STORY: KUTAISI -- COMEBACK IN THE WORKS? Print this page  |  Email this page   
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 as well.

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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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