- The Mayor’s Office is often criticized for a lack of communication with the society. Do you accept that criticism? Do you have a vision of how to communicate more proactively with the society?
Criticism for lack of communication is itself a healthy phenomenon. That criticism helps the Mayor’s Office to sober up because it expresses the constantly unsatisfied interest of society, including media and interest groups. Communication is a never-ending process and one cannot find an agency in the world which could say that it has accomplished everything in this regard.
On the other hand, a cliché exists – it is easy to criticize any agency for lack of communication. For example, I often hear criticism that the review of architectural projects is a closed process even though it has been nearly three years now that every project that is under consideration can be viewed on an interactive map of “Architecture Service” on the Tbilisi municipality’s webpage. Therefore, the problem is often two-sided.
- That is exactly what I mean under proactive communication – even if it is a two-sided problem – for the Mayor’s Office to try to communicate exhaustive information and be less in the position of being only a responder.
There are issues quite often – identical to the example of the interactive map – which are communicated through reports, seminars, conferences. A whole set of services has been made available online. We conduct campaigns about that as well. But, after completing this or that campaign, someone will write somewhere that, for example, a project was considered [in such a way] that they had not heard anything about it. There is also a sort of obsession, a politically motivated position to which you respond several times and then you just have to abandon it. For example, a storm was kicked up recently in social networks about Gudiashvili Square. That eyesore [an architectural illustration purporting to show the future look of the square] that was displayed on certain websites, first of all, offend me and my employees. After that, an explanation, the rehabilitation plan of Gudiashvili Square and photos were all posted on the municipal website. I also provided a separate explanation.
When several explanations prove futile, you have to wash your hands of it, turn around and leave. At the end of the day, a barometer of success of any state agency is the result. There are issues which require action rather than discussion. We always try to satisfy public interest, but that discussion cannot be endless. Much time has been lost anyway. Lots of things need to be attended to, including Gudiashvili Square itself. Rehabilitation of the old district of Tbilisi – and not only here but in other cities of Georgia – has not been conducted on this scale in the recent history. We will never have a discussion for the sake of discussion – that is our political choice and signature which is supported by the majority of the population.
- Certain people and groups criticize the Mayor’s Office time and again, saying that the historic appearance of the city is losing its authenticity and uniqueness. Do you have a clearly developed policy in this direction? What are the reasons that cause such dispute?
That dispute is very healthy and pleasant because it indicates, to say the least, that something is being done. We remember times when no one argued about the appearance of the city, the fabric of this or that district, or the authenticity of a building. On the other hand, architecture is an issue about which everyone has his/her own opinion. In ninety-nine percent of cases, I do not engage in discussions [of projects]. There is a council of specialists to review them. My objective is to provide a timely answer to people, even be it negative – to provide an answer that is clear and to suggest a solution, if practicable.
Rehabilitation-restoration implies preservation of authenticity too, especially when it comes to the appearance of the city. We must bear in mind that one cannot find an epoch in history – be it in Georgia or in, say, Europe – which has not left its imprint in some form. That is an integral part of the life of monuments. Our objective is to preserve authenticity to the maximum possible extent, to scrub the dust of time away and to bring it down to the original appearance. That is being done during the rehabilitation of Old Tbilisi as well.
- The program “New Life of Old Tbilisi” is now on the third stage of implementation. Can you evaluate the results? How long does the municipality intend to be involved in this process?
“New Life of Old Tbilisi” does not automatically mean rehabilitation. This phrase has, however, become established and refers to rehabilitation too. That project is designed to address other important problems as well. The August 2008 war and global economic crisis caused the suspension of construction works. A chain – resident, developer and bank or any other financial institutions – was severed. We also faced a problem of further aggravation of unemployment. Therefore, we drew up a program and told developers, “There are many wrecked houses in Old Tbilisi. Go talk to residents of those houses, negotiate with them and submit your projects for a competition.” [We told developers that] the Mayor’s Office would assist winners in completing the construction of buildings to where those people would move. The wrecked building or plot of land would transfer to municipal ownership and, then, it would be sold at an auction. The first two stages of that program proved successful. The third stage has been modified to make it more transparent and affordable – the participation of the Mayor’s Office in it is limited to assuming an obligation to pay GEL four hundred per square meter of completed building, if a developer so desires. A developer can sell it at a higher, market price. Thus, a bank sees a guarantee and a developer receives funding to complete the construction. Purchasing a space for USD four hundred per square meter may be advantageous for the municipality. Paying rent for people removed from wrecked houses in an emergency costs two or three million Lari to the Mayor’s Office. It is advantageous for every stakeholder and, what’s more important, it rules out any murky deal as there is nothing with which to strike a deal.
