Georgia's Premier Proposes New Democratic Reforms

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia, July 20 -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili proposed new democratic reforms Monday ahead of a visit by Vice President Biden, promising to hold direct mayoral elections for the first time next year and to help an opposition cable channel beam its signal nationally.

The measures also include new limits on the president's powers and steps to strengthen the courts. They appear intended to help repair Saakashvili's tattered reputation as Biden arrives this week for talks on subjects including U.S. concerns about democratic backsliding in Georgia.

Embraced by the Bush administration as a pro-Western reformer, Saakashvili has come under increased scrutiny at home and abroad since his nation's defeat in a war with Russia last year. Since April, the opposition has staged protests denouncing him as a dictator, saying he betrayed the ideals of the 2003 Rose Revolution, which put him in power, and lost a fifth of Georgia's territory in a reckless war.

Saakashvili, speaking to parliament with a few hundred protesters camped outside in makeshift tents representing jail cells, pledged a "renewed commitment to strengthen our democratic institutions." He urged critics to leave the streets and join him in pursuing "a continual opening of our political system."

Addressing complaints of pro-government bias at the nation's top television stations, Saakashvili said he will help a "hostile" opposition cable channel in Tbilisi deliver its signal via satellite to the entire country within 30 days and will give the opposition greater representation on the public television board.

He also promised to establish a new electoral code and appoint a new election commission by October, with a chairman acceptable to the opposition. He said early local elections will be held in May, including a mayoral race in Tbilisi that could serve as a platform for an opposition candidate to win a national audience.

Though Saakashvili's poll numbers have fallen sharply, the opposition in Georgia is divided and has struggled to gain momentum against him. Several parties boycotted parliament after an election last year, a move that hurt them with a public skeptical of their ability to govern.

But Saakashvili suggested that parliament could let them take their seats. He also invited opposition leaders to attend meetings of his national security council, as well as Biden's address to parliament on Thursday.

"I frankly feel that this process of dialogue and reform is moving too slowly," he said. "The people cannot wait. The reforms cannot wait. Georgia cannot wait."

Several opposition leaders immediately dismissed the proposed reforms and renewed their demand for Saakashvili to call early presidential elections and step down.

"I was surprised at the emptiness of these proposals," said Salome Zourabichvili, leader of the Georgia's Way party. "He is just repeating existing proposals we have heard already so many times."

Levan Gachechiladze, a former presidential candidate, said the proposed reforms "do not address Saakashvili's abuse of human rights, his abuse of independent business, media, courts and elections."

In a pre-trip briefing last week, Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, endorsed "a deepening of Georgia's democracy" and appeared to suggest that Saakashvili should stay in office through the end of his second term in 2013.

"There's been an incredibly vigorous political debate. . . . And now I think to move forward, the government, the opposition, civil society need to cooperate on constitutional reform, on electoral reform, and to prepare Georgia for the first end-of-term electoral transfer of power in its history when the president is eventually up for reelection," he said.

Biden arrived Monday in Ukraine and is scheduled to travel Wednesday to Georgia. His trip is designed to show U.S. support for the two former Soviet republics as the Obama administration seeks to improve relations with Russia.

Special correspondent Sarah Marcus contributed to this report.

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