Decentralization In Georgia: Power To The People, Softly, By Michael Cecire

“Decentralization” is a dirty byword for federalization in much of Eurasia (cf. Ukraine), but it’s not a bad idea in Georgia, especially after the excesses of centralization under Saakashvili.


Decentralization in Georgia: Power to the People, Softly


Michael Cecire

“Decentralization” is a dirty byword for federalization in much of Eurasia (cf. Ukraine), but it’s not a bad idea in Georgia, especially after the excesses of centralization under Saakashvili.

Published on October 23, 2014

Local self-government is largely taken for granted in the West. But somewhere over the blurry frontier where Europe becomes Eurasia, “decentralization” is often regarded as a byword for separatism. In Russia’s former Soviet dominions, where more separatist satrapies pockmark the map with every passing day, the sensitivity is understandable—but it is also self-defeating, denying states a potentially powerful instrument of governance, economic development, and even conflict resolution. But bucking this trend, Georgia, though dispossessed of a fifth of its territory by Russian troops and their proxies, has taken the first step in reversing the recent years’ trend of centralization.

In mid-June 2014, Georgia held local elections across the country. Though the results were subject to the usual analytical tealeaf reading, the local polls in many ways lived up to their reputation as being the sleepiest of national election events. Given a fairly light 43.3 percent

election-day turnout, Georgian voters seemed to agree with that sentiment, ultimately voting to preserve the political status quo. (That isn’t to say there weren’t some genuine takeaways from the election.) However, perhaps the most important fact about the election had nothing to do with the results: a modest but momentous step towards political decentralization.

The trip from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to the bustling Black Sea port city of Batumi now only takes about five hours. It wasn’t always this easy. The 240-mile journey could have easily taken seven hours or more only a few years ago, depending on conditions like road quality, weather, or your drivers’ unceasing errands along the way. Five hours is likely still a bit too long for 240 miles, but traversing Georgia’s varied, rapidly-changing geographies makes the trip almost feel like a jump through hyperspace.

One of Georgia’s many delightful quirks is the abundant heterogeneity of its regional geography. From east to west, the landscapes shift with wild abandon—the unearthly deserts of Davit Gareji in eastern Kakheti, the fertile and grape-rich Alazani River Valley, the steppes of Shida Kartli, the alpine peaks of the Caucasian highlands, and the balmy climate of the Black Sea coastline. Understandably, such extreme climatic diversity played an outsized role in shaping Georgian culture and history.

In Adjara, a lush, subtropical autonomous republic in the southwest, deep historical and cultural ties to Turkey give it a unique feel. Walking along in Batumi’s pebbly, date palm-lined coast, one feels very far removed from Tbilisi’s neoclassical boulevards and smoggy streets. Adjara is nominally autonomous, as mandated by the 1921 Treaty of Kars, but doubts have traditionally lingered over just how much political control Batumi possesses.

The present authenticity of its autonomy may be debatable, but what is indisputable is that Adjara was once a quasi-separatist personal fiefdom of strongman Aslan Abashidze, deposed in 2004 and now in exile in Russia. Under Abashidze, the regime maintained “border” checkpoints with the rest of Georgia, and Adjara became known as a haven for organized crime and smuggling. True Georgian sovereignty was restored in 2004 by the then-ruling United National Movement (UNM), and the region’s autonomy was largely stamped out and consolidated within the UNM’s vertically integrated regime. With the UNM’s departure from power in 2012, there may be some desire to see Adjara once again have more say over its affairs.

“It will be better for Adjara to have more power,” said Giorgi, a friend of a friend who in late June drove me along the 20-minute stretch of Black Sea coast from Batumi to Qobuleti, a nearby beach town. “Of course, Georgia should be one country, but the government in Tbilisi does not always know about our problems—we should be able to fix them.”

Georgia is known today as a nation state, but the term “Georgia” has historically described an ancient, longstanding civilization rather than a single, continuously existing polity. All manner of kingdoms, principalities, and potentates of varying longevity and independence have existed within the many geographical fragments of the Georgian civilizational space.

