Constitutional Reform in Eurasia

by Julie A. George

Snow started falling today in Chişinău, Moldova, where I have come to study state reforms and their impact on secessionist politics and territorial fragmentation. It is my third country in five months; I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) this summer and am spending most of the fall in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The countries share some interesting history that makes for rich comparison. All are postcommunist. All have stated aspirations of democratic governance. All profess a need to enhance the capability of the state to implement reforms. All experienced secessionist war in the 1990s and continue to face state fragmentation. In the case of Moldova and Georgia, the regions of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia operate as de facto independent states, with their own institu- tions of government, foreign policies and, in the case of Transnistria, their own currency. The 1995 Dayton Accords kept Republika Srpska inside the pre-war boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but its separatist rhetoric has increased of late, making state governance in BiH challenging.

It is early yet to draw theoretical conclusions. My fieldwork is incomplete and as yet I am caught in a mire of domestic politics and country-specific nuance that bedevils parsimony. Yet some interesting parallels deserve mention. All three countries are exploring constitutional change. Political elites promise that the reforms under consideration would have an almost existential effect on the politics of the day. Some political leaders in Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina predict that institutional change will permit the implementation of political, economic and social programs that have been stymied by political infighting and territorial fragmentation. In Georgia, the ruling party casts constitutional reform as a way to finally achieve real democratic governance.

In Moldova, the president is selected by super-majority of parliament; in a multi-party system with a coalition in power, the high-threshold requires support from not only the three parties in the ruling coalition, but also some members of the opposition parties — a deadlock that led to the dissolution of parliament in 2009 and a current stalemate. The Dayton Accords included a constitution for Bosnia-Herzegovina that constructed an ethnicized state with three presi- dents (Bosniak, Croat and Serb) and each major ethnic group given essential veto power over any law in the case that it “destructs the vital interest” of that group. This clause has been invoked for almost any instance of central state reform, including efforts to construct a country-wide tax system (ultimately successful) and significant police reform (ultimately a failure). Underscoring the dramatic politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina is a view amongst the Bosniak population that the veto power held by Republika Srpska was obtained through ethnic cleansing of that territory’s Muslim population. In both Moldova and BiH, powerful political forces seek constitutional change to subvert coalition politics and ethnic fragmentation. At the time of writing, both countries have failed in this endeavor.

Georgia, which is not encumbered by powerful opposition forces, coalition politics or free-wheeling political competition, faces conditions of too much executive energy. Its state capacity reforms fall in a dizzying array of efficacy, leading to expansion of gas and electricity infrastructure, new roads across previously impassable mountain territories, a new tax and customs system, and a total eradication of petty corruption. Memorably, this regime also permitted a brutal crack- down on protesters in 2007 and a war with South Ossetia and Russia in 2008. Georgia’s executive-dominated system has recently undergone overhaul with little discussion and negligible parliamentary opposition. The new constitution, which will come into full force after the current presidential term expires in 2013, creates a parliamentary system with a powerful prime minister and a weak, although directly elected, president.

What conclusions might we draw? Institutions matter, yet in new states, among newly empowered elites, they are avenues to obtain and maintain personal influence. They likewise can be altered to maintain that hegemony. Georgia has amended its constitution significantly at least twice since it was first ratified in 1995. Moldova has overhauled its constitution once; the proposed changes will enhance the power of the ruling coalition and be a death knell to the formerly dominant Party of Communists. But new constitutions also can freeze untenable political conditions. The constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina was designed to end a war, not to run a state. The outcome is an impoverished polity that must maintain three separate administrations for each dominant ethnic group, isolates non-Slav ethnic minorities, and cannot even create a tax system without nationalist struggle. Small wonder that they cannot combat corruption.

Julie A. George received her Ph.D. in 2005. George is an assistant professor at Queen’s College, the City University of New York. In 2010 her first book was published, The Politics of Ethnic Separatism in Russia and Georgia.