Just when you least expected it, Georgia's politicians have found things to discuss – and agree on – without losing teeth or gaining a bloody nose in the process.
The ruling Georgian Dream coalition, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the opposition United National Movement, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, reportedly have made it to the verge of an agreement on planned constitutional reform.
The negotiations were led by Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili for the Georgian Dream and Parliamentary Minority Leader Davit Bakradze for the United National Movement; arguably, two of the most circumspect politicians from either side.
What prevents them from "getting to yes", though, is an amnesty proposal which, for outsiders, could raise as many questions about Georgia's legal system as it does about the current tense political environment.
The two sides have provided contradictory descriptions of the proposed amnesty.
Usupashvili claimed that the UNM has demanded an unconditional amnesty from criminal prosecution for all government officials, ranging from the president to town council chairpeople, for any liable activities, apart from violent or other severe crimes, up until November 1, 2012.
Bakradze, for his part, arguing that "15,000 people" have been questioned because of ties to the UNM, asserted that the amnesty is about stopping "political persecution." It would apply not to current or ex-head-honchos, but to "the thousands" of people going in for questioning "daily" – defined as those under the rank of a ministerial administrative chief's deputy, he said.
Experience, no doubt, explains the UNM's interest in the amnesty, though Bakradze told reporters it was proposed, rather, to protect the country from "constant conflicts." After its loss in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, the party has seen scores of its influential members and/or supporters arrested and/or questioned.
The Georgian Dream, which ran for parliament on the pledge of correcting alleged wrongdoings under those cabinets, sees such a full-ranging amnesty as an "injustice," explained Usupashvili, but has agreed to a conditional amnesty from criminal prosecution.
Under their proposal, middle and lower-ranking officials would receive a full amnesty from criminal prosecution, but more senior officials, ranging from the president down to the heads of city councils, would only be spared from criminal prosecution if they admit to the accusations against them. They would consequently be barred from running for public office for five years.
The question of what happens to the presumption of innocence in the process was not addressed. But to some Georgians, mindful of past armed conflicts over politics, the key issue at this moment is preserving the peace.
With both sides apparently pleased at their first go at bipartisanship, some controversial issues already have been placed in the "Done" box. Both sides agreed to enshrine Georgia’s pro-Western-policy orientation in the constitution. The Georgian Dream also nodded to the UNM's professed wish of diversifying development and political power centers by agreeing not to vote before the October presidential elections on moving the country's parliament out of the regional city of Kutaisi and back to the capital, Tbilisi.
In turn, the UNM took into account Georgian Dream fears of the presidential right to dissolve parliament during a political impasse and appoint a new cabinet without legislative consent . . . if it gets its desired amnesty.
No doubt weary of constitutional makeovers, the UNM also has requested that future constitutional reforms require 113 parliamentary votes, rather than the current 100.
The sides have also agreed to let the president continue to appoint regional governors and not to simplify the parliamentary procedure for overriding a presidential veto or for impeaching the president.
All told, although a final agreement seems a distant prospect, the discussions between Usupashvili and Bakradze, in public and private, brought a breath of much-needed bipartisanship into an environment dangerously bordering on civil confrontation. The two men, divided though they are, traded courtesies and commended each other for professional conduct.
Unlike earlier televised circuses, this time there was no smashing drinking glasses into smithereens or throwing punches.