Address by Mr Khukhunaishvili (Georgia)

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be representing my country before you on the 26th of May, the date on which my country celebrates its independence. It is the first 26th of May since the Rose Revolution, and my compatriots are celebrating it with a new flag, a new anthem, a new coat of arms and, in particular, new authorities and new ideas. I should like to extend my sincere congratulations on Independence Day to the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia and to all my colleagues. Unfortunately, Soviet intervention in the three republics in 1921 prevented the South Caucasus from developing independently, and it is for precisely that reason that these countries, which were recognised by the League of Nations, had to spend a long time some eight or nine years ago persuading their colleagues here at the Council of Europe that the whole of the South Caucasus - Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - was part and parcel of Europe. Today we stand shoulder to shoulder with you and fully endorse your desire to share all forms of progress but also all the problems facing the European fold, and to ensure that the ideals upheld by the member states of the Council of Europe, separately and within our Organisation, prevail in our country.

The reality of the Soviet era has left us with a legacy that places an extremely heavy burden on us. Among the many problems, attention must be drawn to the complete absence of decentralisation. In my country, one of the most highly centralised ones, many excellent traditions for solving local problems on the spot have been uprooted. We have therefore have had to start again from scratch. This problem has been compounded by the lack of political will on the part of the previous regime to carry out the reforms needed in the country. It was not until 1997 that the law laying the foundations for local authorities was passed and, under this extraordinarily strange legal instrument, genuine power again rested with the central authorities, to the detriment of local authorities. Despite the fact that the law provided for a whole series of legislation essential for reform purposes, so far we have been faced with a legal vacuum.

In 1999, when it joined the Council of Europe, Georgia entered into a number of commitments, including a commitment to prepare the legal foundations for decentralisation and reform the apportionment of powers and responsibilities. At this point I should like to talk about our colleagues' report on the situation in Georgia and thank them for their competence and painstaking work. The report is impartial, but at the same time seeks to understand our problems. I should like to comment on some of the rapporteurs' remarks.

1. The European Charter of Local Self-Government has not yet been ratified. It was signed in 2002 and has now been forwarded to Parliament for ratification. Our parliamentary committee has actively set the relevant procedure in motion and we expect the charter to be ratified in September.

2. Our colleagues recommend that we amend the law laying down principles governing local authorities and local democracy. We plan to pass a completely new law laying down these basic principles, which will be fully compatible with those set out in the Charter. The operation of local outposts of central government will be dealt with in other legislation. We are firmly resolved that the law in question should provide for the election of all mayors and chairs of local and regional councils, and that those chairs should be responsible solely to their elected councils. To date, the rights of local authorities have existed at best on paper and spheres of responsibility have not been defined.

3. The Charter provides for the consultation of local authorities when local interests are at stake. There is no such provision in the existing law. Consultation is provided for in only one circumstance, and that is when powers are delegated to local authorities.

4. The next point is fundamental, and is clearly dealt with in the Charter, but is unfortunately not reflected in Georgian legislation. I am talking of the financial autonomy of local authorities. You are well aware that the mere fact of electing local representatives, without ensuring financial autonomy, will not establish genuine local democracy. The 1997 law stipulated that issues concerning local authority finances, budgetary responsibilities, ownership/property and economic activity had to be settled within six months. Unfortunately, nothing has been done so far. The Shevardnadze government twice adopted State programmes concerning municipal development, which involved the transformation of centralised government and the apportionment of powers and responsibilities between the central authorities and the local and regional authorities. Unfortunately, all this remained a dead letter. The lack of budgetary federalism destroyed the very roots of local democracy and provided a breeding ground for corruption. All these problems became apparent when the Georgian Parliament examined the 2004 budget. It was pointed out that not a single local budget had been adopted, and that budgetary activity at local level was therefore unlawful. The budgets are drawn up seven or eight months after the start of the year, which obviously makes it impossible to pursue a full regional policy. My country's executive has stated that it is firmly resolved that Parliament should receive the draft legislation governing essential local democracy issues - finance, budget, powers and responsibilities, ownership/property - at the autumn session.

5. The disintegration of the Soviet system and the establishment of new legal bases raised new problems connected with the training of civil servants and local councillors. The Council of Europe is very active in this field and is pursuing various programmes for the benefit of the Georgia and the rest of the South Caucasus in conjunction with the European Commission. Every effort has been made to set up a special training centre for civil servants and local councillors. Special methodology also needs to be devised.

6. One very serious remark concerns the lack of a national association of local authorities in Georgia. Clearly, such an association would be responsible for upholding the interests of the various tiers of local authorities vis-à-vis the central authorities, but also for developing relations between regions. It would also be in charge of relations with the Congress, and particularly for training our delegation. It is a great pity that Georgia is not officially represented by a delegation at this session. The Congress is currently carrying out a scheme to develop associations in Georgia, under the leadership of Olovier Treine, as a result of which a national association will be set up. The local elections that are to take place in Georgia next year will be an additional incentive for setting up such an association.

7. Georgian legislation needs improving in the light of the provisions of the European Charter concerning local authority boundaries. The experts recommend that we enter a provisional reservation in respect of the article of the Charter that concerns the integrity of municipal boundaries.

8. Our legislation does not meet the Charter's requirements as regards the legal protection of local democracy and administrative supervision.

9. One of the most serious problems is territorial organisation, which has still not been settled. It is impossible to go ahead with decentralisation without establishing the principles underpinning the territorial organisation of the State. In order to promote local democracy, it is essential to carry out territorial reform and insert the corresponding articles in the Constitution. A government programme to this effect was to have been drawn up by 15 December 2002, but nothing was done. As soon as he came to power, President Saakashvili expressed a firm political resolved to change things. A Minister directly responsible for these matters, Mr Zurab Melikishvili, has been appointed, and a government committee has begun working under his leadership. A State committee is shortly to be set up under the President's authority, comprised of senior civil servants, parliamentarians and NGO representatives. Georgian and foreign experts, including, of course, Council of Europe experts, will be invited to take an active part in its work.

All this gives me reason to hope that in the space of a year we shall be able to find solutions to the following problems:

1. The territorial organisation of the country;

2. The status of the different tiers of local democracy units, with due regard for socio-economic and historical features;

3. The structure of the management system at local level;

4. The responsibilities of that system, including exclusive and delegated powers, the bases of a local budgetary system and ownership/property issues.



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