The Case For Georgian Federalism


In conversations about the future of the Georgian constitutional republic, [1] much of the focus has been on the level of power wielded by the president, the prime minister (and thus, parliament), and the like. These are important questions that demand vigorous and thoughtful discussion, but these debates are built on assumptions that themselves have not been fully and adequately explored. As necessary as these questions are, they ignore a more fundamental issue: how much power should be accumulated at the center?

This past April, Levan Varshalomidze, the leader of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic, broke with the standard etiquette that had come to typify Batumi-Tbilisi intergovernmental relations since the ouster of strongman Aslan Abashidze in 2004. For the first time, the leader of Adjara — himself known to be a political ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his inner circle — forcefully criticized the strictures that were being placed on the Adjaran government by Tbilisi.

“[Adjara’s ministries] have to wait until a Tbilisi-based bureaucrat signs a document,” Varshalomidze said. “It is simply unacceptable; it’s not right and it’s alarming.” [2] The Adjaran leader went on to explain how increased powers to local government could streamline services, assist entrepreneurs, and have a better understanding of local issues — arguments that are usually the root of most justifications for federalization.

Tbilisi’s wariness at the prospect of expanding the powers of local government is somewhat understandable, given recent history. As noted, six years ago, relations between Batumi and Tbilisi better resembled a relationship between two states than two places in the same country. Under Abashidze, who cleverly never claimed Adjara to be a separate country, ‘border’ checkpoints were set up and passports were required to enter and leave the balmy, subtropical republic. Tbilisi’s sovereignty over the region was titular but barely noticeable.

Since the sweeping people-power protests in Adjara in 2004 that restored the constitutional norm, Adjaran autonomy has obviously lessened to a considerable degree. Tbilisi, for its part, is sensitive to the idea of re-delegating powers from the center back to the regions, for fear of a replay of the Abashidze days or, more ominously, something along the lines of a South Ossetia or Abkhazia situation. Those regions, after all, are hardly the only places with significant minority populations. Javakheti, a region populated by large numbers of ethnic Armenians, was once considered a separatist problem in the making as well. It’s even arguable that the reason it did not befall the same fate as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjara (pre-Abashidze) is because it lacked the geographic proximity and strategic location that the others did to justify extensive Russian support (Abashidze now lives comfortably in Moscow). It’s no wonder, then, that Georgian policymakers would not be eager to recreate the political conditions that led to the balkanization of their country and has historically incubated corruption.

However, Varshalomize’s protests indicate that they may have actually gone too far in their zeal for unity. Although Georgia is only roughly the size of the US state of South Carolina, it feels much bigger due to the country’s rough topography and varied climate, underdeveloped transportation infrastructure, and the diversity of ethnicities and sub-ethnicities that call this country their home. For many Westerners traveling around Georgia, this can make the country sometimes feel of being the ‘empire of Tbilisi’ rather than one continuous country, particularly in far flung areas where the police uniforms are shabbier, the cars older, and Tbilisi’s rules don’t quite apply.

In some ways, there are signs that the Tbilisi government is aware of this reality. In September 2009, Saakashvili announced in a UN speech that the country would be embarking on a major program of decentralization and was “committed to the direct election of all mayors in few months time.” [3] Needless to say, this promise was soon abandoned after Saakashvili’s allies in the United National Movement (UNM) made it known that they did not agree with such a bold move. With the exception of Tbilisi, mayoral elections were scuttled in a few months.

However, Saakashvili’s original words indicate that he recognized at least that delegating additional powers to local governmental structures would be a boon to the country’s democratic credibility. And combined with the Georgian government’s interesting decision to partially relocate the Georgian parliament to Kutaisi, [4] one does get the sense that the Tbilisi political establishment is at least nodding to the value of decentralization. That the ideas have either quietly died or been beset by error only reflects the government’s uncertainty about how such a move will affect the country’s future.

However, for all the possible good intentions (their relative failure notwithstanding), direct elections in the major cities and moving the parliament to Kutaisi appears to be much more symbolic than substantive. If Georgia is truly serious about the process of democratization, then a realistic look at the merits of genuine federalism demand the attention of Georgian lawmakers.

The outcome of such a process could have repercussions far beyond the political structure of Georgia itself. Although unification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain entirely out of reach for Tbilisi today — and for the foreseeable future — politics in the South Caucasus are not predictable things. Given the brewing discontent between nationalist Abkhazians and their Russian overlords, [5] it is not inconceivable that patience with the undemocratic and sometimes brutal management style of the FSB siloviki cadre in Abkhazia will run out sooner than many Caucasus watchers might think. If and when that day comes, how Georgia and Russia (and Turkey) will react will be of immense consequence.

For the Abkhazians, there is absolutely zero — and I mean zero — evidence that reuniting with Tbilisi will be anything but a replay of Georgian autocracy in the 1990s. While nothing justifies Sukhumi and Russia’s campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing (or Georgians’, for that matter), it’s clear that Abkhazians will go to great lengths to ensure that they retain a measure of self-determination for themselves. If that time comes and Abkhazia begins actively looking for alternatives to Russia’s version of democracy, Georgia must have a compelling package already on the table.

Today, Abkhazia is officially given the designation of ‘autonomous republic’ within Georgia, a curious label that would be slightly funny if it weren’t so brutally true. If Tbilisi began a slow but meaningful process towards the creation of a truly federal Georgia, where its constituent regions had realistic but significant power of self-government (Switzerland’s Cantons or the UAE’s Emirates are good potential models), it’s not out of the question to consider that Sukhumi might look at the idea of internationally-recognized, safely-autonomous government within Georgia as being preferably to being a personal fiefdom of Vladimir Putin and his ex-KGB circle. But this can only happen if Georgia has already built a credible federal system with a positive track record. This would be far preferable to Abkhazia being the sole exception to the rest of Georgia because it will always seem (as it does in Adjara today), that Tbilisi will be forever trying to undermine their autonomy. Nothing less than universal federalization of the regions will do.

This isn’t a magic bullet solution, but it’s something to consider. If Georgia is truly serious about advancing democracy in the country, economic growth, and proving to the world that it could be a peaceful and friendly partner to Abkhazia, there may not be a better way than leading by example and adopting a decentralized federal model.


[1] Although Georgia dropped ‘Republic of’ from its name, it is still considered to be technically a constitutional, semi-presidential republic.
[5] See:

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

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