State Spending Ahead of Poll Under Suspicion

Transparency International points to significant rise in public expenditure in advance of municipal elections.

By Anna Kandelaki in Tbilisi (CRS No. 538, 2-Apr-10)

The Georgian authorities have come under criticism from anti-corruption activists for raising local government spending in the run-up to local elections.

Transparency International Georgia released a survey of government spending on March 29, with two months still to go until the polls, the most important of which will be for Tbilisi mayor.

“There has been an unprecedented rise in the sums spent from the state budget on the organs of local government. The total volume of transfers intended for these bodies, compared to the same period of last year, has risen by 34 per cent,” the organisation said.

It said that in 2010 the Tbilisi city budget will be 570.8 million lari (325 million US dollars) which is 84 million more than last year.

The ruling party, the National Movement, has not yet announced its candidate for the mayor’s position, which will be elected directly for the first time. David Bakradze, the party chairman, gave a strong hint that the current mayor will win the endorsement.

“Everyone would be surprised if it was not Gigi Ugulava,” he said.

By law, Ugulava can keep working as mayor until the elections, meaning he can campaign from the comfort of City Hall and that is what activists accuse him of doing with the mass expenditure.

Every day, and sometimes more frequently, the mayor meets with representatives of different sections of society: with teachers, or refugees, or pensioners. The elections are not discussed, but he reportedly lets them know he will solve their problems.

The mayor’s office also publicises the major projects it has undertaken – the restoration of ancient regions of the city, the construction of a new road. The 2010 budget includes 12 million laris for repairing lifts, more than 20 million laris for increasing pensions and a voucher scheme giving pensioners access to 25 million laris of medicine.

All of these schemes are advertised in the media and on billboards, which show the mayor and announce that “he loves Tbilisi”.

Not only that but the number of City Hall employees has increased by 410, and more than 5.5 million laris is being spent on their salaries.

“The number of workers at the mayor’s office has increased markedly, and also the departments of the presidential envoys in other regions. According to the opponents of the authorities, this is using state money to employ people who will take part in the authorities’ pre-election campaigns,” Transparency International said.

And it is not alone in its criticism of the current system. Eka Siradze, director of Fair Elections Georgia, said the mayor should take a break from his work in the run-up to the elections.

“We plan to appeal to Ugulava so, after he is registered as a candidate for the mayor’s position, he takes a holiday and takes part in the electoral campaign on the same conditions as the other candidates,” Siradze said.

The mayor himself and the government deny any exploitation of their administrative resources and say they are just going about their normal business. President Mikhail Saakashvili, speaking to parliament on February 27, was categorical in his rejection of any such corrupt practises.

“Administrative resources must not be exploited, the elections must be held in the most free and democratic environment,” he said.

According to Sozar Subari, a former human rights ombudsman, and representative of the Alliance for Georgia movement, one of the main parts of the fractured opposition, it will be very hard however to keep any tabs on the amount Ugulava spends on his campaign.

“Gigi Ugulava is running around in his role as mayor and is conducting his pre-election campaign but not calling it a campaign. As a result, it will be very hard to control the amount that is spent from municipal finances,” he said.

The National Movement, meanwhile, said that the party could not afford to have a proper electoral campaign for its candidate.

“Some people will probably appear who will finance the campaign, and we are working in this direction. We are appealing to various individuals and companies with a request to help the National Movement,” Mikheil Machavariani, secretary of the party’s political council, said, adding that the party’s expenditure during the campaign will be completely transparent.

According to an opinion poll held in the first half of March, Ugulava is a strong favourite for the mayoral position, with 46 per cent of support. The opposition figure Irakli Alasania is second with jus t 11 per cent.

Experts say that Alasania would have only a chance of winning the poll if the whole opposition united behind him. An attempt to find a united opposition candidate has failed, however and now the anti-government groups are as dispersed as ever.

“As for the authorities’ chances, you have to say they are very high. This is not because they are widely trusted, but because they do not have adequate opponents, or consolidated groups that could compete with the large resources the government can mobilise against them,” Giorgi Khukhashvili, director of the Centre for Social Projects think tank, said.

“The government’s strength is not trust. It is these large administrative and financial resources, and also other instruments. A group capable of opposing this is not visible and what there is is very disunited.”

Anna Kandelaki is a freelance journalist.