Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ajaria: Concern Over Missing Funds

Public discontent with Tbilisi’s new regime in Ajaria mounts, not helped by officials’ refusal to talk about where revenues have gone.
By Eter Turadze

Prison Number Three in the western Georgian region of Ajaria was meant for 250 people but currently holds 341 inmates, most of them members of the administration thrown out earlier this year.


These officials, who left office after Ajarian president Aslan Abashidze was ejected from the Black Sea region in May this year, are being held on charges of tax evasion or misappropriating government funds.


When an IWPR contributor visited the jail, the prisoners all voiced the same request – just to have enough air to breathe in the cramped conditions.


But prison governor of jail David Gogmachadze was unapologetic about the squeeze, saying, "Even if they bring in twice as many prisoners, I will fold them up like napkins and imprison them nevertheless. You can’t do anything about it. All the prisons are overcrowded in Georgia."


Not that the fate of unpopular former officials worries the public much these days – many people think it serves them right.


However, there is more concern about the fate of the thousands of dollars which disgraced officials are handing over as compensation for their alleged crimes. Officially, the money is supposed to go to the Georgian treasury, but there are accusations that funds are going instead to an institution called the Fund for the Development of Ajaria, about which little is known.


The struggle against corruption has been at the heart of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's policies since he overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze last year. When Shevardnadze departed, so did most of the political and economic elite around him.


By the time Saakashvili was elected president in January, dozens of former top officials and businessmen accused of tax evasion were already being investigated and jailed.


Many were subsequently freed after they paid large fines.


The money they handed over was channelled into the government budget, but critics of the scheme say that it has been less than transparent.


In Ajaria, the development fund set up after Abashidze’s departure has come in for particular scrutiny by local non-government organisations, NGOs, which say that six months on, they still know nothing about it, except that it was set up by the incoming Ajarian regional government and the republic’s new leader, Levan Varshalomidze.


The local Gazeta Batumelebi newspaper has repeatedly asked both the fund’s managers and Varshalomidze to provide details of its incomes and expenditures, yet officials remain tight-lipped, offering little more than confirmation that the fund actually exists.


IWPR has been told by a source close to the fund that all the money it receives is transferred to the central government in Tbilisi. "You should understand that Levan [Varshalomidze] cannot speak about this openly," said this source.


The newspaper has filed a lawsuit to find out where the impounded money is.


“If the fund holds monies that should have been transferred to the budget, that’s a crime,” said Kakha Palavandishvili, of the Batumi branch of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. “If we are able to obtain documentary proof of the public's suspicions, we [too] will file a suit."


Not all fines entering the Ajarian account come from former high-ranking officials. A group of customs officers serving at the Sarpi checkpoint on the border with Turkey paid a total of 10,000 dollars to avoid further detention after they were accused of allowing a freight consignment to cross the border without the proper formalities being completed.


"Why was it necessary to handcuff us?” asked one of the detained officers interviewed by IWPR. “Let them say the country needs it and we’ll pay up. We had to collect the sum from friends and relatives, because customs officers are by no means rolling in luxury, as the authorities believe.”


Saakashvili defends the system of allowing allegedly corrupt officials to pay and go free. “It’s better to have corrupt officials and mafia bosses out of prison but without the money, than having them in jail yet still in possession of it, and a cellphone,” he told journalists.


He said the huge fines had replenished empty government coffers. For example, the former head of national railways had paid over eight million dollars, enough to fund repairs to five major stations. The former roads chief had paid about 3.6 million dollars, while Shevardnadze’s son in law, a businessman, paid at least 26 million dollars in back taxes - “enough to pay back two months of pension arrears”, said the president.


But the lack of transparency is fuelling rumours that the money is finding its way into the pockets of the new generation of officials.


Many NGOs in Ajaria say the new authorities are as unwilling to disclose information as the officials who served Abashidze.


Paata Mgeladze, leader of the Batumi branch of the Party of Industrialists, said that the regional leadership is not supportive of Ajarian interests, "None of them is speaking openly about the drastically reduced budget, or about the republic [Ajaria] losing its real autonomy.”


As an example, Mgeladze claimed that President Saakashvili's order to increase the wages of traffic police as a way of reducing bribery was simply not being implemented in Ajaria.


Traffic police in Kobuleti told IWPR that over the past four months they have been paid only 40 lari (approximately 20 dollars) a month instead of the promised 400 lari.


"We were told that 400 lari is the salary for Tbilisi only. It has been reduced to 200 in Batumi and even less in Kobuleti. But we’re not even receiving that amount. Each of us is owed 1,000-1,200 lari," said a young policeman, who asked not to be named.


The policemen said they were sure the Georgian president was unaware of their problem.


However, Emzar Paksadze, a language and literature teacher in the Khulo district, said he felt deceived, and he holds Saakashvili to blame, "The president has said he loves the Ajarians. Yet for some reason, all the top officials in the security agencies are from Tbilisi. A lot of us have the impression that the president has dispatched punitive units. Even the Communists did not display such a lack of trust in the Ajarians.”


Hostility to law-enforcement chiefs brought in from outside came to a head came after police dispersed a demonstration in Batumi, held to protest against the arrests of the local government chiefs in Khulo and Shuakhevi districts, Nodar Kartsivadze and Otar Tsetskhladze, both of whom were popular locally.


There was strong criticism of Giorgi Papuashvili, appointed by Tbilisi as Ajaria’s interior ministry chief.


Nestan Tsetskhladze, a reporter for the Rustavi-2 television channel, said, "Papuashvili used Aslan Abashidze's methods. He blocked off entry points to the city. Masked men tried to smash cameras and attacked journalists standing near the courthouse."


Papuashvili subsequently turned down a summons from the Ajarian parliament to account for his actions.


The incident highlighted the broader tensions which have accompanied the imposition of Tbilisi’s will on this once wayward part of the country. It is a process diplomatically described as a "redistribution of spheres of influence" by the Ajarian media.


The state-run media is itself undergoing similar turmoil: the authorities are taking radical steps to reform broadcast and print outlets that - with a few exceptions - used to toe the Abashidze line.


In a surprise move, 120 staff from the Ajarian Television and Radio and the Achara newspaper were dismissed in early November.


Some journalists who had hoped for a new era of freedom are disappointed by the changes.


"The TV station was able to work properly for just two months,” complained Anano Sirabidze, one of the sacked television reporters, predicting a return to the culture of slavish compliance with which local journalists are all too familiar.


Sibaridze said she was removed for being too critical of the new order, "Initially, the leadership tried to hinder me from broadcasting comments by NGOs and political organisations opposed to the Ajarian government, and now they have simply sacked me.”


She claimed that Avto Gadakhabidze, the deputy chairman of Ajarian TV, told her “that I am against the people because I am against the president's decisions".


Gadakhabidze told IWPR that the journalists were dismissed for professional reasons, "We are in fact shaping a new television, and this is happening as an initiative by the president [Saakashvili] and the Ajarian leadership.”


Eter Turadze is editor of Gazeta Batumelebi newspaper in Ajaria.