Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has announced she is pardoning two opposition leaders, Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili.
‘I am not pardoning political prisoners — because there are no political prisoners in Georgia’, Zurabishvili said.
‘Luckily, we live in a democratic state’, the President continued. ‘I don’t pardon innocent people. A criminal remains a criminal. They are free of punishment but not the crime committed. Pardoning does not mean changing the verdict. I don't pardon anyone on the request of others, or because of threats or pressure.’
The issue of their release had threatened to torpedo a crucial deal reached between Georgian opposition groups and the ruling Georgian Dream Party to reform the electoral system before October’s Parliamentary elections.
The opposition had made their release a precondition for supporting the reforms.
‘I think that considering circumstances, it is my duty to find a solution, neutralise the situation, and maintain the stability of the country’s international prestige, Zurabishvili said.
‘I cannot allow the situation to deteriorate because of two people. I can’t allow polarisation and confrontation. I cannot allow an agreement recognised by the international community to be left unfulfilled.’
‘Otherwise, the country will not be able to cope with either the coronavirus or economic and social challenges. Our stable, democratic, and European future depends on this.’
Georgian Dream executive chair Irakli Kobakhidze said the party did not know of the president’s decision until she announced it publicly on Friday evening. Zurabishvili was elected as an independent candidate despite receiving the support of Georgian Dream.
‘The president might have had her pragmatic opinion […] We don’t agree with the president that keeping these two criminals in prison could have caused any problems within or outside the country’, Kobakhidze said.
Ugulava is one of the leaders of the largest parliamentary opposition group, European Georgia, and a former Mayor of Tbilisi (2005–2013). He was sentenced to 38 months in prison on 10 February for embezzlement.
Okruashvili, a former Defence Minister (2004–2006) is the leader of the recently formed Victorious Georgia Party. He was sentenced on 13 April to five years in prison for ‘violence’ during a 20 June anti-government protest.
Threats of a boycott
The reforms are part of an agreement reached on 8 March between the ruling Georgian Dream Party and a wide spectrum of opposition and groups. It brought an end to months of political deadlock and street protests that began in June 2019.
The deal was brokered by Western diplomats in Tbilisi two weeks before the government announced a state of emergency over the COVID-19 outbreak.
Parliamentary opposition groups European Georgia and the United National Movement had vowed they would not vote for the reforms until three ‘political prisoners’ were released, insisting this was part of the March deal.
The third, Giorgi Rurua, is a co-founder of opposition-leaning TV company Mtavari and a vocal supporter of last year’s anti-government protests. He was charged with illegal arms possession in November and remains in pre-trial detention.
The government repeatedly denied that there were any political prisoners in Georgia to free or that the releases demanded by the opposition were part of the deal.
In a joint statement on 11 May, the main facilitators of the deal — the US Embassy in Tbilisi, the EU Delegation to Georgia, and the Council of Europe — called on all sides to ‘uphold the letter and spirit of both parts’ of the deal.
They reiterated that one part of the deal focused on ‘addressing the appearance of political interference in the judicial system’.
Jim Risch, Chair of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, did not mince his words in calling for the ‘release of political prisoners’ in Georgia.
I expect Georgia’s political parties to fully implement their March agreement, including the release of political prisoners and progress towards a new electoral system. https://t.co/0nSWlZN9gJ
— U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SenateForeign) May 12, 2020
What’s in the electoral reforms
Faced with large street protests in the capital Tbilisi in June over the invitation of a Russian MP to address parliament, Georgian Dream bowed to one of the protesters demands promising to introduce a fully-proportional electoral system. The party backtracked over the decision in October voting down their own proposals.
The March deal would increase the number of MPs elected proportionally while still retaining some single-member majoritarian constituencies.
Georgia’s current 150-member parliament is composed of 77 proportionally elected MPs and 73 from majoritarian constituencies. The changes would mean 120 MPs would be elected proportionally and 30 would come from majoritarian constituencies.
More proportional systems tend to allow more smaller parties to enter parliament and make it more difficult for a single party to gain a majority of seats.