In many respects, these bygone eras still echo across modern Georgia. The endurance of distinctive regional folkways, languages, dialects, religious traditions, and ethnicities reflect the geography-enforced variations in the quilt of Georgian civilization. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the epidemic of Georgian separatist movements in the 1990s—and the outstanding conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—was a partial reflection of this reality.

Under the

steadying, if sometimes repressive, hands of former Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia swung from the warlordism of the early 1990s to something that ably resembled a modern, developing nation-state. But this transformation didn’t come without costs.

Through ambitious state-building initiatives, centralization became the order of the day; local governments, conversely, saw their budgetary and decision-making powers gradually liquidated. Such governments were looked upon as dens of petty corruption at best and incubators of separatism at worst. By the end of the UNM’s tenure, centralization had reached absurd lengths. Regional governors were directly appointed by the President, localities had little to no say in their own development, and municipal coffers were kept lean, ostensibly to deter corruption. Meanwhile, direct administration for several regional towns, such as Borjomi and Gudauri, were outright handed to the Tbilisi city government, which under Saakashvili confidante and former Mayor Gigi Ugulava, operated as a less-accountable arm of the national government.

Following the

October 2012 parliamentary elections, the newly elected Georgian Dream (GD) coalition sought to reverse the previous government’s centralizing trend. By early 2013, drafts of a decentralization initiative were already circulating the Ministry of Regional Development and throughout the local NGO community. But the actual proposed legislation did not reach parliament until 2014, where it ran into opposition from UNM parliamentarians and the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church, which claimed that decentralization would foment separatism in the regions.

The decentralization legislation eventually passed, but the final bill was much more modest than the original proposal. Still, it was a step worth celebrating. The new laws, which came into effect concurrent with the June 2014 local elections, elevated all provincial capitals to “self-governing” level, entitling them to increased home rule. Mayors and other municipal chief executives (gamgeblebi) became directly elected officials, where previously only Tbilisi was allowed to directly elect its Mayor. The bill also mandated provincial governors be accompanied by a “consultative council” made up municipal representatives to help boost the voice of the localities. And though it has yet to be spelled out, decentralization legislation obligates the national government to restore some of the fiscal autonomy that was taken away in the early 2000s.

“The greatest potential benefit of decentralization is that the population can elect—or deselect—local politicians according to their preferences,” said Professor Kornely Kakachia, a political scientist at Tbilisi State University and director of the Georgian Institute of Politics. “Decentralization will allow local populations to make more informed decisions on the regional level, compared to the past when all decisions were made in Tbilisi.”

That isn’t to say the new decentralization laws aren’t without their flaws. Earlier iterations of the bill, which would have made provincial governors more accountable to the localities, were shot down over fears—and not just a little conspiracy-mongering—that this equated to federalizatsia, a Eurasian dog whistle for separatism that has little in common with its Western cognate, as the

crisis in east Ukraine amply shows. Another problem is the relative ease with which local councils, the sakrebulo, are now able to recall the municipal executive, potentially undermining the rationale for direct elections in the first place. And while concerns about local corruption may not have justified the excessive centralization of the previous era, it is likely that devolving powers to the local level carries the risk of restoring some degree of petty corruption, which the UNM had largely succeeded in stamping out. Still, there is a sense that, despite the risks, the opportunities that decentralization brings are worth it.

“More regional political power is a good thing for Borjomi,” said one small business owner in Borjomi, an old Romanov resort town nestled in the Lesser Caucasus range. Borjomi is only two hours away from Tbilisi, but nestled amidst the highland forests it can sometimes feel a world away. “We can solve many of our own problems here without waiting for the government.”

“Generally, decentralization is a positive step for the country,” agrees Kakachia, who hails from Samegrelo, a western province with a distinctive language, customs, and traditions. But he remains cautious: “[T]he national government should not look to decentralization with the idea that it can solve all of our problems.”

The June 2014 elections themselves are not likely to go down in the Georgian history books for any great controversy or achievement. But they may very well mark the beginning of the slow fulfillment of local democratic governance. And that is a legacy that should outlast the bitter, tactical heave-ho between the UNM and GD. That’s the goal, at least.


Michael Hikari Cecire

is a Black Sea regional analyst and co-editor of Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security.


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