Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
A $2-billion investment fund, the limits to bipartisanship, and the hazards of adultery, both political and personal, were, on February 5, among the many talking points of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who spent hours filling in Georgia about his cabinet's first months in office.
The televised parley between Ivanishvili and a roomful of journalists offered a peek into his plans, but, more significantly, into possible tensions within his ruling Georgian-Dream coalition.
Looking ahead to Georgia's presidential vote in October, Ivanishvili tossed out the observation that the respected, circumspect constitutional lawyer Vakhtang Khmaladze, a Georgian Dream parliamentarian, is a better fit for the head of state, than, say, the handsome and ambitious defense minister, Irakli Alasania.
And here is where the discussion took a bizarre turn. Ivanishvili alleged that President Mikheil Saakashvili's team is trying to seduce Defense Minister Alasania into switching sides. Quite literally, too.
In response to a reporter's question, Ivanishvili acknowledged that he had requested an explanation from Alasania about an alleged trip he made to Dubai, and then to France with the wife of a key Saakashvili loyalist, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, and another companion.
There had been, he told reporters, "a little misunderstanding in Dubai" and "we should forget this."
“Everyone can make a mistake, and Alasania is still a young man," he elaborated. "As for the France trip and the wife, all of that is very personal and I don’t pry into personal matters."
Rather, he discusses them in a televised press conference.
Let’s get this, well, straight. The Georgian parliament's deputy speaker, Manana Kobakhidze, is a heterosexual woman and, in her words, nothing, not even all the bureaucratic institutions of Europe, can change that.
You might wonder why 41-year-old Kobakhidze, a longtime civil-rights activist, feels obliged to share this information. But, in today's Georgia, consumed by feuding between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition and President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, politicians' attitudes toward homosexuality are a topic that has come out of the closet and can be used as ammunition by either side.
In Kobakhidze's case, it all began last weekend, when the center-right French daily Le Figaro published a story portraying the ongoing arrests and investigations of some of Saakashvili's political nearest and dearest as a vindictive witch hunt by a government with questionable democratic credentials.
The paper quoted Kobakhidze*, a Georgian Dream member, as noting that the Saakashvili administration had believed that the defense of all minorities, sexual included, was inherent to a democracy, but that the European concept that all citizens are equal is hard for Orthodox Georgia to accept.
Le Figaro claimed that the comment made French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, an outspoken opponent of gay marriages, look like "a leftist."
Responding to Le Figaro's article, LGBT groups, rights activists and prominent Saakashvili supporters quickly attacked Kobakhidze as a homophobe; particularly on Facebook, where much of Georgia's debates now take place.