TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, due to host Vice-President Joe Biden this week, pledged reforms on Monday to answer critics who say he has monopolized power in the former Soviet republic.
The 41-year-old president appears to have weathered a dwindling opposition street campaign to oust him over his record on democracy and last year’s disastrous war with Russia.
But beholden to the West to the tune of $4.5 billion in post-war aid, Saakashvili is under pressure to address concerns over democracy in Georgia in order to retain the support of Europe and the new U.S. administration under Barack Obama.
Opponents dismissed the speech as empty repetition.
“We should end the rhetoric of civil war and public confrontation,” Saakashvili told parliament. “We should all understand that we should build our country not by shouting in the street, but by civilized means, through elections.”
Among the reforms, he offered direct mayoral elections and early local polls, more balanced representation on the board of Georgia’s public broadcaster, increased power for parliament at the expense of the president and changes to the electoral code.
But precise changes to the balance of power would be left to an all-party parliamentary commission to work on, and there were few specifics on reform of the much-criticized electoral system.
Critics say Saakashvili, a staunch ally of Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, has vested too much power in an elite clique at the expense of parliament, stifled media and undermined the independence of the judiciary.
“This is the sixteenth or seventeenth repetition of these initiatives,” said Kakha Kukava, one of more than a dozen opposition leaders who launched street protests against the president in early April. “Saakashvili’s speech demonstrates again the deep political crisis Georgia faces,” he told Reuters.
The government says the 2003 “Rose Revolution” that ousted the post-Soviet old guard of President Eduard Shevardnadze is a work in progress.
But criticism has grown louder since last year’s five-day war, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia.
The Kremlin recognized both territories as independent states backed by Russian troops, dashing Georgian hopes of winning them back and shaking Western confidence in Georgia as a transit route for oil and gas.
Biden arrives in Georgia on Wednesday from Ukraine, a trip U.S. officials say is aimed at reassuring the U.S. allies they have not been abandoned in Washington’s efforts to “reset” ties with Russia. He will also call for reforms in Georgia.
Analysts say Obama — in need of Russian cooperation on arms control and Afghanistan — is taking a less aggressive approach than Bush to possible Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO, which Russia rejects as an encroachment on its borders.
Additional reporting and writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Ralph Boulton