That program is criticized by many, including rightists who see in that an intervention in the market. By ideology, I am a rightist too, but I do not see much intervention here. The program may work only for two or three years with no need to continue thereafter. That is a private sphere and state institutions should better not get involved any longer. Quite the opposite, the principle our policy relies on is to have the private sector spend money wherever possible – and that is how it should be. Similarly, when there were talks that squares have been sold, and so on and so forth, nothing had been sold. Squares cannot be sold legally. It is possible, however, to lease them out – while retaining their recreational functions and natural commercialization – to private persons who will assume responsibility for managing them. That is the case of Mushtaid Garden, for example.
- The criticism in the case of Mushtaid Garden was more about transparency of the process and the extent of retaining recreational functions. The Garden was leased out for forty-nine years to Geo Gold Company. Transparency International Georgia has studied the issue and identified the owner of that company as Tbilisi City Council Member Aleksandre Nikolaishvili. His company received the lease for the Garden through direct contract without conducting a competitive tender. Transparency International Georgia requested the lease agreement, but the Property Management Agency refused to provide it on the grounds that it was a commercial secret. It was also stated that a management model similar to that of Mushtaid Garden would be applied in the future as well. What does that model look like? How transparent will that process be in the future?
The first requirement that that agreement contains refers to retaining its recreational functions and tending the Garden. Conformity of the style of cafes and similar issues need to be approved by the municipality as well. If anything has value to be saved and developed, it is such places.
As regards transparency of the process, such types of contracts are not confidential. We will publish any such agreement on our website. There is nothing to hide here. I am proud that I managed to save one million Lari of budget money and will spend that amount where the city needs it most. Here money will be spent by the private sector. Today, we allocate from ten to twelve million Laries for maintaining our parks.
- One topical issue is public transport. Overcrowded buses are a daily concern of citizens. You said that cancellation of certain bus routes was caused by the reality that buses sometimes travelled almost empty from one end of the city to the other. Today it is difficult to travel to a much shorter distance. Along with cancellation of some routes, the price of travel has increased. As it was explained, this was for the aim of improving service, yet the existing situation can hardly be described as “improved.” It is also a fact that subsidizing that service has been costly. What do you see as the optimal solution which will alleviate such discomfort to citizens?
In 2005, we started developing a new transport system. Before that, the city had no buses but only chaotically moving minivans (so-called marshrutkas) and the metro. By 2009, the subsidization of buses comprised GEL forty million. Adding individual subsidies – allowances – to that reached GEL sixty to sixty-five million. That was a large portion of the budget, ten percent, which the budget could not bear. Therefore, we had to face the need for reform. The aim was to maintain individual subsidies for which half of the Tbilisi population is eligible and, at the same time, to minimize costs. Together with foreign experts, we started analyzing the situation. We wanted to make sure that public transport carriers – I mean metro, buses, marshrutkas – were full rather than each one seizing passengers from the others. As it turned out, the main problem was overlapping [routes] – the entire city was not covered and, in some areas of the city, the carriers seized passengers from each other. Another problem was collection of fares. However, buses had such long routes that they would not be able to cover their costs anyway. Therefore, the system was changed. At the same time, we introduced a travel-card payment system. There is a need to add buses, but only during rush hours, not any other time. In general, the bulk of passengers use metro during rush hours and we prefer to add trains to the metro. On the other hand, a mechanical increase in the number of buses may lead to traffic jams.
