veto, saying it was “a step back.” Giorgi Targamadze, the Christian Democrat leader, called on the President to change the logic of the internal political processes. He said changes are needed in the country and that without those changes, Georgia will become just a territory instead of a state. “If you want to defeat Putin, you should become anti-Putin, if we want to defeat Putin’s Russia, we should build the absolute opposite of that country’s political system,” Targamadze told the President.

The non-Parliamentary opposition claimed that the President made no real proposals to the opposition, calling the debates a “staged show” for US Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Georgia. “What we saw yesterday was an attempt at a rehabilitation action by the President, Parliamentary majority and minority staged specially for the US vice President’s visit,” Mamuka Katsitadze from the New Rights said. Republican Party member Tina Khidasheli stated that the early elections proposed by the President cannot actually be considered early. “The date of the local elections has been moved forward just a few months, just so they could be called early elections,” Khidasheli said on Tuesday.

Some opposition politicians remain sceptical about the President’s words, saying they have never been followed by real actions. “Exactly those unmet promises are the reason for the distrust towards Saakashvili by the Georgian people and international society,” the leader of Our Georgia-Free Democrats Irakli Alasania said. “That’s why thousands of Georgians came out into the streets,” he added. As for the local elections, Alasania said that early elections will only make sense if specific steps are taken towards improving the election environment. “Our Georgia-Free Democrats is ready to participate in concrete, result-oriented negotiations,” Alasania stated.

Some ‘radicals’ suggest that the local elections will not drag the country out of its crisis. Nino Burjanadze, former close ally of President Saakashvili and now leader of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, said “There are no independent institutions in the country. The local government elections will not help the country overcome the crisis. My meetings in the US and Europe have shown that a real democracy is important, not a facade one.” She said she would not participate in the early local elections. “The opposition will continue to pursue its strategy and will fight to change this regime,” Burjanadze stated.

Political analysts have echoed the opposition’s criticism of the President’s address, saying that he has said nothing new. “Until the international community forces the authorities to start a real dialogue with the opposition, it is ridiculous to talk about dialogue,” President of the Experts Club Soso Tsiskarishvili said. Political commentator Giorgi Khutsishvili said the President had proposed “cosmetic changes instead of system changes”. He said Saakashvili’s address was clearly linked with Biden’s upcoming visit and was designed to create the illusion that the Government is ready to deepen the democratisation process. However, the analyst noted, these “half democratisations” will not change anything in the country and will not be able to stop a new protest wave emerging in Autumn.

Analyst Gia Khukhashvili said it is better to leave Monday’s address without comment, because according to him “the President said nothing new.” “It was a demonstration of pseudo-democracy before Joseph Biden’s visit,” he said. Khukhashvili noticed some “concerning” facts during the President’s speech. “I was concerned by the applause of the ruling party lawmakers. They showed slavish obedience to the President, although it is known that most of them are not so happy with the idea of moving Parliament to Kutaisi,” Khukhashvili told The Messenger. “Another cause for concern was so much talk about public dialogue and visits to the regions to meet people. It reminded me of the Soviet period. It seems like we are moving back towards Soviet times, instead of forward to real democracy,” the analyst stated.