Most of the government’s decisions are routine in nature and ordinary people rarely feel their effect in everyday life, writes David Losaberidze, project coordinator at Caucasus Institute for Peace Democracy and Development.
From time to time, however, the government makes a decision that disrupts the established way of doing things and is greeted with outrage and uproar from the public.
One of the examples is the government’s decision, made in 2010, to make a household’s monthly waste disposal bill dependent on how much electricity it consumed that month. It means that the more electricity a household consumes, the more it will be charged for waste collection and recycling. What is worse, if a household is unable or unwilling to pay the waste disposal bill, its power supply will be cut off, even if it pays the electricity bill fully and in time.
The decision sparked a considerable controversy. It is important to note that the capital’s electricity distribution grid is owned by a private company, while the waste disposal service belongs to the city government. This led many commentators and experts to wonder how the two managed to reach such a deal. Why did the private company agree to take on additional responsibilities? How is the government going to administer the new payment scheme without meddling in the procedures of the private company? But the biggest question is whether the private company is truly private and independent or affiliated to the government.
The general public reacted to the decision with resentment and indignation. People asked why the households that consume a lot of energy but produce little waste and those with low power consumption but a lot of waste should be charged the same amount of money.
In Georgia such controversies are often a subject of jokes and satire. This one was no exception – “Switch off the lights, the electricity meter is producing too much rubbish”.
To better understand the underlying philosophy that led to the decision, it is necessary to look into the government’s logic behind its move. If households are charged a fixed waste disposal fee based on the number of the household members, it can be easily noticed that the country’s total population is in fact 3 mln citizens, not 4.5 mln as claimed by the authorities. It means that at the next elections the government will be no longer able to staff ballot boxes with about one million “virtual votes” in favour of the ruling party. On the other hand, if officials inflate the country’s population size, i.e. increase the number of “dead souls”, they will have to spend more budgetary resources.
It is an open secret that even the government does not view official statistics as trustworthy. That is why authorities devised a simple solution – they “linked” the waste disposal bill to the number of apartments and residential villas, no matter how many people live in each. Indeed, as long as every house and apartment is equipped with an electricity meter, it is very easy to calculate how much energy each of them consumes a month. If lights are on in a house or apartment, it can be assumed that it is not empty and at least one resident is inside, consuming electricity and, respectively, generating some waste.
Anyhow, the problem prompted a national outcry, though such controversial decisions are not new for Georgia. On March 27, 2009, for instance, the parliament passed amendments to the law on local self-government, which “empowered” local self-governments to provide “voluntary” material and technical assistance to central governmental bodies. It should be noted that even though the amendments were made in March 2009, they were declared effective from January 1, 2006, in order to give legitimacy to material and technical “assistance” the central governmental institutions received from local self-governments, in breach of then legislation, in 2006-2008. I remember than when I was in Strasbourg, at one of the meetings of the Council of Europe, our European colleagues made a lot of fun of what they said was “Georgian judicial humour”.
But jokes aside, the central government’s decision had very bad consequences, as the division of powers and responsibilities between the national and local level has become even more obscure. Local self-governments provide “voluntary” support for central governmental institutions (for example, build new police stations or buy new police cars) but, at the same time, are unable – due to lack of funds – to implement their own functions and responsibilities (for instance, to build a new kindergarten).
On the other hand, the central government allocates substantial sums of money to local-level infrastructure development and reconstruction projects (for instance, fountains in municipal centres, etc). Even the household water supply service is in the hands of the central government in Georgia, even though in all other countries it has always been the prerogative of local self-government. Small wonder that prices for water have gone up while the quality of service fell down.
In 2010, according to available data, the central government’s regional programs budget (municipal projects fund – 240 mln GEL and the municipal development fund – 202 mln GEL) by far exceeded aggregated annual own revenues of the country’s local self-governments (180 mln GEL in total).
The Village Support Program – named by respondents in many rural communities as one of the most essential and urgent goals – is, too, funded by the state and its priorities and target regions are determined by the central government. It is quite curious to see the results of such a policy. In one municipality, for instance, all local residents, to a man and a woman, appeared unanimous in their opinion that what their region needs first and foremost is a new red-painted bus stop, while the entire population of another municipality gave equally unanimous support to the idea to set up a football pitch in every local village.
This phenomenon may lead some sceptics to claim that the “voice of the people” varies by region because priorities of the regional development are completely arbitrarily decided by the central government.
The lack of adequately trained and skilled human resources in the municipalities and the excessive politisation of the decision-making process (especially the so-called “vote buying” tactics widely applied in election campaigns) put the finishing touch on the picture of the idyll life in Georgian regions.
Such an unclear and confusing division of functions and responsibilities, and overcentralisation of powers increase the cost of public service and, at the same time, reduce its effectiveness and efficiency, especially at the regional level.
The above-described reality apparently contradicts the government’s stated libertarian principles. The main concept of the Georgian ultra-libertarians – “Drag people towards happy Capitalist future” (just replace the word “Capitalism” with “Socialism” and you will get a famous Bolshevik slogan) – is designed to justify the ever increasing role and power of the state’s bureaucracy.
Instead of achieving the planned goals, the government’s such actions and policies – sometimes deliberate, sometimes merely ill-informed – can lead to unexpected results and turn Georgia into a parody of what Hobbes and Voltaire described as “enlightened absolutism” – Unenlightened Absolutism.
David Losaberidze is project coordinator at the Caucasus Institute for Peace Democracy and Development.