Parliament leader David Usupashvili: Georgia, a democratic dream in the making

This week, a Georgian dream many thought unimaginable becomes true. I am visiting Washington, D.C., as chairman of Georgia’s Parliament — the result of the first-ever peaceful transition of power to an opposition party in my country’s history. 

Last October, after more than 20 years of post-Soviet authoritarian rule, the Georgian Dream coalition, led by businessman and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose Western leanings and early reforms won him many friends in the West. But his later years were marked by human rights violations, elite corruption and arbitrary behavior at all levels of government. A year ago, more people thought we would be in jail in 2013 than serving in Georgia’s Parliament or government.

Georgia’s American friends understood the importance of encouraging this momentous transformation. President Obama, Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many members of Congress joined their European partners to protect our fledgling opposition and ensure that the will of the majority of Georgian people was not subverted. I am here in Washington to personally thank them. There could be no stronger basis for continuing the strategic partnership between our two countries. 

Georgian Dream was elected to revitalize Georgia’s economy, restore democracy and rule of law to Georgia and deepen Euro-Atlantic integration. Our friends in the United States should rest assured that our determination to join both NATO and the European Union remains unchanged. We are in agreement with vital U.S. interests, including promoting security and stability in the Caucasus, exporting non-Russian controlled oil and gas from the Caspian, strengthening Europe’s integration and, above all, building a democratic model for post-Soviet states. 

Importantly, Georgia will remain the largest non-NATO provider of troops to the mission in Afghanistan and will train Afghan soldiers there after ISAF withdraws. Georgia will also serve as an essential transit point for U.S. troops and equipment leaving Afghanistan. 

However, Georgia must be a full-fledged democracy, not just a strong military ally, if it hopes to join NATO and the EU. To establish the rule of law, we are restoring the system of checks and balances, installing a full-fledged system of transparent and accountable governance, reforming the justice system, giving protections to defendants to end a 99 percent conviction rate, ending government impunity and eradicating torture in prisons. 

In this spirit, the necessary investigations of those high-level officials suspected of corruption, torture and other violations of human rights during the previous government will be conducted with full legal protections and international transparency. A blanket amnesty will also be provided to all government employees, except for violent crimes. Press and international monitors, including those from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, EU and human rights groups have been provided full access to all high-profile investigations and trials to address any concerns. At the request of Prime Minister Ivanishvili, the EU has appointed former Council of Europe High Commissioner on Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg as special adviser for legal and constitutional reform and human rights in Georgia.  

As we came to power in an election, not a revolution, we are seeking to maintain stability based on democracy and rule of law. We have to move forward without undermining the previous government’s achievements. The transition has not always been smooth, as Georgia is inexperienced with power sharing, but our commitment to democracy and Western values is unshakable.

Unfortunately, there is a problem that is undermining our efforts at further reform. Even though his government was removed from office, Saakashvili himself remains in power until October of this year. Because of constitutional reforms he enacted in 2004, Saakashvili has the power to dismiss the prime minister and his government and arbitrarily appoint a replacement without parliament’s approval and against the will of the people expressed in the recent elections. Georgia is the only democracy in the world where a head of state has this authority. We have proposed a simple constitutional amendment to require parliamentary approval of any new government, but Saakashvili refuses to give up this anti-democratic power, contributing further to the atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust that still burdens Georgian political life. 

We hope to resolve this issue soon so we can focus all our energy on unlocking Georgia’s economic potential, but until we do, the dream of Georgia’s new democracy hangs in the balance. Coming to Washington during the sequester debate, I understand how hard compromise can be, but as a career constitutional lawyer, I also see the beauty of American liberty in even the most heated debate. As we work to create “a more perfect union” in both our countries, I remain optimistic that Georgia will someday soon join America as a truly shining beacon of democracy.

Usupashvili is the chairman of the Parliament of Georgia. Prior to his election, he was chairman of Georgia’s Republican Party and founding chairman of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association.