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Caucasus Report: May 13, 1999

13 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 19

Georgia Seeks Optimum Model For Relations Between Center And Regions. Among the many problems facing the Georgian leadership 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, more important, 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 Georgia's territorial-administrative structure of those two regions. Aslan Abashidze, leader of Georgia's third autonomy, Adjaria, has for years ruled that 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.

On 5 May, 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 DASi initiative group.

Khmaladze pointed out that the problem is one inherited from the Soviet past, insofar as both the USSR and its constituent republics were constructed on the pyramid model, with Moscow and the capitals of the union republics serving respectively as the apex and focus of power. That model, Khmaladze continued, has inflicted "enormous damage" on Georgia. As the seat of parliament, Tbilisi will naturally remain the country's political center, Khmaladze continued, but "if we want Georgia to become a harmoniously developed country, we have to take all possible steps, not only in terms of enacting legislation but also in providing material incentives, to develop other towns." He characterized the present situation, in which the best university, school, and theater in the country are located in Tbilisi, as undesirable, noting that in the early years of this century Kutaisi rivaled Tbilisi as a cultural center, and Batumi was a significant center of industry.

Bolkvadze admitted that existing legislation, primarily the September 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 that legislation are not being observed. Bolkvadze cited, as an example, the stipulation that city mayors are to be nominated by the president of Georgia, and in Abkhazia and Adjaria -- by the regional legislatures in consultation with the president. In Adjaria, however, in violation of this ruling, city mayors are elected. Bolkvadze conceded that the latter approach could theoretically be considered more democratic; but then he went on to argue that even if the law is less than 100 percent democratic it should nonetheless be observed because "democracy means the supremacy of the law."

Khmaladze agreed that the existing "vacuum" in the constitution and legislation has given rise to numerous problems. He also conceded that the law on self-government is far from perfect, but insisted that it should nonetheless be observed throughout the country. He 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. Instead, he said, everyone is aware that Adjaria ignores Georgian laws. That attitude not only undermines the country's sovereignty but "is a blow to each one of us, and a blow to the country's development, [in that] it exacerbates relations between the center and the regions and hinders the development of the latter."

Khmaladze singled out tax policy as another area where improvement is needed. At present, Georgia's individual regions get to keep only a fraction of the taxes they collect to use at their discretion for local needs. The lion's share of the taxes they collect is transferred to the center, which then distributes funds to the regions as it sees fit. This approach, Khmaladze said, is bad for two reasons: on the one hand, it gives the center a certain leverage over the regions, enabling it to send the message "if you toe the line you receive more, if you don't you receive less." On the other, giving one individual or ministry the right to decide which region receives how much in subsidies from the center can encourage corruption.

The moderator observed that while the Georgian leadership favors the "asymmetric federation" as the optimum model for Georgia's future territorial-administrative structure, opponents of that model argue that it could encourage regional and separatist tendencies, advocating instead that Georgia should be a unitary state. Despite this difference of opinion, Bolkvadze said that it is "premature" to take a decision on the future territorial-administrative structure of Georgia before agreement is reached on Abkhazia's future status vis-a-vis the central authorities. Only after that has been decided, he said, should the issue of the status of Adjaria and South Ossetia be addressed.

Khmaladze, for his part, made the point that the terms "federation," "asymmetric federation," and "unitary state" are at present purely hypothetical insofar as they are being applied to something that does not yet exist. "First a child is born," he observed, "and then you choose a name for it." In other words, the semantic connotations of the various terms should not be allowed to interfere with the choice of the most appropriate structure for Georgia at its current stage of development. Khmaladze suggested that the Georgian leadership should "draft several acceptable alternatives and suggest them to our negotiating partners" -- the Abkhaz leadership -- so that the latter have a choice, rather than give them 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 between the various regions are very deeply felt and in which economic conditions vary widely. Consequently, he argued, the country's territorial structure should reflect both these differences. In so doing, he suggested that "it is imperative that the principle of self-sufficiency be taken into account." He explained that by this he means that the amount of autonomy a region is granted in economic decision-making should be directly proportional to its economic strength.

Both speakers agreed that resolving the Abkhaz conflict will require a strengthening of 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.

While Khmaladze took issue with the former assertion, he also drew a pessimistic conclusion: "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, and believe me, 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 towards Georgia." (Liz Fuller)

Protest Actions In Azerbaijan. Over the past six weeks, the Azerbaijani press has reported the following protests against either inadequate living conditions, the policies of local officials, or the government's failure to pay salaries.

-- About 250 citizens of Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan, blocked traffic in Baku to protest cuts in electricity and water supplies ("Khurriyet" 11 May).

-- Employees of the Khachmaz raion electricity board launched a protest to demand six months' back wages. They have not been paid since March 1998 ("Millet" 6 May).

-- Several thousand residents of Lerik raion staged a demonstration to demand the resignation of the raion's administrative head ("Millet" 4 May).

-- Inhabitants of a village in Tovuz raion blocked the Baku-Tbilisi highway to protest the approach of the local authorities to land reform ("Yeni Musavat" 27 April).

-- Some 150 pensioners picketed a post office in Nasimi raion to protest the administrative decision to pay pensions directly into savings bank accounts, rather in cash at post offices. ("Yeni Musavat" 27 April).

-- All car owners in Masally raion sounded their horns for one minute at a prearranged time to express their dissatisfaction with high gas prices ("Yeni Musavat" 24 April).

-- Teachers at a secondary school in the Saatli raion held a one-day strike to demand payment of two months' overdue wages ("Yeni Musavat" 24 April).

-- A group of Karabakh war veterans held a picket in Ganja to draw attention to their plight ("Azadlig" 13 April).

-- More than 100 refugees who had found refuge in a half-finished building in Baku's Khatai raion staged a one-hour protest against their eviction from the building ("Yeni Musavat" 11-12 April).

-- Inhabitants of Perzeguja village in Lerik raion threatened to renounce their Azerbaijani citizenship and apply for Iranian citizenship if their socio-economic demands were not met ("Yeni Musavat" 28-29 March).

Quotation Of The Week. "The tragedy of the current parliament and government is that the former does not trust the latter and the former did not have links with the latter. If the new parliament forms a new government jointly with the president, for which it [the parliament] will be responsible, the government will also be accountable to the parliament. If the responsibilities are defined, everything will be in its place." Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, quoted by Noyan Tapan, 10 May 1999.