Pulling a Putin

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may be preparing to steal a play from his archrival's playbook in order to keep his grip on power.

More than two years after their violent short war, Russia and Georgia have forged a cold peace. But it’s a bitter, fragile one: Russia exerts ever stronger influence over Abkhazia, the larger of Georgia’s two breakaway provinces, and has effectively swallowed South Ossetia. Tbilisi considers Russia an occupier of its territory and deeply resents what it sees as Moscow’s bullying policies in its near neighborhood and authoritarianism at home.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a sworn enemy of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appears to be seriously thinking about emulating the political sleight of hand performed by his antagonist in Moscow. Under this scenario, Saakashvili would force through changes to Georgia’s Constitution, paving the way for him to swap the presidency for a greatly empowered premiership and hence remain in charge in Tbilisi once his second and final term expires in 2013.

At the heart of the speculation is Saakashvili’s constitutional reform process, which began in the spring of 2009. In what he claimed was an effort to bridge the antagonism between the ruling and opposition parties that has deepened since the authorities’ violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in November 2007, the president proposed a multiparty constitutional commission. Its task was to draft changes to the constitutional amendments that Saakashvili had pushed through in 2004, which concentrated power in the presidency. But most figures in the opposition opted against participating, seeing the process as an attempt by Saakashvili to create an illusion of consensus when none existed.

The opposition’s decision to cede the political field to Saakashvili, together with the ruling party’s overwhelming majority in Parliament, has given the president a free hand to alter the rules of the game as he sees fit. The reforms currently on the table also might offer a hint of his future intentions: The amendments would endow the prime minister with significant new powers in foreign and domestic policy and make him a de facto chief executive, at the expense of the president who would retain the role of the head of state and commander in chief. The largely toothless Parliament would only get marginal new powers. The proposed changes were introduced into Parliament in late September and are expected to be passed before the end of October, despite strong pushback from opposition parties.

Saakashvili denounces critics who assert that he intends to entrench himself. He insists he will put reform first and that the proposed changes will not enable any one individual to grab power. Yet he has also conspicuously refused to rule out becoming prime minister. In June he told Le Monde, "I’ve been thinking about that possibility [of becoming prime minister], but too many uncertainties remain for now. Who knows what the economic situation will be in two years, or condition of constitutional reform, or my mood and political rating?"

If Saakashvili seems unsure, in Tbilisi many of the opposition parties and analysts have no doubt that the president intends to become prime minister. One prominent opposition leader, Irakli Alasania, has declared, "The proposed model is an attempt to tailor the new model personally on Saakashvili." Another, Nino Burjanadze, has said, "I am sure that the new draft Georgian Constitution is connected to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to extend his powers and to continue to rule the country as prime minister."

The opposition has reason to worry. Although the last few years have produced some much-needed reforms, Saakashvili has also repeatedly co-opted the language of democracy to camouflage his moves to strengthen his grip on power. For example, for all the government’s talk of the need to reform the judiciary, its failure to do so has been strongly criticized by friendly governments, including the United States. The executive has similarly espoused the importance of media freedom. But since it forcibly closed the opposition TV station Imedi in 2007, no fully independent nationwide TV channel has broadcast in the country.

Of course, it would be relatively straightforward to refute the speculation. Saakashvili could declare that he will not run for prime minister and include in the amendments a provision giving effect to that declaration, as prominent opposition figures have suggested he do. Further provisions could be introduced to increase the authority and independence of the Parliament. There could be genuine consultation with the opposition parties instead of the largely token talks to date. The proposed reforms could be subjected to review and endorsement by the new Parliament due to be elected in 2012.

Western governments have generally remained silent on what they assert is an internal matter. They are faced with an ongoing dilemma — whether to support a Western-aligned and ostensibly reformist head of state, or to challenge his heavy-handed tendencies. Since the war with Russia, geostrategic calculations have caused them to largely opt for the former.

As for Saakashvili, he has much to be proud of, despite some missteps. He has dragged Georgia into the 21st century, modernized its economy, and laid the foundations for durable democratic government. But if he wants his legacy to be that of a genuine reformer, and not a post-Soviet style authoritarian like Putin, then he must entrench democratic reform, step down from power in 2013, and allow Georgians to choose their future leaders for themselves.

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