War of letters reveals Georgia’s political tensions

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The chairman of the Georgian Parliament has responded strongly to criticism from the European Parliament’s centre-right European People’s Party bloc that Tbilisi’s Prime Minister could "close European doors" by backsliding on democratic reform.

Twenty-three MEPs published an open letter to Georgia's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on 6 March, accusing him of backsliding on democracy.

The signatories include Jerzy Buzek, erstwhile Polish premier and former European Parliament president, Elmar Brok, who heads Parliament's foreign affairs committee, and former Lithuanian head of state Vytautas Landsbergis - all three affiliated to the European People's Party (EPP).

The 23 MEPs listed a litany of grievances, including public pressure on legislators; pressure on the judiciary and the public broadcaster; inflammatory rhetoric and use of mobs to silence political opponents; and the frequent use of hate speech.

Georgia's “European perspective” could be compromised under such circumstances, the MEPs warned.

Since elections on 1 October (see background) the political situation in Georgia has been marked by a standoff between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili’s camp has been repeatedly accused of amplifying its messages using lobbyists and a number of conservative Western politicians.

>> Read: Georgian foreign minister lashes out at EU centre-right party

David Usupashvili, Chairman of the Georgian Parliament and chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, which is part of the Ivanishvili-led ‘Georgian Dream’ coalition, wrote to the 23 MEPs, asking them to check their facts before throwing accusations.

“Please do not set President Saakashvili and his former regime as a standard as it would be an insult to Europe […] I urge you to abstain from signing statements based on unsubstantiated claims, as you will soon feel embarrassed for your actions,” Usupashvili wrote in a letter dated 10 March.

He strongly rejected the MEP's assertion that Tbilisi's pro-European stance could be threatened by the current administrations intent to axe a constitutional provision allowing the President to sack a government and appoint a new one without parliamentary approval.

Ivanishvili and Saakashvili met on 4 March for the second time after the October elections. The news website Civil Georgia quoted Ivanishvili saying that Saakashvili had not given him a clear answer on whether he supported the proposed constitutional amendment.

Although ‘Georgian Dream’ holds a majority in Parliament, this falls short of the 100 seats required to pass constitutional reforms. Saakashvili has downplayed the issue, saying he has no intention of using this constitutional right to sack the sitting government and appoint a new one without Parliament’s approval.

Saakashvili has reportedly complained that activists from his his United National Movement (UNM) were being persecuted as well as mid-level officials from the previous government. He also complained about attacks on the judiciary, which he said was under threat from the authorities, and the new government’s “campaign to impose political control over the media”.

Local media quoted Ivanishvili as saying that this was a "pot calling the kettle black" kind of argument, suggesting that Saakashvili was responsible of similar wrong-doings while his own UNM party was in power.

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