Monday, 23 May 2011

Moving the Georgian parliament - divide and rule?

Georgia appears to be going through one of its periodic cycles of street protests. Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets broke up anti-government protests in Tbilisi and Batumi over the weekend. The fact that only a few thousand took part, and that several anti-government groups boycotted the demonstrations, suggests that the country's opposition forces are still incapable of mounting a serious challenge to President Saakashvili.

Still, the opposition are building up an upcoming Egyptian-style 'Day of Rage' as a big deal: former defence minister and leader of the (admittedly minor) Georgian Party, Irakli Okruashvili, has declared that this Wednesday, May 25, will “hit a final blow to the Saakashvili regime” and has called on the army to side with the people. The lack of a unifying opposition candidate and a sense of 'protest fatigue' in Georgia means that despite the bombast, chances are that the 'Day of Rage' will not be as significant as its organisers are claiming.

But given Georgia's history of street politics, and the tradition of protestors surrounding and storming key buildings, a recent push by the government to relocate the Parliament from Tbilisi is raising eyebrows. The plan was originally agreed in September 2009, and involved splitting the legislature's work between Tbilisi and Kutaisi, around 220km west of Tbilisi. But last week President Saakashvili suggested that the parliament would move all its operations there after the 2012 elections.

The government insists that the move is designed to boost regional development and reduce the country's overreliance on Tbilisi. But as points out, after 2012 Georgia's new constitution will come into force, under which the country will become a parliamentary republic. So relocating the parliament would mean relocating the whole of the government, leaving the newly ceremonial President to rattle around in Tbilisi on his own.

In light of the political climate, one wonders if shifting the Parliament isn't a case of divide and rule. Saakashvili seemed to hint as much when he said that all of Georgia's problems cannot be settled on Rustaveli Avenue. Moving the seat of government to Kutaisi, whilst the country's cultural heart remains in Tbilisi, would reduce the ability of protestors to focus their struggle on one key location. Repeating the Rose Revolution by storming the parliament in Kutaisi would not have quite the symbolic impact of doing so in Tbilisi.

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