Ongoing power struggles involving town councils across Georgia are painting a troubling picture for the country's democratization process.
Local governments have never been strong players in Georgian politics, but, in the wake of the October 1 elections, they have become the focus of a powerful wave of protests that are determining which party – Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream or President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement – will be the dominant party in the regions.
Before the parliamentary poll, the United National Movement (UNM) controlled “an estimated 1,200-1,250” of the country’s 1,263 elected local councils, according to the National Association of Local Authorities of Georgia. Today, the party dominates less than half.
But the change has nothing to do with voter preferences.
With their offices often blockaded by protesters, and sometimes seized, elected town council members and executive representatives appointed by the council chairs (called “gamgeblebi”) are simply changing political sides, or stepping down from office.
Since October, some 22 of the country’s 75 gamgeblebi have resigned, UNM representatives claim. Information about the status of council chairs was not immediately available.
While incidents of violence have been rare, the trend is disturbing, said Davit Melua, executive director of the National Association of Local Authorities of Georgia. “[I]t is, of course, a problem of local government, a problem of [the] political system here, but, first of all, it is a problem of rule of law,” Melua said. “It is illegal to break into a public building and put pressure on local officials, not allowing them to implement their mandate.”
Little action, though, has been taken against such protesters.
In western Georgia, some protesters have embarked on hunger strikes to force a change in town councils and show, as one pro-Ivanishvili striker told the news magazine Liberali, that “we’re members of the winning team.”
For Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure Tengiz Shergelashvili, the desire to force elected councils to change political affiliations is a natural outgrowth of the parliamentary election result.
“[At] a glance, it is possible that it looks bad. But this is all due to the situation that we had before [the October 1 elections]. … Saakashvili’s government was an authoritarian government and the local self-government was one component of this,” claimed Shergelashvili, who has worked on local-election campaigns.
Apparently many feel that waiting for change to come via the ballot box would take too long; local elections aren’t scheduled until 2014.
Liza Sopromadze, head of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs’ Local Governance Center, cautions that the tumult only weakens local governments. By switching their party affiliation, or resigning at the urging of protesters, elected local representatives “lost the opportunity to have a very strong opposition in the local level, and the people lost the opportunity to live better,” she said.
“[Local government] is the most important level where we can estimate if our country is [a] democracy or not,” Sopromadze argued. “[I]f you give independence [at] the local level and you give the chance for local communities to be involved in the decisions-making process, this is democracy.”
For many politicians, the current “cohabitation” of the UNM and the governing Georgian Dream coalition has turned into a battle for total control, rather than a struggle to establish some sort of governing consensus.
Davit Chichinadze, a member of the Tsalenjikha Municipal Council, in western Georgia, asserted that the changes have had more to do with pragmatism than politics. Councils dominated by the UNM face the need “to create a … politically neutral platform to start talking about political issues with the new government,” he said, and not be seen as “islands of provocation.”
Out of the 24 council members in Tsalenjikha, 15 have abandoned the UNM since the parliamentary elections and formed independent factions, while the head of the council voluntarily resigned, said Chichinadze, who doubles as the executive director of the Center for Effective Governance System and Technological Advancement of Regions, a non-governmental organization that promotes the strengthening of local government institutions.
It is a change that could prove critical for Georgia’s democracy test, said Sopromadze.
“We have now [a] very sensitive point,” she said. “[I]f this kind of initiative in the local level will continue, we will kill the … process” of local governments functioning independently.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.