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Georgia: Leaders Tackle Relations Between Tbilisi And Regions

Prague, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Among the many problems facing the Georgian leadership today is that of devising a new model for relations between Tbilisi and Georgia's regions.

Several factors complicate that task, including marked differences in the level of economic development among the regions and the continuing impact of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that led to the loss of central control over those regions. The 1995 Georgian constitution fails to define the territorial-administrative structure of those two regions.

In addition, Aslan Abashidze, leader of Georgia's third autonomous area, Adjaria, has for years ruled his region as though it were an independent state. Indeed, some Georgian political observers view the Adjar capital Batumi as the country's second center of power.

Last week (May 5), RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau organized a discussion of center-regional relations between Tamaz Bolkvadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee for Self-Government and Regional Policy, and Vakhtang Khmaladze, a member of the Democratic Choice for Georgia (DASi) party.

Khmaladze began by pointing out that the problem is one inherited from the Soviet past. He said both the USSR and its constituent republics were constructed on a pyramid model. Moscow was the Soviet Union's apex, while the capitals of the union's republics served the same role within their regions.

That model, Khmaladze continued, has inflicted what he described as "enormous damage" on Georgia. He said Tbilisi, as the seat of parliament, should naturally remain the country's political center. But, he added, "if we want Georgia to become a harmoniously developed country, we have to take all possible steps ... to develop other [cities and] towns."

Khmaladze characterized as undesirable the present situation in which the best university, school and theater in the country are located in Tbilisi. He noted that in the early years of the century, Kutaisi rivaled Tbilisi as a cultural center, while Batumi was a significant center of industry.

In reply, Bolkvadze admitted that existing legislation, primarily the 1997 law on self-government, does not provide a clear definition of relations between the center and the regions. Moreover, he said, in some parts of the country, in particular Adjaria, certain provisions of the law are not being observed.

As an example, Bolkvadze cited the law's stipulation that city mayors be nominated by the president of Georgia, and in Abkhazia and Adjaria by the regional legislatures in consultation with the president. But he pointed out that in Adjaria, in violation of this ruling, city mayors are popularly elected. Bolkvadze conceded that, even if the legislation is less than 100 percent democratic, it should nonetheless be observed, because "democracy means the supremacy of the law."

Khmaladze agreed that what he called the existing "vacuum" in the constitution and legislation has given rise to numerous problems. He too conceded that the law on self-government is far from perfect, but insisted that it should nonetheless be observed throughout the country. He also expressed concern about existing contradictions between the laws of Georgia and those of Adjaria, and about the failure of either side to make any effort to reduce these differences.

Khmaladze went on to say that everyone is aware that Adjaria ignores Georgian laws. That attitude not only undermines the country's sovereignty, he said, but "is a blow to each one of us, and a blow to the country's development, [because] it exacerbates relations between the center and the regions and hinders the development of the latter."

Khmaladze singled out tax policy as an area where improvement is particularly needed. At present, he said, Georgia's individual regions get to keep only a fraction of the taxes they collect to use at their discretion for local needs. The largest share of the taxes they collect is transferred to Tbilisi, which then distributes funds to the regions as it sees fit.

This approach, Khmaladze said, is bad for two reasons. First, it gives the center a certain leverage over the regions, enabling it to send the message that "if you toe the line you receive more and if you don't you receive less." Second, giving one individual or ministry the right to decide how much a region receives in subsidies from the central government can encourage corruption.

While the government in Tbilisi favors what is known as an "asymmetric federation" as the optimum model for Georgia's future administrative structure, opponents of that model argue that it could encourage regional and separatist tendencies. Instead, they favor Georgia becoming a unitary state.

Despite this difference of opinion, Bolkvadze said it is "premature" to take a decision on the future territorial-administrative structure of Georgia before agreement is reached on Abkhazia's future status. Only after that status has been decided, he said, should the issue of the status of Adjaria and South Ossetia be addressed.

For his part, Khmaladze made the point that the terms "federation," "asymmetric federation," and "unitary state" are now purely hypothetical since they describe entities that do not yet exist. "First a child is born," he observed, "and then you choose a name for it." Khmaladze suggested that the Georgian leadership should "draft several acceptable alternatives and suggest them to our negotiating partners" -- the Abkhaz leadership. That would give them a choice, but not carte blanche to draw up their own demands. Khmaladze went on to observe that, as a result of its traditions, geography and historical development, Georgia is a country in which the differences among its various regions are very deeply felt and in which economic conditions vary widely. As a result, he argued, the country's territorial structure should reflect such differences.

Both speakers agreed that resolving the Abkhaz conflict will require strengthening Georgia's economy. Bolkvadze argued that economic independence is even more important than political independence, noting that Georgia is not at present strong enough economically to wage a war.

Khmaladze took issue with that idea, but he also drew a pessimistic conclusion, saying: "Until we have sufficient strength -- military and economic -- and sufficient financial possibilities, we shall not be able to resolve the Abkhaz problem by political means ... This is our problem," he summed up, "and if we are not adequately prepared to resolve the Abkhaz conflict ourselves, then we shall not be able to do so with the help of another state, no matter how benevolently disposed that state may be toward Georgia."