Georgia votes on turning West, not East

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili (L) shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) during their meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia, 25 March 2019. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

Despite the Russian occupation, COVID-19 and the economic recession in the world, Georgia continues to strengthen its democracy – the government is currently preparing for Parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020, writes Archil Talakvadze.

Archil Talakvadze is the Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia.

Building wider consensus around the election system, Parliamentary legislation, voting, counting and the other elements needed to ensure free and fair elections does not always move speedily.

Development of democracy takes time in every society – The United States’ democracy continues to develop over 200 years after its founding; Britain’s Parliamentary democracy has evolved over even longer.

For young democracies, such as Georgia – thrust into the world as an independent nation again in 1991 at the end of the USSR – few issues are as important as ensuring that our democratic development continues, and accelerates, as we continue our push towards full membership of the free, Western, democratic world.

The next 14 days will mark one of the most important democratic advances in modern Georgian history, as our Parliament votes on a revision of the Constitution to introduce a new Electoral Reform.

The reform will further entrench proportional, representative Parliamentary democracy as the foundation for Georgia’s future development – the agreement was facilitated by the US State Department and the EU Commission, and a commitment to implement the reforms was signed on 8th March in Tbilisi by both the government and the major opposition parties.

The new electoral system is valuable in and of itself, because it implements a better, fairer and more proportional electoral system. This will be in place ahead of the Parliamentary elections in October this year.

However, it is also valuable for another reason – and this, too, is crucial for Georgia’s future and emphasizes the importance of the vote in Parliament over the coming days. The reform is a major milestone in Georgia’s journey towards full membership of the Western alliance of free nations.

This is the goal of my party, Georgian Dream, and our agenda for government. The UK’s strength as a democracy lies not only in systems and institutions, but also in its network and alliances of like-minded free nations. It is that to which we aspire.

Under Georgian Dream, we have become only the second non-NATO country accepted into the NATO-endorsed MISP cybersecurity platform. Georgia contributes the largest number of troops, per capita, to the NATO Mission in Afghanistan. We work closely with UK, US and EU counterparts on exposing and combating Russian disinformation campaigns and cybersecurity attacks.

Our desire to join you in the brotherhood of free, Western nations is born of a simple historical reality. Georgia has suffered in recent centuries, painful oppression and suppression. Freedom, democracy, prosperity: these are not merely abstract ideas. To Georgians, including generations still alive today, they were dreams that endured through the nightmare of Soviet dictatorship.

Now, having made so much progress since 1991, we have another opportunity to take a major leap forward. We can ensure that no future generation of Georgians will face the loss of democracy, as our forefathers did.

Our Western partners have an important role to play in the coming days. Regrettably, some politicians in Tbilisi are focused more on holding the country to ransom, rather than rising to the moment. This includes some opposition parties threatening to withhold support for the reform unless their subjective demands are met.

As a government we are committed to pursuing a mature and inclusive approach to achieve the ultimate goal that we have set for ourselves. However, in the face of a concerted effort to sabotage the essential reform, support from Georgia’s international friends is needed.

The European and American Embassies in Tbilisi have called for “all sides to fully implement the agreement in both letter and spirit and to play their part to ensure the successful adoption of the constitutional amendments and the election reform legislation”.

As Speaker, I agree wholeheartedly. Since 4th June, I have led a (virtual) consultation process between Members of Parliament and the Georgian public, to answer questions and hear their views. It is clear that the reform has overwhelming support amongst the public.

The longer-term goal of applying for membership of the EU and NATO has similar levels of support: 80 per cent of Georgians approve of these goals.

This electoral reform therefore has the support of the Georgian people; the United States; and the European Union. It is to be hoped that the opposition parties will now rise to meet the seriousness of the moment, and abandon their political game-playing. They must now join with Georgian Dream in passing a valuable reform that is essential for our future.

This month could mark a new chapter, as 3.7m people in Georgia take another bold step away from the dark history of autocracy and oppression and towards a bright future as one of the free, democratic nations of the Western world.

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