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Georgia Moves Towards Europe, Considers Constitutional Reforms

By Gela Kalandadze May 16, 2017

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The European Union flag is projected on the government building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Dec. 18, 2016 / David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

Georgia is continuing its pursuit of European integration as its parliament deliberates constitutional reforms – but not without concerns from experts, opposition lawmakers, and activist groups within the country.

Constitutional amendments under consideration include some that will fundamentally change Georgia’s governance institutions, like abolishing the direct election of the president, moving parliament to fully proportional representation, and setting what some see as a high barrier for representation in parliament.

Georgia’s president is currently elected by direct popular vote, for a five-year term and eligible for a second term. If the proposed amendments pass, the president could be elected by a special 300-member council comprised of lawmakers and regional representatives, without public debate.

Currently 77 seats in the 150-member, unicameral Sakartvelos Parlamenti, or parliament, are elected in a single nationwide constituency. In this system, seats are given to rank-ordered politicians from the winning parties and distributed proportionally to the percentage of the national vote won by each party. The remaining 73, local constituency-based seats are elected directly by a simple majority vote, similar to how federal Representatives and Senators are elected to the U.S. Congress.

If the constitutional amendments pass, all 150 seats in parliament will be subject to proportional representation, and the direct election of representatives will be abolished.

“Using a proportional system allows all political parties in the country to run for and win parliamentary seats,” explained Farhad Mehdiyev, an international law expert based in Baku, to Caspian News.

“This is good in terms of embracing all kinds of political views in the country. However, the negative side to using this system is that even the smallest parties could be represented in the country’s legislature, which in turn makes it more difficult to form a government,” he added.

Another amendment under consideration requires political parties to secure at least five percent of the national vote in order to gain seats in parliament. If a party does not, its votes would automatically go to the party that receives a majority of votes, rather than be distributed proportionally among all parties that have cleared the five percent threshold.

Opposition legislators and non-government organizations (NGOs) have publically denounced the proposed changes, saying it will only enable the current ruling party, Georgian Dream, to grab more seats in parliament. Georgian Dream, which has been pushing the amendments, currently controls the legislative chamber, with 116 seats.

Now under deliberation in parliament, the amendments are expected to be put to a parliamentary vote sometime in the fall and will require a three-fourths majority, or at least 113 votes, in two consecutive sessions.

But before that happens, the commission is sending the draft amendments to the Council of Europe’s (COE) Venice Commission, an advisory body composed of independent legal experts, for review and approval. Although this step is not required under Georgian law, lawmakers want to ensure any proposed changes to the constitution meet European standards.

Support for integration with the West runs high in Georgia, both with the public and in government, and joining the EU and NATO are among the country's top foreign policy goals. Eager to comply with EU norms, the Chairperson of Georgia’s parliament and the head of the State Constitutional Commission Irakli Kobakhidze has vowed that no changes would be made to the constitution without the consent of the Venice Commission. 

"We have developed a very sophisticated document through a broad engagement, which is in line with the constitutional principles and introduces very sophisticated model of governance, which is based on the best practices of the European countries," Kobakhidze said in April.

But not all Georgian lawmakers agree with Kobakhidze’s assessment.

Earlier this month opposition parties and activists banded together to form a movement labeled “Protect Constitution,” and signed a declaration against the planned changes, which they say meet only the interests of Georgian Dream.

Nicolas Berliner, the US Deputy Ambassador to Georgia, said in April, “We are watching this process. Talks and debates are under way; the process is not completed. The Venice Commission will discuss and present its recommendations. This is a very important process for Georgia,” indicating that any change to Georgia’s governing system matters to the country’s closest global ally. 

A preliminary report by the Venice Commission is expected before June, with final recommendations made by the summer.

Although Georgia has struggled with modern democratic reforms since its independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has made strides to bring its policies and procedures in line with European standards.

In January, a report by the COE Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) acknowledged Georgia’s progress in reducing corruption and improving its standing in related international ratings. 

“The government has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, and Georgia’s scores in corruption perception indices have also improved considerably over the last decade,” read the report summarizing GRECO’s findings.

“At the same time. . . some of the more complex types of corruption remain a problem. Moreover, citizens apparently continue to mistrust the judiciary more than other institutions,” the reported noted.

Later in March representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Monitoring Committee undertook a four-day fact-finding mission to Georgia to study its politics, governing institutions, and constitutional and judicial reforms. Its report, delivered in Strasbourg on April 27, reflects that the country has made progress in honoring its commitments towards European integration, but concerns – particularly with the judiciary and the proposed constitutional amendments – remain.

Specifically a prohibition on party blocs in elections, and the five percent threshold requirement for parliamentary representation, concern PACE. These issues undermine Georgian authorities’ stated goal to strengthen political parties and implement multi-party representation in parliament, according to PACE’s representatives.