The Tbilisi city government’s takeover of management decisions for three popular resort towns is raising questions about whether Georgia’s promotion of tourism comes at the expense of self-government.
Under amendments to Georgia’s law on investment, passed on April 19, the central government granted control over the ski resort towns of Gudauri and Bakuriani and the mountain spa of Borjomi -- some of Georgia’s best-known tourist attractions -- to the city government of Tbilisi.
Consequently, the towns’ own governments will lose the power to oversee road and construction work, tourism development and other traditional responsibilities. None of the towns are in Tbilisi’s immediate vicinity.
Gudauri, a booming ski resort 110 kilometers north of Tbilisi, was the first resort to be placed under the Tbilisi city government’s supervision.
Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, a protegé of President Mikheil Saakashvili, is expected to lead the project, which will be financed by the city’s 2.5-million-lari ($1.5 million) development fund. Ugulava has already spearheaded one ski project near Tbilisi, and maintains that the city has the “experience” needed for the job in Gudauri.
But Tbilisi city council member Tina Khidasheli, a leading member of the opposition Republican Party, questions the government’s motives.
Tbilisi, she noted, has a long legacy of helping small towns and other cities -- whether in cash or in kind -- but without taking over local governments’ management rights.
“It is land. It is about property,” Khidasheli said of the Gudauri plans. “And it is not about [giving] money, it is about taking money. This is the reality.”
Information about the amount of annual tax revenue generated by Gudauri was not immediately available. But the resort’s reputation as a popular winter weekend getaway for the Tbilisi posh set and a growing clientele of foreign skiers has made it one of Georgia’s hottest real estate locations.
Made up of a few tiny villages nestled among mountains up to 5,000 meters high, Gudauri previously fell under the domain of the town of Kazbegi, some 24 kilometers to the north along the Georgian Military Highway.
The fact that Kazbegi did not oppose handing over management of Gudauri to Tbilisi raises further questions about the deal, Khidasheli believes.
“What does [the] Kazbegi municipality have? Nothing, except for Gudauri . . .The only income they had was from Gudauri. And that they just gave up?” she queried. “That doesn’t happen anywhere. In a more or less normal country, a municipality would have fought against this.”
[Tina Khidasheli formerly served as board chairperson for the Open Society Georgia Foundation. EurasiaNet.org operates under the separate auspices of the Open Society Institute.]
Tbilisi city officials working on the Gudauri project were not available for comment. How the city will use its Gudauri funds, and who will oversee the expenditures remain unclear.
Gudauri’s representative on the Kazbegi town council, however, welcomes the initiative, saying that the plan will only help the resort.
“Why not, when the project will not spoil anything?” asked Nona Pitskhelauri. “The local people have a lot of problems and [the Tbilisi city government] promised to [address them]. If they do it, that will be good.”
Unlike most ski resort towns, Gudauri has no medical clinics, no pharmacy and no garbage facilities. For problems with public utilities, residents must wait for repair personnel from a town more than an hour’s drive to the south.
But taking away decision-making responsibilities from local governments is not the way for small towns like Gudauri – and, some 166 kilometers to the west, Bakuriani and Borjomi -- to learn how to provide for their own residents, argues Liza Sopromadze, head of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs’ Local Governance Center.
Rather than turning to Tbilisi, the central government could have transferred needed items or used agreements between municipalities to help the Kazbegi government develop Gudauri, Sopromadze contends. Instead, “there is no dialogue, there is monologue” between the “very weak” Kazbegi municipality and Tbilisi, she said.
Heavy dependence on the central government for budgetary support and a high turnover of officials do not add to such municipalities’ political gravitas, commented CARE project director Anthony Foreman, who works with local governments. In 2011, Kazbegi received roughly 1.08 million lari (about $652,370) from the central government.
“Local populations are aware of this, and it doesn’t seem that there are very high expectations of local governments,” Foreman said.
Local expectations for Tbilisi, however, run high. Gudauri hotelier Gela Burduli says that the resort town simply languished under the Kazbegi government’s management. He hopes that will change once the Tbilisi city government is in charge.
“Business is not bad . . . but the resort is not developing. Nothing is being done for it,” Burduli said. The resort’s phone system, water supply and sewage system “are already slowly failing because no one is looking after them,” he elaborated.
Burduli believes that the resort needs a strong patron to promote its interests.
Given Tbilisi’s dominance in Georgia’s economy, few patrons come stronger than Tbilisi Mayor Ugulava.
In comments to the Liberali news weekly, Ugulava asserted that his government’s experience installing new streetlights, building roads and introducing ambulances gives it “everything that Gudauri needs for rehabilitation.”
[Liberali receives funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation.]
But Sopromadze argues that what Gudauri and other small-town governments really need are the financing and independence to develop without outside intervention.
“If you never give them the freedom, “ she said, “ they never will be independent.”
Molly Corso is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.