Georgia – New Old Debate on the Federal Model of Governance

According to the constitution, Georgia is a unitary state. Due to the current territorial-administrative arrangements and political situation, the final state-territorial model is supposed to be rearranged after the restoration of effective control on the entire territory of the country (within internationally recognized borders of Georgia).

In the early 1990s the re-establishment of Georgia’s independence was accompanied by internal political turbulence and two secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, former Soviet Autonomous Republics/Oblasts. Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue de facto statehood for more than two decades now and strengthen economic-military ties with Russia, demonstrating no intention to reintegrate with Georgia.

Since the mid 90ies, with Eduard Shevardnadze (1997-2003) in power, there have been several attempts to offer Abkhazia federal model of governance and wide autonomy, that later transformed into a proposal on asymmetric federalism; and finally, in 2007, President Saakashvili’s (2004-2013) the New Peace Initiative, among others included the post of vice-president and the veto power on the issues concerning Abkhazia.

Surprisingly so, the current government of Georgia, Coalition Georgian Dream (in power since October, 2012 – holding majority in the parliament) has not presented its vision on the restoration of the territorial integrity and moreover, renamed the former Ministry of Reintegration into a Ministry of Reconciliation and Civic Equality. The new ministry has followed the old strategy of the former Government – Engagement through Cooperation approved in 2010.

In this light, the statement of Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, Paata Zakareishvili that Georgia is ready to discuss the model of federal governance where Abkhazia will be granted special status was understood as a demonstration of the new vision of Georgian Dream government towards the breakaway regions.

“Under the Constitution of Georgia, we would like to offer our people on the occupied territories protected political and civil rights. Georgia is ready to discuss federal arrangement of the country. We have certain ideas on granting Abkhazia a special status. This issue has been discussed with our political opponents too. We are certainly ready to demonstrate more openness in this regards”, – said Mr. Zakareishvili on November 4, 2015 and stressed on the importance of taking European standards and approaches with regards to the issue.

Minister received harsh criticism from the both political spectrum and the society and was forced to  make clarifications on his previous statement by calling it a personal opinion and nothing related to the stance of the Coalition Georgian Dream with regards to the settlement of the conflict in Abkhazia. Furthermore, he added that currently federal model of governance is not discussed inside the government and more notably, the issue is not on the political agenda at all.

In his attempt to clarify on the previous statement, minister said that, unfortunately, Georgian society is not ready for such discussions and even the PM’s prominent statement on the self-determination of Abkhaz was ignored by the society.

“In 2004, as a result of the initiative of me and my friends an interesting document on the federalisation of Georgia was published. It is my personal opinion as a conflicts specialist, that the most effective way of conflicts settlement in Georgia is a federative model of governance – based on asymmetric regionalism, where the status of different regions will vary – Abkhaz must possess a special status. If anyone has a better idea, I would only welcome to see that proposal, since we have not seen any progress on this issue even after 10 years.

During the latest interview, Paata Zakareishvili confirmed his scepticism on the future of conflict settlement. “It [federal model of governance] will not be introduced during my ministry term. Our current objective is human rights in conflict zone and relations with Russia. Nowadays, the government’s task is not to define the status of Abkhazia but its primary objective is not to make mistakes that will lead to new provocations from Russia. However, this will not last forever, Georgia will develop peacefully, will become a European state and then, it will face the objective of defining status of Abkhazia. The society must be ready and determined about the territorial arrangements of the country. The only experience of common statehood that we share with Abkhazia is the Soviet Union. I don’t know about the times of David the Builder (king of Georgia) but we have no other experience of common statehood. Abkhazia was never the part of independent Georgia. Our generation has no memory of this, thus it did not happen in current European reality. That’s why the society must discuss how we are going to reintegrate Abkhazia into the Georgian state.” – Minister’s controversial opinion was condemned by all the wings of the political spectrum.

As in many other instances, the statement on the federal model of governance and the special status of Abkhazia has not geared wide public discussions but yet another internal feud in Georgia. Likewise, proposals on the federal model have been repeatedly rejected by the other side.  Unlike the Minister Zakareishvili, the government has not revealed its vision on the future of the conflict settlement yet and the intention of Georgian Dream on the restoration of territorial integrity of the country remains uncertain.

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