More to the point, despite overwhelming public support for redressing the previous government's excesses, the new government has committed itself to approaching the issue methodically and deliberatively. None of the high-level officials being accused have yet to be convicted and few are being detained. Bacho Akhalaia, the infamous ex-defense minister who resigned after the prisons abuse scandal, has been offered (and refused) a jury trial. Gigi Ugulava, the mayor of Tbilisi and supposedly onetime crown prince to Saakashvili's presidency, has avoided having his mayoral term suspended. Despite widespread opinions that the Georgian judicial system -- still primarily composed of UNM-appointed officials -- remains pro-UNM, that hasn't stopped Tsulukiani from going through the proper judicial channels and respecting the process.
Her ambitious spring agenda also includes a number of important structural changes to the legal code. The legal practice of plea bargaining was used extensively by the previous government to accelerate adjudication but also, more worryingly, to siphon some 37 million lari (approximately $22.3 million) from Georgian citizens to feed public coffers. One of Tsulukiani's deputies recently went to California to observe the plea bargaining system and reported that "the only thing in common between plea bargaining in the U.S. and Georgia is the name." Tsulukiani wants to limit plea bargaining to petty crimes only, which would limit the potential for extortion.
Largely a holdover from the Soviet approach to justice, defendants are guilty until proven innocent, as an impossibly high 99 percent conviction rate attests. To remedy this, Tsulukiani's justice ministry plans to reform the criminal code to build-in stronger systemic protections for defendants. In addition, Tsulukiani plans to give broader powers to police and prosecutors to proactively investigate human trafficking, which she warned could cause official rates of human trafficking to spike this year.
Despite such a bold agenda, Tsulukiani is realistic and aware of the difficulty of the task before her. "Georgia's deep-rooted culture of impunity" could pose a serious challenge to reform, she acknowledged.
Nevertheless, the government remains committed to the task. "There's a unique opportunity for the court system to become independent now," said Georgian Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili on March 14 in Washington.
Can Tsulukiani implement these reforms in Georgia's hyper politicized climate? Even if she does, institutions are only one piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, developing the rule of law depends on a degree of societal buy-in that goes beyond the clash of personalities or the tumult of Georgian election cycles.This means matching good processes and mechanisms with the less-concrete, but equally critical element of nationwide, cross-party acceptance. In this effort, Tsulukiani will need cooperation not only from Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream's famously diverse membership, but also from Saakashvili and his still-influential UNM.
However, Saakashvili's party and his rivals in the new government have been at war since the election, making the prospect of consensus-building a daunting task. Issues that ought to have won cross-party support, such as the reopening of Russian markets to Georgian wine, have been depicted by Saakashvili as acts of treachery. And though it won 85 seats in parliament in the last election, the Ivanishvili-led coalition government does not have the required 100 votes to pass constitutional amendments.
However, a steady trickle of defections and independent caucusing within Saakashvili's party may put reform within reach. While the UNM claims this is a result of government pressure, the likelier explanation is that the UNM's diminished position has regional representatives exploring alternatives to maximize their bargaining power. Even in this politicized environment, Tsulukiani may get the votes she needs to embark on a process of genuine legal reform.
Small but important signs of cooperation are emerging in Georgia. Recently, the two sides issued a joint document on foreign policy, codifying Georgia's Western orientation. And the new government is set to issue a blanket amnesty for non-violent offenses to employees of the previous government. These and other such steps can help build bridges between the new government and the old, helping make Tsulukiani's proposed reforms possible and lasting.
For Georgia's sake, let's hope they succeed. If it does, it could serve as a powerful example to other countries, like Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, that have seen their desires for change thwarted by infighting and endemic corruption.