"Georgia is in the phase where we must create basic state institutions, because under Shevardnadze the state collapsed," according to Zurab Tchiaberashvili, mayor of the city of Tbilisi. At an 8 March 2005 Kennan Institute talk, Tchiaberashvili described how his government is attempting to address Tbilisi's many urban problems and develop civic institutions in Georgia's new political climate. Tchiaberashvili himself has a background in academia and the nongovernmental sector, and was appointed mayor in 2004 by the newly elected president, Mikhail Saakashvili.
Tchiaberashvili explained that Tbilisi is Georgia's largest city, with a population of 1.2 million. Tbilisi contains one third of the country's total population and produces two thirds of its economy. Because the city has such national importance, he noted, the mayor of Tbilisi is appointed by the president. The city is divided into five municipalities for administrative purposes, and the government consists of the mayor and an elected City Council.
According to Tchiaberashvili, the city government of Tbilisi needs to be restructured. He argued that the division of responsibilities, both between City Hall and the municipalities, and among the different departments within City Hall, is often unclear. At the same time, he explained, Tbilisi faces serious problems with its urban infrastructure, including the water, sewage, electric, and public transportation systems. For Tchiaberashvili, "the main challenge is that on the one hand, we have to work to improve the city services…but at the same time we are in the process of transition, we have to restructure the system." An additional problem that Tchiaberashvili has faced is public perception of city government as highly corrupt. He noted that his experience in improving the negative reputation of Georgia's Central Elections Commission led him to believe that he could easily change the reputation of City Hall. Unfortunately, he said, its reputation for corruption persists, making it difficult to compete with the private sector in hiring qualified employees.
When Tchiaberashvili began his tenure as mayor, he explained, he believed that decentralization would help solve Tbilisi's problems, and considered splitting the city's five municipalities into 20 or 30. However, as he became more aware of the problems that the city faces, he decided that a decentralized government would not be appropriate for Tbilisi at this point in its development, for two main reasons. The first reason, according to Tchiaberashvili, is that the municipalities would have no tax base from which to work: "The municipality councils would be like discussion groups only, because they would be dependent on how much we gave them from the central budget of Tbilisi," he said.
The second reason not to decentralize Tbilisi, in Tchiaberashvili's view, is that the city currently needs a master plan for development, which can be more effectively written by City Hall than by municipal councils. The absence of a strategic plan, he explained, has allowed developers to begin construction projects without approval from the city government. Development is occurring primarily in Tbilisi's historic center, which both jeopardizes the city's architectural heritage and neglects the areas of the city that most need development, he argued. Uneven development, which began in Soviet times, has alienated many residents, who do not see themselves as citizens of Tbilisi and are not involved in city life and decision-making.
Tchiaberashvili described the strategic plan that his administration has created. The plan encourages development on the undeveloped left bank of the Mtkvari River by taking land away from the railway and making it available to road-building and construction projects. According to Tchiaberashvili, the city's draft plan has been presented to the public through newspapers. He noted that although the plan is still in its early stages of development, "this is the first time since independence that the city has had something to discuss with the public."
Civic participation is an important issue for Tchiaberashvili. He explained that in addition to encouraging development of undeveloped neighborhoods, he is working to develop communities and encourage residents to form neighborhood and building associations. For example, instead of having the city directly hire contractors to perform repair work in residential buildings, neighborhood groups can now apply for grants to hire contractors themselves. This is also a means of fighting corruption, since residents have more interest than city officials in making sure that the work is done well, he noted.
Tchiaberashvili has been criticized by his former colleagues in the democratic opposition for turning back from his original plans to decentralize the Tbilisi government. He noted that in the post-Soviet space, people who come into government from opposition parties or civil society tend to become centralists as soon as they become government officials. However, Tchaiberashvili believes that his changed opinion reflects a more accurate understanding of the challenges of governing Tbilisi. "When we think about changing trends, when we think about diverting development to the left bank, it would be very difficult with a decentralized political and administrative system in the city," he said.