Op-ed: 5 reasons why there is no self-government in Georgia, or why hold the elections
On October 2, 2021, local self-government elections will be held in Georgia, 64 mayors and 2,044 local councilors will be elected.
However, experts agree that Georgia actually lacks a lot of conditions for self-government to become effective, despite it being the main characteristic of a modern democratic state.
“For 30 years of Georgia’s independence, all governments have been comfortable with weak self-government, since it is convenient to use it for political manipulations”.
“Over the past 30 years, several reforms of self-government have been carried out in the country, but it has always been“ two steps forward, one back”, says David Losaberidze, an expert on self-government.
What is the weakness of self-government in Georgia? Why has the country failed to achieve real decentralization? JAMnews posed these questions to experts in the field of self-government.
#1 Regions are financially insolvent
The degree of independence of self-governing units is determined by their financial stability. The model of financial independence, which operates in Georgia and determines the size of the budget of local municipalities – which taxes remain in the regions and which go to the center, is controversial.
Since 2007, only land and property taxes, local fees and amounts levied on various fines remain in the local budget. Income taxes are transferred to the central budget and returned to the regions in the form of transfers but in a much smaller size, experts say. This is often a “tiny amount”.
Part of the value added tax (VAT) that goes to the state budget is also distributed into the regions. However, with redistribution, subjective approaches are observed.
This opaque and unfair model of distribution of funds impedes the development of self-government and casts doubt on its independence, experts believe.
“I don’t know why there is an opinion in the government that self-government can be deprived of money, and then some part of it can be reimbursed. For example, the port city of Poti – it is poor because its income goes to the center”, says Irakli Melashvili, an expert on self-government issues.
The problem is that self-government budgets often receive less income, which should have remained in local budgets from the begining.
This includes funds from property taxes, as often real estate located in the territory of municipalities, is either not in its ownership, or is estimated at a low price.
Also, little money comes from land tax, since plots up to five hectares are not taxed and municipalities receive nothing from them.
Georgia has five self-governing cities and 59 self-governing communities. Self-governing cities include Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi, Poti. A self-governing community (for example, Zugdidi, Senaki, Akhaltsikhe, Ninotsminda and others) is a union of settlements with its own budget.
The issue of VAT redistribution in Georgia today is also controversial, says another self-government expert Kote Kandelaki.
19% percent of VAT that goes into the country’s budget is distributed among municipalities.
The amount that each municipality receives is calculated using a special formula. It is based on many criteria, including the area of the municipality, total population, number of children aged 0-6, its altitude, etc.
“But in fact, the redistribution of this amount depends on the Ministry of Finance and it is subjective”, says Kote Kandelaki.
According to him, self-government bodies are limited in decisions even in spending their own money:
“In other words, they are formally independent, but this is an informally centralized system – according to government decrees, bylaws, there are many restrictions on purchases, distribution of finances, etc”.
#2 Property and land in municipalities are owned and managed by the center
According to self-government experts, the lack of a clear division of ownership weakens the municipalities and deprives them of the opportunity to generate income.
“Virtually all state property, agricultural land, buildings, are in the hands of the central government. It manages, sells, rents everything it can. And the center is not going to concede this right”, says Kote Kandelaki.
According to Irakli Melashvili, this attitude is hardly logical:
“Imagine, the central government owns 24,000-25,000 land plots in the country. It is ineffective when there is only one place, the only place every investor has to go to to see the property they want. The Ministry of Economy and Property Management will not be able to cover the whole world to find a suitable investor for these 25,000 sites. It’s impossible. This is the invention of a new bicycle”.
The transfer of property to municipalities, according to experts, will allow them to solve economic issues on the spot.
“Imagine that instead of one center, there are 64 centers that care about attracting investors. This will significantly speed up job creation. The government has much more important questions than which farm for 100 or 200 pigs will be built in which municipality, ”says Irakli Melashvili.
#3 Interference with authority
According to the local government code, property management, introduction of fees, improvement of the territory of the municipality, provision of water supply, improvement of recreational areas, and other similar issues lie within the authority of the municipalities.
This list in the code is quite extensive.
