If those behind a petition claimed to have a million signatures have their way, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili will step down in about a week, rather than a year from now when his term of office is scheduled to end.
Saakashvili, for the moment, is showing no sign of going and rival campaign has been initiated to gather petitions for him to stay.
On January 10 2013, media reports quoted activists from the Unity and Human Rights NGO as saying that they had gathered more than million signatures calling for Saakashvili to resign as president by January 20, on the eve of the anniversary of his 2008 inauguration.
The drama is taking place in the context of questions about re-orientation of Georgia’s relations with Russia after the October 2012 parliamentary election victory of tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili and his party.
Initially, Ivanishvili urged Saakashvili to step down against the background of the defeat of Saakashvili’s party but the new prime minister then reversed himself, taking a more moderate line and disassociating himself from calls for the president to go.
The campaign against Saakashvili is basing itself not on the 2012 political rejection of him but on the argument that, in spite of constitutional amendments that said that a president should remain in office until his successor is inaugurated – which is why Saakashvili could be in office until January 2014 although the presidential election is in October 2013, the same constitution limits a president to a term of five years, and that on January 21, Saakashvili’s five years are up.
For all Ivanishvili’s stated moderate tone to his rival, the new administration has been at pains to trim the wings of the man widely seen in the West as the key actor in the re-orientation of his country away from Moscow. Trimming his wings, literally – as reported, rather gleefully, by Russian media in December, Saakashvili was deprived of the right to a personal aircraft, command of his security detail had been transferred to the government, the size of his motorcade and the number of his residences had been reduced and control of the foreign intelligence service would, reportedly, be transferred away from the president’s office. To cap this, a changing of the guard in the diplomatic corps also was said to be on the cards.
Changes, too, in relations with Russia. Not merely the reported plans to reverse previous intentions of a boycott by Georgia of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia but, much more significantly, Ivanishvili’s intentions, stated in late December 2012, of holding direct talks with Russia. Such engagements between Tbilisi and Moscow would be the first since the armed conflict of late summer 2008.
Ivanishvili campaigned in 2012 on the issue of striving for normalisation of ties with Russia. The concept of the talks is to focus on bilateral economic and trade relations because starting with the issue of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that unilaterally sought to break away from Georgia and did so with Russian backing, would probably scuttle any prospect of normalisation before it could be launched.
Ivanishvili, speaking in December, welcomed Russia’s intention to resume imports from Georgia. Before the fighting in 2008, Russia was Georgia’s largest trading partner.
Widely perceived as pro-Russian before his election, Ivanishvili also has pledged to keep the country on its course towards Euro-Atlantic integration, a pledge the veracity of which will take time to assess.
In December 2012, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov – during a tour of the Caucasus by delegations from Bulgaria, Sweden and Poland – said that he was pleased that “we have heard from everyone that there is consensus in Georgian society on accession to the EU and Nato”.
The delegations from the three EU countries met Ivanishvili, Saakashvili and Cabinet and parliamentary leaders.
Mladenov described the visit as an expression of friendship towards the Georgian people, because it is united in its desire to integrate into Europe and, in a constructive way, to achieve a solution regarding the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to normalise relations with Russia.
Saakashvili, as noted, for now shows no sign of simply walking away.
In a New Year’s address on Georgian television, he proposed to Ivanishvili’s government a five-point agenda that Saakashvili said would help reverse the “downward spiral” towards “chaos”. As reported by Radio Free Europe, Saakashvili said that Ivanishvili’s government had made a number of mistakes, including focusing on the destruction of political opponents rather than on its promises to improve socio-economic conditions.
Saakashvili’s proposals included refraining from insulting rhetoric, maintaining relations with the West, and an international conference to be co-chaired by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili, aimed at “restoring” the confidence of potential domestic and international investors.
With prospects for endorsement of this plan unlikely, all that remains in the chill Tbilisi air, amid the continuing public protests by those campaigning for Saakashvili to go, are the procedural difficulties that Ivanishvili’s party would encounter if it sought impeachment of the president, and the statement by Ivanishvili himself towards the end of 2012 that he did not want Saakashvili impeached because this would be too much like “political revenge”.
The latter, apparently, being a vice that no one says they want to indulge in.
(Main photo: epp.eu)