By Diana Petriashvili
Imereti could prove a key test case for the Saakashvili administration.
Its main town, Kutaisi, the country’s second largest city, is
slotted to serve as an official magnet for business investment outside
of Tbilisi and as a second capital of sorts for the government. But
Kutaisi’s revival depends on more than a few changes of address.
Despite Imeretians’ hopes for the future, serious problems remain.
Many of the problems faced by Kutaisi, a city of 241,100, are the same
as in Tbilisi or elsewhere in Georgia: poverty, unemployment, badly
maintained roads, a perennial power crisis and irregular water supply.
But in this former royal capital they carry a particular political
punch. Imeretians were among the most active supporters of
Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution; Kutaisi itself is represented in
parliament by Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze.
Even while lamenting their city’s crumbling infrastructure,
Kutaisi residents draw great hope from the central government’s
urban renewal plans. “Why should everything be based in
Tbilisi?,” commented store clerk Dodo Losaberidze. “ We are
not a village, and we have huge potential.”
Georgia’s Constitutional Court is expected to relocate from
Tbilisi to Kutaisi by September 2005. Talks are also reportedly underway
for the National Bank of Georgia, energy supplier United Distribution
Company and the Georgian Institute of Public Relations to make the move
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Aside from narrowing the economic gap between regional towns and
Tbilisi, Saakashvili administration officials have touted putting more
power in the hands of local decision-makers. The general plan to
decentralize Georgian government is often viewed in the context of other
commitments undertaken by the country when it joined the Council of
Europe in 1999.
But providing local officials with the information necessary to
implement decisions appears to still be a work-in-progress. Asked to
comment on the central government’s decentralization plan for
Kutaisi, Interim Mayor Besik Gulordava responded: “Could you show
it to me, so that I can comment?”
Local officials’ lack of information is considered by some
analysts as one of the major problems for Georgia’s
decentralization project. While city officials heartily welcome
Tbilisi’s decentralization plans – whatever they may be
– details on how to accommodate them appear to be at a minimum.
Kutaisi officials cite the restoration of building fronts in downtown
Kutaisi, the repair of outdoor lighting and development of tourism as
ways that they intend to encourage local business to benefit from the
transfer of organizations and companies from Tbilisi.
Yet, even while hopeful for their city’s future, Kutaisians appear
more concerned by the need for adequate infrastructure than for freshly
painted buildings. Imereti’s regional center is likely to have
electricity for only several hours a day, while running water can be
expected only once every three days. The situation has been like that
for years, locals say.
Several hundred protestors took to the streets in Kutaisi in December
2004 to demand electricity. In February 2005, the entire city went
without water for days, prompting President Mikheil Saakashvili to
declare a state of emergency in Kutaisi and dispatch military reservists
to distribute trucked-in water.
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Tackling the city’s water worries ranks as a secondary priority
for now, officials say. Some 3 million lari (roughly $1.6 million) from
local and central government budgets will be used over the course of
2005 to repair the water system on the right bank of Kutaisi’s
Rioni River, where problems are the most acute.acute, Gulordava said.
Little mention has been made of electricity repairs. In December,
regional officials split between blaming the power company for the
black-outs and blaming protestors for complaining.
According to Deputy Governor Giga Shushania, Imereti’s roads will
receive the most state funding in 2005. The central government has
allocated GEL 5 million (about $2.7 million) for this project, while
additional funding from the World Bank Municipal Development Program
could increase total spending to GEL 12 million (about $6.6 million).
Both city and regional officials point to the sale of a plot of land for
$200,000 and two buildings for $130,000 and $65,000, respectively as a
sign that Kutaisi – with the central government’s blessing
– is poised for growth. Prior to these sales, the largest amount
ever received for the sale of state-owned property was GEL 10,000 (about
$5,484). Several entrepreneurs have also reportedly expressed
willingness to start a business in town.
But many city residents are looking for change in the business of
government as well. As elsewhere in Georgia, Imeretians stress that the
region’s governor, a presidential appointee, should have some
long-term personal tie to the region. Harsh criticism was leveled at
former Governor Gia Getsadze, a native of the Imeretian town of
Samtredia, for staying just six months on the job before returning to
work in the Interior Ministry in Tbilisi. “There were absolutely
no results,” said homemaker Manana Daraselia.
Other Kutaisi residents are content to bet on the future. “The
main plus of the new authorities is that people live when they
hope,” commented street vendor Nargiz Guleshidze. “It is
impossible to receive everything you want in one day.”
Editor’s Note: Diana Petriashvili is a freelance political and
business reporter based in Tbilisi.
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