The ruling team claims that the aforesaid change has been prompted by the need for cutting down administrative expenses. Meanwhile, the Georgian President says that this reform will cost the country dearly
The Georgian President, opposition and NGOs unanimously criticize the forthcoming local government reform, under which seven cities throughout Georgia will have their self-governance status revoked.
“It’s a retrograde step into the past,” experts claim.
If the amendment, initiated by the Georgian Regional Development and Infrastructure Ministry, takes into effect, the following cities will be affected: Ambrolauri, Akhaltsikhe, Gori, Zugdidi, Telavi, Mtskheta and Ozurgeti.
Under the aforesaid status, the city residents are entitled to elect a mayor, while the local government can independently form and administer the budget, as well as impose fees and taxes independently.
The ruling Georgian Dream team is now trying to change the rules it introduced back in 2014. During the 2014 local government election, the population in several cities across Georgia elected mayors and gamgebelis (district heads / rural administrations) for the first time. It was the Georgian Dream’s campaign pledge. In 2012, Ivanishvili’s coalition, which was in opposition in that period, flatly criticized Saakashvili’s government for its weak self-governance and pledged to give more freedom to the regions.
Today, there are 12 self-governing cities in Georgia. If the Georgian Dream’s initiated reform takes into effect, there will only be five cities remaining (Tbilisi, Rustavi, Kutaisi, Batumi and Poti).
Like any major change, this reform has been timed to coincide with the campaign period. Local self-government elections are scheduled in Georgia for autumn 2017. If the Georgian Parliament manages to pass the aforesaid amendments by this autumn, then the election will be held under the new rules.
The government’s argument is as follows: after the cities were granted self-governing status, their administrative expenses have considerably increased, placing a heavy burden on the budget.
According to government officials, there hasn’t been any growth in revenues, the cost efficiency has reduced, and the quality and affordability of services on the grounds haven’t improved.
Under the 2017 budget, GEL 10 million (over USD 4 million) have been allocated as salaries for the staff of local self-governing city administrations.
The Regional Development Ministry claims that those cuts in expenditures will, in no way, affect the financial condition and independence of the municipalities. On the contrary, those funds will be more effectively spent on their needs.
The Ministry has already called on Sakrebulos (City Councils) of the aforesaid cities to support the initiative.
Meanwhile, NGO representatives claim that the central authorities are exerting pressure on the municipalities, urging them to back the government’s initiative.
“On those grounds, there were reports some 2-3 days ago that Sakrebulo members were summoned to Tbilisi and instructed to unanimously support the initiative,” said Kote Kandelaki, the Head of the International Centre for Civil Culture.
Twenty-one NGOs released a joint statement last week, saying ‘the government’s initiative, that was drafted without any prior consultations with the public, serves to restore the Soviet-time district territorial structure.”
Debates on the government’s initiative are underway. The members of Ozurgeti and Poti Sakerbulo have already backed the initiative on the abolition of the self-governing status to their cities.
This process has caused a wide public resonance. In particular, the civil movement activists in Ozurgeti brought funeral wreaths to the Ozurgeti City Council as a symbol of death of the self-government in Georgia.
The Georgian President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, also opposed the initiative.
In his words, the centre’s distrust of its own citizens is unjustified.
“Why are we abolishing self-governance? Is it because it comes cheap? No, it will cost us dear. When you rule the country from the centre, there is a chance that you’ll make more mistakes,” the President said.
The majority of experts and opposition figures assess the aforesaid changes as a step backward.
Levan Alapishvili, an expert on local self-governance issues at the Center for Strategic Research and Development of Georgia, has come up with a bold initiative. He has appealed to the Georgian President to call a snap local government election, so that the ruling team couldn’t manage to turn their initiative into a law.
“I don’t see any other way out. This is probably the one and only chance to stop this harmful process of the decline of democracy,” Alapishvili stated.