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

Georgia: NGO Activists Take Control

Kutaisi’s local government is now mostly composed of former civil society workers – leaving nobody to keep a critical eye on the authorities.
By Natia Kuprashvili

In Georgia’s second city Kutaisi, the “Rose Revolution” has ushered in a local government composed almost entirely of former activists from non-governmental organisations – ironically weakening the very bodies that once kept a critical eye on the authorities.

Kutaisi once had a thriving civil society sector compared to other Georgian cities, culminating in the creation of the so-called NGO House by the Danish Refugee Council in 1999.

Local journalist Nino Dzagnidze told IWPR that the NGO House had issued countless dossiers criticising the previous regime’s track record in the city, but that its activity had slowed to a trickle after the Rose Revolution and had now stopped altogether.

"All leading representatives of the non-governmental sector have become the authorities themselves,” he said.

“The problems have not disappeared, but the house has been shut down and there's simply no one to monitor officials."

In the 14 months since the Rose Revolution, Georgia’s energetic president Mikhail Saakashvili has made root and branch changes in government departments, mostly bringing in young western-orientated specialists and former opposition activists. Often these are from NGOs, the driving force of the revolution.

That has helped transform the once bloated and corrupt post-Soviet bureaucracies, but conversely has also robbed the country of the watchdogs who might hold current and future governments to account.

"The country's regions, which are already lagging far behind the capital in terms of young, independent-minded professionals, now find themselves facing a real deficit of staff,” said Giga Shushania, deputy governor of Imereti.

Shushania once headed the Democracy Promotion Centre before joining forces with two members of the influential Young Lawyers' Association, Givi Jibladze and Kakha Gvantseladze, to lead the local revolution in Kutaisi, which led to the dismissal of the area’s mayor.

Initially, the trio said they aimed not to take power themselves, but to bring democracy and to improve the daily lives of people in the area. Today, all the three are part of the authorities. Jibladze now serves as deputy mayor, while Gvantseladze sits on the city council.

Meanwhile, Kutaisi’s acting mayor Giorgy Giorgadze has come under fire for what many analysts and members of the public allege is his lack of professionalism and inability to help the region out of its economic misery.

Local resident Samshe Pakhuridze, 60, told IWPR, "Firewood, a candle, kerosene, a well and a heap of blankets are the major components of our life as the gas is cut off now and again because of non-payment. But we have no opportunities to earn money and pay for it.

“This winter is just as awful as many previous ones. So what is the difference between the city's new chief and his predecessor?"

But Giorgadze defends his record in power. “We have fenced off the rubbish dump and there is work taking place on the drainage system,” he said,

“We have completed installation of gas supplies to two city districts. There are intensive repairs to the streets and we are resolving the question of street lighting

“We work without a break – it is just that there are many problems. I am sure that it will all be solved stage by stage.”

The resentment, though, also feeds on a general view that Giorgadze was edged into his job by the country's central authorities.

“Officially, everything has been done lawfully,” Madonna Basiladze, of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, told IWPR. “Former Kutaisi mayor Nugzar Paliani had declared Giorgadze his first deputy before he sent in a ‘voluntary’ resignation.”

However, Basiladze claims that the new authorities in Tbilisi “mostly forced Paliani” into both courses of actions.

New mayoral elections will take place in due course, but Saakashvili and his two chief allies - Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze, who is also a Kutaisi deputy - have yet to fix a date.

Sulkhan Kobuladze, leader of the NGO Public Interests Protection Centre, told IWPR that the new government is taking advantage of the lack of opposition.

“I think that this vacuum has been created artificially,” he said.

“The new authorities - which are manned with people who got their positions in return for their revolutionary activities, not because of professional merits - are benefiting from the weakening of [NGO scrutiny].

“Most representatives of the NGO sector in Kutaisi have been furnished with positions in the government. Those who have remained are embarrassed to stand up against their former brothers-in-arms."

However, Shushania disputes such allegations, claiming in turn that while NGO activists were crucial to the success of the Rose Revolution, they did not receive government jobs purely as a reward.

And in a recent interview with IWPR, President Saakashvili said that it was perfectly normal for a new government to put its own people into power.

“In every country the people who come into power are the same people who helped the authorities in some way, especially before a revolution,” he said.

And he added that Georgia would benefit from what was “a completely new generation” in government.

“We have never had governors with American or European university education, who speak several foreign languages. Now we do. These people are active and very orderly.”

Shushania feels that the current dearth of civil society activists in the area will soon be rectified. "In time a new generation of NGOs will be created, and they will be as active as our associations once were,” he said.

But many observers believe that this may not be so simple to achieve. Giorgy Gabunia, 21, wants to create a new NGO in Kutaisi but concedes that he will probably not manage to do so.

"An active NGO needs financing,” Gabunia said. “When Shushania and representatives of his generation were setting up [their movements], international organisations provided weighty grants in support.

“In addition to all that, there was the NGO House, where one could use the office premises and equipment free of charge. Nowadays we have no such opportunity.”

Natia Kuprashvili is a correspondent in Kutaisi for IWPR’s newspaper Panorama.