After eight months of acrimonious discussion, the majority parliament faction of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party has announced that it sees no point in trying to resume discussions, whether in Georgia or elsewhere, with the country’s various opposition parties on the wording of controversial draft constitutional amendments.
The September 1 statement went on to say the Georgian Dream parliament faction would, as a result, pass those amendments without opposition approval in a third and final reading during the fall parliament session.
Georgian Dream blamed the breakdown of talks on opposition intransigence, in particular what it termed the "four ultimatums" with which the opposition parties responded to Georgian Dream’s most recent efforts to bridge the differences between the two camps. It said the opposition’s "counterproductive" approach showed that its primary objective was to avoid reaching a consensus.
In light of that statement, the meeting planned for September 6 in Strasbourg under the aegis of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of experts on constitutional law will not take place, even though the opposition parties had reaffirmed their continued readiness to participate. Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio had offered one month ago to convene that meeting in a bid to help the two sides overcome their differences.
The two sides’ most recent attempt to reach accord was on August 18, when after weeks of mutual accusations of unwillingness to resume talks, representatives of Georgian Dream and 20 opposition parties met in Tbilisi in a last-ditch attempt to narrow their differences. While Georgian Dream reportedly offered two minor concessions, the three-hour talks failed to yield any points of agreement.
The opposition subsequently reaffirmed its core demand: that in the parliamentary elections due in 2020, all 150 mandates be allocated under the proportional system, rather than the current mixed system. The version of the draft amendments finalized in April and submitted for review and approval to the Venice Commission envisaged that transition, but in late June, purportedly under pressure from majoritarian parliament deputies who feared the loss of their mandates, Georgian Dream pushed through parliament an amended draft postponing the transition to the parliamentary elections due in 2024.
The opposition further stuck to its demand for the retention of direct elections for the post of president. Georgian Dream had agreed to direct elections only in 2018, when incumbent Giorgi Margvelashvili is expected to seek a second term, after which the next president would be elected by a 300-person electoral college. The opposition raised the possibility of holding a plebiscite to determine popular support for retaining direct elections. It pegged a resumption of talks on other disputed aspects of the planned reform on Georgian Dream’s acceptance of those two demands.
But Georgian Dream dismissed them on August 25, stressing that it had solicited from each individual party a list of the points it deemed essential to incorporate into the draft and on which that party’s support for the draft as a whole was contingent. Georgian Dream deplored what it termed the opposition’s "counterproductive" stance, which, it complained, made it impossible to hold talks within the majority parliament faction and thus to embark on a new round of talks with the opposition.
The reference to "holding talks within the majority" suggests that at that juncture Georgian Dream’s liberal wing was still hoping to overcome the hard-line majoritarian lawmakers’ resistance to switching to the fully proportional system for the 2020 parliamentary ballot. It is not clear how many of Georgian Dream’s 71 majoritarian lawmakers that group comprises, but the importance the liberal faction clearly attached to reaching a consensus with them suggests an aversion to quitting Georgian Dream to establish a rival parliament faction. Doing so would deprive Georgian Dream of its present constitutional majority.
If that emphasis on the importance of talks within the majority was intended as a coded message to the opposition not to risk derailing the ongoing search for consensus by ratcheting up the pressure on Georgian Dream, it did not have the desired effect. On the contrary, veteran lawmaker Roman Gotsiridze of the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) described the Georgian Dream statement as "an admission of defeat" in light of its apparent failure to split the opposition.
Days later, however, Georgian Dream backpedaled. On August 28, parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze reiterated the party’s readiness to resume talks if the opposition came up with a list of the points on which its backing of the draft as a whole was contingent. Gotsiridze, in turn, attributed that repeated offer to "very negative reactions" he suggested Georgian Dream had received from its Western partners to its suggestion that further talks were "impossible" due to the obduracy of the opposition. He added that "no one believes that the authorities are ready for talks. This is just another attempt to ensure that the majority is not blamed if the Venice Commission meeting falls through."
Any Spirit Of Compromise?
Some observers have suggested, however, that the major opposition parties, in particular the ENM and European Georgia that split from it early this year, had little interest in reaching consensus in light of their consistent opposition to Georgian Dream initiatives, possibly in hopes of benefiting from a polarization of the political landscape. In addition, according to analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze, they do not stand to gain much from the transition to the fully proportional system, while smaller parties would benefit only in the event that Georgian Dream amended the draft to reverse its abolition of electoral blocs. (Doing so was reportedly one of the concessions Georgian Dream was still prepared to make.)
Former parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili commented prior to Georgian Dream’s September 1 announcement that he doubted whether the two sides would reach agreement in Strasbourg after failing to do so in Tbilisi. "I had not noticed that the air in Strasbourg has some unique quality and that after breathing it in, people are more amenable to changing their minds," he quipped.
Predictably, some opposition parties, including the ENM, have nonetheless laid the blame for the breakdown of the talks squarely on Georgian Dream. Others take a more nuanced view. Mamuka Katsitadze, leader of the extraparliamentary New Rightists, told the news portal Caucasian Knot that "responsibility for the breakdown in the dialogue [under the aegis] of the Venice Commission lies with the ruling party and partly with the parliamentary opposition, which declared that it would go to that meeting on condition that Georgian Dream announced what concessions it was prepared to make."
Venice Commission Secretary Thomas Markert too said it would be wrong to blame only one side, given that each genuinely wanted to achieve consensus, albeit on its own terms. He predicted that Georgian Dream would make unspecified changes to the draft prior to the final reading.
Venice Commission President Buquicchio has issued a statement describing the failure of the two camps to reach agreement as "disappointing." He said it was now essentially up to them to resume negotiations with the aim of "reaching a broad consensus…through productive dialogue" and there was no further need for Venice Commission involvement in that process.
He added, however, that "we expect to receive shortly the revised draft of the constitution from the Georgian authorities and will issue an opinion on it in one month, at the October plenary session." Buquicchio further expressed the hope that the Georgian parliament will incorporate the Venice Commission’s comments and proposals into the draft before passing it in the third and final reading.
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