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Power-sharing is the way forward for Georgia

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
April 16, 2004
Financial Times

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Mikhail Saakashvili's big victory in Georgia's parliamentary elections more than two weeks ago has given him enormous influence over Georgian politics. But the president is still unable to establish jurisdiction over parts of the country that resist central government control.

These areas are like black holes that erode governance, fuel corruption and undermine economic progress. Georgia was thrown into crisis last month, for instance, when Mr Saakashvili's motorcade was blocked from entering Ajaria, a mini-state on the Black Sea that refuses to accept the central government's authority. In addition, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have formally seceded and function as de facto independent entities.

By vowing to assert authority over the runaway regions and arriving in Ajaria unannounced, it initially appeared that Mr Saakashvili might have overplayed his hand. After turning away the president's motorcade at gunpoint, Aslan Abashidze, Ajaria's strongman, put the province on red alert. Georgia responded by blockading the Port of Batumi and sealing checkpoints. After a tense stand-off, the dispute was peacefully resolved when Mr Abashidze agreed to pay some remittances to the central government and to allow Ajarians to vote in national parliamentary elections on March 28.

During the crisis, Moscow was concerned that Russian troops could be caught in the middle of an armed confrontation. Russia has close connections to Mr Abashidze and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also has deep historical and cultural ties to Georgia, which it formally absorbed into the Russian empire in 1801. Moscow believes that control of the Caucasus is essential to projecting Russia's influence in the oil-rich Caspian region and the strategically located former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

While Georgia needs a strong leader to tackle serious problems, the country's long-term stability requires a system of power-sharing. A federal system, with extensive powers devolved to autonomous regions, is the best way to preserve Georgia's territorial integrity while promoting self-government in areas where the central government currently has little or no control.

Georgia's 1995 constitution is deliberately ambiguous about territorial arrangements pending "the full restoration of the jurisdiction of Georgia over the whole territory of the country". But inspiration can be drawn from the experience of autonomous areas in other countries, such as Cata lonia in Spain, South Tyrol in Italy and Greenland in Denmark.

To enhance legitimate local self-rule, Georgia's regions would retain authority over all affairs except those explicitly reserved for the state. The central government would retain an important role in matters such as border control. Georgia's central bank would govern monetary policy and the Georgian currency would be used across the country.

To strengthen local governance, the regions would each have an executive body, a regional parliament and a local judiciary. They would participate in some international organisations and open official trade offices in foreign countries. They would be responsible for their own public security and safety while sharing responsibility with the central government for the collection of customs.

In addition, the regions would manage natural resources not specifically mandated to be under joint control. They would levy and retain taxes on specific goods and would be able to conduct direct foreign trade and have authority over labour matters and land ownership. They would be responsible for local education, including school curriculums, and would each have their own flag, seal and anthem.

Since coming to office in January through the non-violent "revolution of roses", Mr Saakashvili has increased state revenues by 25 per cent, paid pensions on time, and has boldly arrested corrupt officials. However, an excessively robust exercise of power may backfire when it comes to dealing with secessionist leaders. Power-sharing - instead of confrontation - is needed to bring secessionist regions back into the fold.

Rather than go it alone, Mr Saakashvili should initiate discussions about power-sharing with Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Instead of blaming Russia for Georgia's ills, he should seek Moscow's assistance in encouraging secessionists to consider a highly decentralised, asymmetrical federal structure.

Federalism is a win-win formula that enables local self-rule while preserving territorial integrity. Through power-sharing, Georgia could transform itself from a borderline failed state into a model federal state that fulfils the democratic aspirations of its citizens.


David Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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