A bilateral U.S.-Georgia democracy working group under the strategic partnership charter between the two countries met on April 12 in Tbilisi to discuss Georgia’s “efforts to further strengthen” democratic reforms.
Democracy working group is one of those four inter-agency bilateral groups, which were established to address priority areas of the U.S.-Georgia Strategic Partnership Charter, which was signed in January, 2009. Other priority areas of cooperation identified by the charter are defense and security, economic and people-to-people relations.
The U.S. delegation at the April 12 discussions included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Eric Rubin; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas Melia; the USAID Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Europe and Eurasia Paige Alexander.
The Georgian delegation was led by First Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Zalkaliani and Deputy Minister of Justice Gocha Lortkipanidze and it also included representatives from the judiciary and lawmakers from both the parliamentary majority and minority groups.
In a joint statement released after the meeting the working group said that continued U.S. support for Georgia’s democratic development had been underscored; it said that the October 2012 parliamentary elections and peaceful change of government were “positive steps in demonstrating Georgia’s progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration.”
“Diverse views were expressed in discussions focused on recognizing Georgia’s reform achievements to date and efforts to foster a constructive cohabitation period,” the statement reads. “The Working Group reviewed Georgia’s efforts to further strengthen democratic institutions, political pluralism and electoral processes, media freedom and access, rule of law and judicial independence and decentralized governance with a view toward Georgia’s achievement of its Euro-Atlantic integration goals.”
It also says that the working group discussed plans “to cultivate a competitive electoral environment” ahead of MP by-elections in three single-mandate constituencies on April 27, as well as ahead of presidential elections in October 2013 and local elections next year.
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia said that the working group spent “a fair amount of time discussing” reforming High Council of Justice (HCoJ), a body overseeing judicial system. The Parliament passed with its final reading on April 5 amendments to the law on common courts, envisaging change of rule of composition of HCoJ.
The bill has been sent to the President for signature, but it may be voted as President Saakashvili’s UNM party was strongly against of the bill, particularly of the provision under which authority of 13 out of 15 sitting members of HCoJ will be terminated; seven out of eight judge members of the HCoJ, however, will still be able to run for the seat and regain their membership if elected by the self-governing body of the judicially, Conference of Judges. Six seats will go to non-judge members, who should be confirmed by the Parliament.
“I think that it’s clear to us that there is a broad consensus that there is a need for reform of the operation of the judiciary and specifically in the construction of the high judicial council. We’ve heard competing visions of the best way forward today from different parties in our discussions,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia said and added that it would be important to select six non-judge members of HCoJ by the parliament in a way that is above partisan politics.