Moreover, the same code states that the state can delegate to self-government bodies more effective local powers.
However, in reality, everything happens differently. Any, even the most insignificant, initiative often comes from the center or is voiced by the center.
For example, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that he is “starting a large-scale renovation of the country”, on which GEL 500 million [about $ 150 million] will be spent over the next four years, and 300-350 million will be allocated from the state budget.
“The program includes reconstruction of cities in 63 municipalities, restoration of important cultural and historical sites, restoration of administrative centers of municipalities, as well as arrangement of recreational spaces, development of tourist infrastructure in recreation parks”, Garibashvili said, presenting the program.
According to expert Irakli Melashvili, the presentation of this project and its implementation were the business of the local authorities:
“All this is in the exclusive competence of the municipality. That is, the government disputes this with them. It is illogical when the government implements projects in the municipality that it does not need”, says Irakli Melashvili.
The supreme official of the self-governing unit is the mayor. In Georgia, the mayor is elected for a term of four years. A person under the age of 25 cannot run for mayor.
The interference with authority was not only manifested in this project. Kote Kandelaki says that it has always been this way:
“Self-government is different as problems of local importance can be solved in different ways everywhere. There are many local nuances, and therefore, for example, the same issue may not be resolved in the same way in Lagodekhi and Batumi. What’s going on with us ?! There are campaign-type initiatives – for example, the widespread ban on foreign trade; or campaigns for infrastructure projects, the order for which comes from the center”.
Kandelaki believes that even in the case of this 500 million lari project, this money and rights should have been transferred to municipalities.
Such an attitude often kills enthusiasm, for example, among mayors or other government officials, said expert David Losaberidze:
“There were many examples when the chairman of the city council or the mayor started some kind of reforms. But they did not receive support from the center and refrained from continuing”.
#4 Low citizen engagement
The basic essence of self-government is that decisions about what environment to live in and what to do should be made by citizens themselves.
“If we look at developed countries, we will see that everywhere in such countries there is developed self-government. And even in countries that strive for development, this system exists”, says David Losaberidze.
In Georgia, the population is not active.
According to Losaberidze, people understand that no one asks citizens about anything, and when nothing changes their opinion, they do not want to take the initiative:
“When the government implements any program on its own initiative, the population considers it natural. The government will give us this, give us that. They don’t want to do something on their own because no one asks them”.
According to Losaberidze, this situation always plays into the hands of the authorities:
“Any political force is afraid to transfer power to the people. Too often you can hear that people cannot be trusted, people do not know what they want or need. This is what the authoritarian systems of the 19th and 20th centuries thought, even in Europe. This is a problem that will be solved when a person gets the right to decide their own destiny”.
# 5 Lack of political will on the part of the center
Self-government experts remind that from the moment of gaining independence until now all political forces have stated that Georgia needs strong self-government. But, according to their observations, as soon as these forces come to power, they develop mechanisms of their containment.
This is because the center always views the regions as a collection of votes. The center is trying to make them dependent on it and remain loyal.
“The municipality knows that if it is not loyal, it will not receive money. Today the ruling party is in power in all municipalities, but imagine that the opposition has won in several of them. The center will immediately begin to manipulate whether or not to finance such a region. It will not like that its competitor works well somewhere”, says Irakli Melashvili.
According to him, in the upcoming municipal elections on October 2, the ruling party will definitely try to manipulate these issues.
“I am sure that they will definitely tell people: ‘You know, we started such a big project [for example, a project worth 500 million lari], and if you choose someone else, it may be postponed’. It has always been that way. Ask in any village and everywhere you will be told that such dialogues were ubiquitous: Look, we need water, and if the ruling party does not get the required number of votes, this project may fail, etc”.
Each government has taken certain steps since 1991 to strengthen the system of self-government, says David Losaberidze:
“But this is two steps forward, one backwards. For 30 years we have made very little progress due to conflicting and unfinished reforms”, Losaberidze said.
“This centralized system must be dismantled. Ministries should participate in shaping policy, solving issues of national importance. We must somehow achieve the delegation of functions because all this hinders the development of the self-government system”, says Kote Kandelaki.