A longer-term and more expensive perspective is a tram line, but the cost of it cannot be covered by the city budget alone. The construction of a new railway station has already begun and will be completed in two years; it is funded by Asian Development Bank. We also thought about using cable railway as a means of transportation. By the end of this year, the cable railway of Tbilisi Funicular [on Mount Mtatsminda] will be restored. We are considering other directions as well. That is an important alternative given the Tbilisi landscape. Everything will be united into one travel-card system in order to eradicate corruption.
- In November 2011, the Mayor’s Office distributed a one-time five-Lari-travel-voucher program with a total cost of up to GEL five million. The municipality has various types of allowances anyway. Therefore, it raises the suspicion that those vouchers may have been distributed to everyone indiscriminately for electoral purposes. Given limited resources, do you think it was correct to spend such a large amount?
Citizens of Tbilisi spend GEL twenty to twenty-five for transportation per month and that five Lari was a significant relief for them. That action did not serve electoral aims. There were no elections at that time and an action of that type carried out that much earlier than the next elections, frankly speaking, does not have any effect. That action pursued another aim and an indirect effect. We wanted to encourage a travel-card system which, along with other good, will help eradicate corruption. Regard it as a PR action which brings about a systemic effect.
- One of the issues that caused an uproar last year was tying sanitation fee to electricity consumption. This decision has a lot of critics. There was a problem – the number of actual residents of Tbilisi and the number of people registered in the sanitation service database differed. The Mayor’s Office had to subsidize that sanitation service, but why was it decided to tie it to electricity consumption? It is a fact that the fee for a segment of the population has sharply increased only because they consume more electricity than others. How fair is that system?
Surveys show that the sanitation service is among those services about which the population is happy. Improvement in quality caused the increase in the price of that service. If, in the past, garbage bins were emptied every two weeks and by old vehicles, today the bins are emptied every day. That requires modern vehicles. That service needs GEL forty to fifty million and, here as well, we reached the point where we had to subsidize sixty to sixty-five percent of the cost. Everyone is content with the service, but the collection of fees was a problem when it was originally calculated per family member. The problem with the databases made things worse, leading us to such an absurd situation as if there were only seven-hundred thousand residents in Tbilisi. On the other hand, the job of those people [in the sanitation service] is to clean and not to census the population. We needed some conventional variable to which to tie the sanitation fee. Electricity consumption was identified as such a variable. What is the result? Nearly sixty percent of the population pays the fee of either the same size or less.
This system is fairer. The more a person consumes electricity and the more affluent a person is, the more household waste he/she produces. I do not have the illusion that this is an absolutely accurate picture. However, the number of family members is also conventional and arguable. One cannot weigh household waste. Besides, it turned out that forty-five thousand flats are just empty in Tbilisi although people not living but registered in those flats had to pay the sanitation service fee.
There is also a third alternative which has lots of minuses – to charge per square meter of a flat. However, none of these are perfectly fair. In any case, you have to tie it to some conventional variable. Our objective is to make the fee more or less fair for a large segment of society. It is also important to have the system functioning and its administration possible. Now the system can both sustain itself and think about further improvement of service. The sanitation fee could not be tied to natural gas consumption because the range of consumption is too wide – dramatically differing in winter and summer.
- And finally, I would like to ask you about the long-term development of the city. How do you see Tbilisi in fifteen to twenty years from now?
We have already adopted several long-term documents and intend to merge them into a strategy of city development. In visual terms, the city will develop more on the left bank [of the Mtkvari river]. There are more free resources there.
After the railway station is relocated, a large territory will be emptied on the left bank. The railway line had divided the city in such a manner that prevented the development of that bank. A new Tbilisi must also develop at the exit of the city. That may develop into one of attractive districts as well. We already are working on that issue. Towns within Tbilisi agglomeration, and establishment of transportation links with them, are a challenge of the future. For example, the Rustavi highway will link Rustavi to Tbilisi economically and in terms of mode of life.
Overall, I think Tbilisi will be more of a cultural, medical, educational, financial, recreational centre for the country and region than a political one. In this sense, the relocation of Parliament to Kutaisi is an absolutely correct move.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 87, published 13 February 2012.