Local Self-Government, Upcoming Local Elections and IDPs – accountability, responsibility and participation

Within the framework of the project “IDP Public Debates” the Heinrich Boell Foundation organized the series of public discussions for the community of IDPs in Gori, Tskaltubo and Zugdidi.

The topic of discussions for all three debates was: “Local Self-Government, Upcoming Local Elections and IDPs – accountability, responsibility and participation”. As a result of the discussions held in Gori, Tskaltubo and Zugdidi one major problem was outlined – the most urgent issues that concern the IDP society are unfortunately beyond the competence of the local government and all the questions that are raised during such debates are not possible to be answered thoroughly from the side of the local government representatives.

During the debates in Gori held on 27th of April 2010 the main speakers were representative of the local self-government body - Chairman of the Sakrebulo (local representative body) Zviad Khmaladze, the Head of the Gori District Election Commission Giorgi Khorbaladze and the expert on local self-government issues Tengiz Shergelashvili. The discussion was moderated by Jana Javakhishvili, a psychologist and representative of the organization “Global Initiative in Psychiatry“.
IDPs from the settlements of Karaleti, Skra, Shavshvebi and Verkhvebi participated in the discussion. The debates gave the participants the opportunity to talk frankly about their concerns, to listen to the invited experts and discuss ways of solving the existing problems that affect their everyday lives.

Zviad Khmaladze, Chairman of the Gori Sakrebulo delivered a speech about the functions and responsibilities of local representative bodies and underlined that the work of Sakrebulo must be transparent and all the running programs must be available for every member of local society. He put emphasis on the special service bureau established in the local municipality council that gives the opportunity to every member of the local community to raise their concerns directly with the bureau.

Giorgi Khorbaladze, Chairman of the District Election Commission explained the participants their voting rights and the procedures regarding how to participate in upcoming local elections. It was also explained that IDPs vote for proportional party lists as well as for majoritarian candidates.

Tengiz Shergelashvili, an expert on self-government issues delivered a speech on the subject of distribution of power on different governmental levels and talked about the functions of central, regional and municipal governments. He also gave examples of best practices from other countries, their systems and models. He explained that development of local self-governments is an ongoing procedure and active civil society is the key for successful developments in the country.

After listening to the speakers, the participants had the opportunity to discuss the issues of their interest, ask questions and talk about their current problems. The most urgent concerns that affect IDPs’ everyday lives among others were damaged cottages, flooded back yards and lands, stray dogs, gasification problems, electricity charges that they are not able to pay, lack of electricity supply, and unemployment problems. Although a number of these problems cannot be solved on the local level, but are under the competences of the central government, the Chairman of Sakrebulo promised the participants to consider them carefully and act as the mediator between the IDPs and the central governmental bodies.

Every speaker underlined the importance of active participation of IDPs in community life, in decision-making process and in upcoming elections, as awareness raising and participation are the key to success and further democratic developments in the country.

The second discussion was held in Tskaltubo on 7th of May 2010. The Tskaltubo debates hosted as the main speakers: The Chairman of Tskaltubo representative body Mamuka Sagareishvili, representative of the District Election Commission -- Giorgi Nizharadze and expert on local government issues Tengiz Shergelashvili, who had previously participated in the Gori debate. The debate in Tskaltubo was moderated by Nino Kalandarishvili, representative of Research Center for Nationalism and Conflicts.

The main issues addressed were: What is the local self-government? Why is it important to know the mechanisms of cooperation between society and self-government, how to make local government responsible and hold it accountable to society and how to be part of decision-making processes? Is the participation in local elections one of the keys to become the part of decision-making process and to be heard in order to solve the existing problems that concern the society?

The problems and concerns discussed by the participating IDPs slightly differed from the concerns raised during the debates in Gori. Here the major concern was the state strategy towards the IDPs. Tskaltubo IDP society worries about the housing plan that is not clear to them and the lack of inclusion in discussions and decision-making processes. The Chairman of Sakrebulo talked about the severe conditions the IDPs have to live in, i.e. different former sanatoriums and kindergarten buildings. He explained that these buildings are not the property of local municipality and thus the local budget does not allow any spending for renovations and repairs. Mamuka Sagareishvili underlined that new buildings for IDPs are under construction and will be ready in two years. Meanwhile the Ministry of Refugees and Housing will spend 220,000.00 Lari to repair sixteen sanatoriums the IDPs currently live in.

The participants expressed concerns that they have never been consulted whether they want to move from their current houses to new buildings. They also have no information about whether they will be able to stay and live in the same district or will have to move elsewhere from Tskaltubo. This issue once again underlined the importance of active participation and involvement as well as the need of improvement of communication between community and local government representatives. The discussion again raised the issue of competence of local government and distribution of powers among different levels of government. The moderator of the event Nino Kalandarishvili stated that after the action plan of state strategy on housing of the IDPs will be completed, most of the issues raised during the discussion will be turned over to the local government. Thus, the importance for the IDPs to be more active, participate in elections, request more information from local representatives and become the part of decision-making processes in Tskaltubo was stressed once more.
The next debates held in Zugdidi on 14th of May 2010 hosted the speakers: Levan Makatsaria –  Chairman of the Commission on Social Issues of Zugdidi Sakrebulo, Giorgi Pipia Deputy Chair of Zugdidi District Election Commission, and Konstantine Kandelaki Chairman of the Board of International Centre for Civil Culture. The discussion was moderated by Alexander Rusetsky.

The participants of the debate were from the IDP community settled 17 years ago in Zugdidi. they currently live in various settlement centers such as former kindergartens, schools and university buildings. Representatives of the local media and NGO sector also actively participated in the discussions and expressed their views and concerns regarding the issues of local self-government, upcoming elections and IDP participation in elections and in municipality life in general.
Again, the problems discussed were the severe conditions the IDPs live in – communal charges, electricity, lack of water supply, etc. IDPs and local journalists also underlined the problem of communication between IDPs and the local government, lack of information and involvement in decision-making processes. The state strategy on housing was a major concern also in Zugdidi. The IDPs have problems with privatizing the land or buildings they are living in almost for 17 years already. Misunderstandings and unclear information on such issues as privatization are a cause of frustration.

It was also stated that local IDPs have very small information about the election campaign and election procedures. The representative of the District Election Commission explained to the participants their rights and informed the audience about the hot-line established by the election commission. He also stated the difficulties the Elections Commission has regarding the registration of IDPs, due to unproper registration of IDPs. He expressed his hope that the future housing strategy will resolve a number of problems and encouraged participants to be actively involved in the ongoing procedures. Giorgi Pipia stated that election Commission actively cooperates with local media and this can serve as an informing mechanism for local IDPs regarding elections issues.

After the speech of Konstantine Kandelaki on the issues of self-government, distribution of powers, responsibilities and accountability, the participating journalists stated that the current law on local self-government does not allow for local bodies to make independent decisions and until the powers are not separated and decentralized, every election will yield the same outcome. He also underlined the need of political parties to be more informative and active during the election campaign, while local society has to be more active in participating and decision-making. He stressed the fact that information is the main mechanism of holding local governments accountable and responsible.

The participants of the discussions held in Gori, Tskaltubo and Zugdidi all highlighted the importance of such debates and public discussions. They serve as a venue for information sharing, decision-making and awareness-raising in order to strengthen civil society. In addition, they encourage IDPs to become more active and hold their representatives more accountable. All of these factors are keys for future development and democratization.