PM Irakli Garibashvili met a group of students on March 13 and faced some pointed questions on range of issues from education funding and competence of several ministers to labour rights, large-scale hydro power projects and cultural heritage.
Garibashvili met students in the Tbilisi State University, which he graduated less than nine years ago.
In his opening remarks he announced about the plan to launch an “international education center” at PM’s office, which, he said, would accumulate all the available resources to provide scholarships to students for studying aboard – a program the state is funding for years already. He said that the center would also coordinate recruitment of recipients of these scholarships in public service. He also announced about government’s intention to build university dorm in Tbilisi for students from socially vulnerable families from the provinces.
When during a question and answer session, which lasted for about hour and a half, one student praised some of the government’s policies, but also criticized authorities for failing to efficiently address numerous problems, the Prime Minister responded: “Interesting questions, but let’s put aside emotions. Yes there are problems in Georgia and we know it very well and it is very well realized by us that our government inherited difficult legacy. But no one should have illusion that these problems will be solved in a day. Yes, I know that the university needs more funding; I understand that there are many homeless and socially vulnerable people. But you are very wrong if you think that the state has resources to [resolve these problems] and is not doing it. The state has its priorities. What was happening for years was that priorities were not set properly.”
Responding to a call by one student to cut GEL 570 million funding of “monster” Interior Ministry and instead allocate more money for the education sector, Garibashvili responded that such a simplistic approach would not work.
“There are state priorities which cannot be revised at one fell swoop. Time is needed. Do not demand to solve problems in a day. We should not forget the reality – where were we, where are we now and where are we heading to… I am not among those politicians, who only make populist statements… I prefer to at first deliver and let the done job speak about us and not vice versa,” he said.
‘Many Incompetent Employees in Ministries’
When one student told the PM that there was lack of professionals in public service and ministries, Garibashvili responded that it was a “painful” issue.
“There are many incompetent employees in the ministries,” Garibashvili said and added that the problem would be addressed “gradually” through planned reform of public service. “But it won’t happen in a day,” he said.
But when one student questioned competence of some ministers, Garibashvili defended them. The student told the PM that she thinks its “unfair” and it makes her feel that education has “lost a sense” when she sees a former footballer, Kakha Kaladze, taking energy minister’s post and Alexander Tchikaidze, who is not a lawyer by trying, becoming interior minister or when a person with criminal record becomes a chief prosecutor (Otar Partskhaladze had to resign from chief prosecutor’s post in December after it emerged that he had a criminal record).
Garibashvili responded: “You question competence of some ministers. Well, how should I respond. I think they work efficiently and if you have questions I would be glad to listen to them.”
Khudoni Hydro Power Plant
The issue of Khudoni hydropower plant was raised during a meeting for number of times by several students in their questions.
Construction of 650 megawatt hydropower plant, Khudoni, in mountainous region of Svaneti, will involve building of up to 200-meter dam and a reservoir on the Enguri river; the project will cause flooding of Khaishi village, which will require resettlement of local residents. Construction of dam was first started back in 1980s, but the project was halted at the time after the protests over environmental concern. The project was revitalized under former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The current government has also thrown its support behind it, but it was met by a strong opposition from local residents in Khaishi, who are against of resettlement.
One student told the PM that based on Georgian Dream’s pre-election program, which spoke against large-scale hydropower plants, local residents of Khaishi and nearby areas hoped that Khudoni project would have been dropped. Another student told Garibashvili that the planned Khudoni HPP would also pose a threat to local subculture in Svaneti as a result of resettlement of local population of the Khaishi village.
“I would definitely disagree, my friend, that the giant hydro power plant will destroy Svaneti culture,” PM Garibashvili responded. “No one touches to local culture – we should not mislead listeners. I will be the first to protect Svaneti culture. Georgia is the country with diverse culture and I am among those in forefront of protecting this diversity. You have wrong information that local culture would be destroyed by construction of this hydro power plant.”
“On Khudoni I have the position that we should take into consideration opinion of each and every person and the state will never take a decision that would be against citizens. Of course an agreement should be reached. We should properly explain to these citizens what does construction of Khudoni HPP means for Svans, for our country, four our energy security and independence. If after that they still do not want [Khudoni HPP] to be built and they have firm and fair arguments, I will definitely take it into consideration. But arguments that you brought are wrong and it will mislead the public,” he told the student.
He said that Khudoni HPP is a “painful” issue. “There still are questions and investor, energy ministry and the government in general have to answer these questions… I want everyone to realize well the importance of Khudoni HPP,” Garibashvili said.
Sakdrisi, Workers’ Strike and Gold Mining Company
An art student asked the Prime Minister to voice publicly his position on a dispute between preservationists and Russian-owned gold and copper mining company, RMG, over Sakdrisi gold deposit in southern Georgia, which some archeologists believe is the world’s oldest gold mine and oppose company’s intention to launch an open-cast mining on the site, which would make it impossible to continue further archeological research on Sakdrisi hillock and surrounding areas.
The site was granted a special status and became protected under the heritage laws in 2006, but last year the Ministry of Culture revoked this status citing that the site was enlisted through procedural violations; the move prompting strong protest from preservationists. Although the site was removed from the list of protected areas, RMG still lacks final approval from the authorities to proceed with mining operations on the site.
In his response on the question of Sakdrisi, the PM actually echoed the position of RMG, which argues that the site does not represent archeological value, and focused mainly on the importance of investor’s operations for country’s economy.
“It is not substantiated that it was the [oldest] gold mine… This is not the oldest gold mine, it was not proven,” PM Garibashvili said. “This company has invested 300 million dollars in the Georgian economy; 3,000 people are employed by this company; 3,000 families are behind these employees.”
He said that “fate” of these 3,000 people should “also be taken into consideration” when deciding on the issue. The PM also said that the company was proposing to build a museum in Bolnisi to house artifacts found as a result of archeological research on the site – a proposal does not allow for further archeological research on the site.
Garibashvili said that cultural heritage is a “delicate issue” and there is a battle between the cultural heritage and economic interests all over the world and Georgia is no exception. “It requires finding a golden mean,” he said.
In late January RMG laid off over 180 workers, sparking a large strike of workers in its plant in a small town of Kazreti on February 14. The company said that it was forced to lay off workers because of significantly downscaled mining activities as it is not able to dig gold from Sakdrisi.
Pay raise, improvement of working conditions and reinstatement of sacked employees are among the main demands of strikers. Complaining over lack of government’s attention, a group of strikers arrived in Tbilisi on March 7 and held a rally outside the government’s office after which the PM’s office said that its representatives would try to mediate between strikers and employer.
One student asked the PM angrily about strike in Kazreti, telling him that workers there are protesting against “inhuman working conditions” and that she does not see government “doing anything to help these people” in the face of “wild capitalism.”
PM responded that poor working conditions have been there for years already and “it is good” that workers brought this problem into public. “It has been continuing for years and it is not something new that happened this year,” Garibashvili said and added that he tasked his representative to study working conditions and to help resolve the problem between workers and employer. “I absolutely share your concern; conditions there will be improved very soon upon my instructions,” the PM told the student.
Rector of the Tbilisi State University, Vladimer Papava, who moderated the meeting, said that acute issues have been raised and thanked the PM for engaging in the discussion.
“I’ve listened to very sharp questions and that’s very good and useful for me,” PM Garibashvili said. “There should be criticism, but we should also agree that criticism has to be objective.”