Georgia's President Vows Changes

Georgia Materials 20 July 2009 16:24 (UTC +04:00)
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to unveil Monday moves to share more power and make elections more democratic in an attempt to mollify his critics and begin a comeback, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Georgia's President Vows Changes

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to unveil Monday moves to share more power and make elections more democratic in an attempt to mollify his critics and begin a comeback, reported The Wall Street Journal.

The address, before the country's parliament just days before a morale-boosting visit from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, follows three months of street protests by the president's political opponents, who continue to demand his resignation after losing a disastrous war against Russia last summer. His critics accuse him of increasing authoritarianism, of monopolizing the state media for his own ends and of using the police to repress protesters.

In the speech, parts of which have been reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Saakashvili pledges to set new local elections, to promise bigger media space for his adversaries and to offer the opposition seats on some decision-making bodies inside government.

The president said in the interview that after a "psychological turnaround" he realized his task was to modernize Georgia. He said his plan was to deepen democracy and ensure a peaceful transition of power when he steps down in 2013.

He also called the hopes of Georgia joining NATO "almost dead."

"It's tragic," he said. "It means the Russians fought for the right reasons."

Before the August war, Mr. Saakashvili spoke confidently of his country's accession to NATO and the European Union, and its imminent reunification with the two breakaway regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now, the president says achieving all three goals seems unlikely any time soon.

Adversaries remain skeptical of the move. "It's all blah, blah, blah," said opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, before he knew the details of the speech. "He has promised things before and there have been no results."

In the interview, Mr. Saakashvili denied the timing of his speech was linked to Vice President Biden's two-day visit, which starts on Wednesday, saying it was driven by domestic concerns.

"It's the right moment," he said. "The radical opposition is confused."

Vice President Biden will this week visit Georgia and Ukraine amid rising anxiety in both countries about what Washington's "reset" of relations with Russia means for the Kremlin's pro-Western neighbors. Aides say Mr. Saakashvili is keen to extract commitments from the U.S. in political, military and economic affairs after a period last fall when he felt "abandoned" by Western allies, including Washington.

"We know what the reset does not mean for Russia's neighbors," says one aide. "But so far, it has only been defined in negatives. We don't know tangibly and positively what it does mean."

Analysts say former Eastern-bloc countries, from Georgia to Poland, fear the Obama administration will put its goal of improved relations with Russia before their own relationships. Those fears were heightened when President Barack Obama visited Moscow earlier this month to formalize anew direction in relations after a long downward spiral in bilateral ties. In Moscow, President Obama mentioned the need to respect the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine -- both of which have troubled relations with Russia -- but many want him and other senior officials to send even stronger "back off" signals to Moscow.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of opposition supporters have taken to the streets to demand Mr. Saakashvili's resignation, portraying him as a power-crazed dictator who fought and lost an avoidable war with Russia.

But after more than 100 days of noisy protests that paralyzed the center of the capital, Tblisi, Mr. Saakashvili is still in office. His own pollsters say his approval rating fell to 38% in March, but rebounded to 43% in May.

Even participants say the protests, which still block downtown Tbilisi -- have fizzled. Daily gatherings in the searing summer heat rarely muster more than 200 people.

Yet, organizers are expected to gather a much larger crowd to show Mr. Biden that the opposition remains a force to be reckoned with.

The exclusively domestic content of Monday's speech underlines the new, less-promising political reality Georgia faces after Russian forces defeated its army last summer, allowing two breakaway Georgian republics to declare their independence.

Mr. Saakashvili said Mr. Putin wanted to replace him, referring to a comment Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made to French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the war.

"The biggest response I can have is to organize a smooth transition of power not controlled by the Russians," the president said. "It would tell the neighbors -- the people and not just the leaders -- that Putin is no longer the main street bully in the neighborhood."

But many opposition leaders say Mr. Saakashvili is part of the problem, not the solution. They say they will press Vice President Biden to link U.S. financial aid to Mr. Saakashvili's behavior in order to moderate it.

Some also insist that only a new president and administration will have the legitimacy to kick-start relations with Russia, which currently are nonexistent. Russia was Georgia's biggest trading partner before relations collapsed. They want Mr. Saakashvili to call a new election to renew his mandate.

"He hasn't done what any democratic leader should do after losing 20% of his country's territory [in a war]," says another opposition leader Salome Zourabachvili. "He needs to resign."