Opponents criticise Saakashvili's reform plans


OPPONENTS OF Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili have poured scorn on his call for national unity and plans for democratic reform on the eve of US vice president Joe Biden’s visit to the strategic Black Sea state.

Mr Saakashvili has weathered three months of street protests by critics who accuse him of failing to alleviate poverty and corruption and of cracking down on independent media and political opposition, and who blame him for last August’s brief but disastrous war with Russia. But his attempt to heal deep divisions in Georgian society by proposing electoral and government reform were mocked by opposition leaders, who dismissed his conciliatory speech to parliament as an international public relations exercise ahead of Mr Biden’s arrival today in Tbilisi.

“We should end the rhetoric of civil war and public confrontation,” Mr Saakashvili said.

“We should all understand that we should build our country not by shouting in the street, but by civilised means, through . . . a continual opening of our political system, a renewed commitment to strengthen our democratic institutions, and an acceleration of the reform process. The people cannot wait. The reforms cannot wait. Georgia cannot wait.”

Among the reforms, Mr Saakashvili proposed direct mayoral elections and early local polls, more balanced representation on the board of Georgia’s public broadcaster, increased power for parliament at the expense of the president and changes to the electoral code.

But precise changes to the balance of power would be worked out by a parliamentary commission, and there were few details on how the electoral system would be altered. “Saakashvili is trying to create the illusion of pluralism, but nothing he says can be taken seriously,” said one opposition leader, Eka Beselia. “The country is in deep crisis, we are demanding an early presidential election, but he is talking about municipal elections.”

Another prominent critic, Kakha Kukava, said this was the “the 16th or 17th repetition of these initiatives. Saakashvili’s speech demonstrates again the deep political crisis Georgia faces.”

Levan Gachechiladze, who came second in the 2008 presidential election, said Mr Saakashvili “always makes speeches like this when someone important is coming to town. He needs to understand that stepping down is the only solution.”

Mr Biden flies to Tbilisi today from Ukraine, where he assured pro-Western leaders that Washington’s bid to improve ties with Russia will not come at the expense of Moscow’s former Soviet neighbours.