Democracy on the move in Georgia

By bne IntelliNews May 7, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

The Georgian government is moving the country's parliament over 200 kilometres from the capital Tbilisi. Officially, the new location is a bid to support development in the country's poor regions; critics charge the move is just the latest effort to stymie the types of protests that led to the Rose Revolution in 2003.

On May 26, Georgian Independence Day, the Georgian parliament will have its first session in Kutaisi, a Soviet-era industrial town that has fallen into decay over the past two decades. As such, an airport and housing, to help members of parliament with the commute, are also under construction.

Designed by the Spanish firm CMD Ingenieros - one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's go-to architects - the new parliament is a futuristic globe of glass, complete with a moat and spacious gardens. The new building is a far cry from the Lavrenty Beria-designed parliament in Tbilisi, which still sports Communist-era etchings and is rumoured to hide a secret tunnel that Beria used to travel to and from his home. The new location, according to Saakashvili, is a "historic" move for the country, and its people that underscores the government's efforts to decentralise and reform.

Saakashvili first floated the idea to move the parliament in 2009, following months of protests when the opposition was able to block the legislature from meeting with a handful of supporters. "That's new Georgia," he said in June. "Everything will be decided not by those same 100 people gathering at the same street [a reference to the 2009 protests on Rustaveli Avenue, where the current parliament is located], but by 4.7m people, who are the main decision-makers about the future of their country."

But the decision to relocate the parliament has skirted scandal since it was announced in 2009: a woman and her child were killed when a monument obstructing construction was improperly demolished. Recently, transparency watchdogs have charged the government effectively hid the cost of the building.

A report published in April tracked three years of blocked requests for the public documents that would allow watchdogs to track the project's reported GEL73.7 m (€34.3m) budget. Original, official estimates had put the price tag at around GEL57m.

A report about the construction project, published by the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, found that the "non-transparent process gives a legitimate reason to conclude, that GEL73.77m has been handled in absolutely vague and, possibly, in corrupt manner."

The move also leaves Tbilisi in a lurch: with no parliament, and a number of ministries also being relocated to other cities, the capital is at risk of losing its identity, claimed the Messenger, an English language newspaper. Soon, its editors noted in an April 25 editorial, the only thing left in Tbilisi will be the shopping.

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