The mayor of Borjomi Municipality, in southern Georgia’s Samtskhe–Javakheti Region, refused to show up for work on 2 March, along with 90 other employees of the mayor’s office. They went on strike after not being paid for the past three months, in a disagreement between the municipal council (sakrebulo) and the mayor’s office over pay.
Borjomi’s municipal council have failed to approve a new staff list and staff budget for the mayor’s office since mid-January, leading the entire staff to go on strike. They are demanding a special session of the council be called to approve the latest staff budget as soon as possible, and have refused to resume work until the issue is resolved. The new staff budget offered by the mayor’s office includes increased salaries for a number of senior posts.
A lack of quorum
Borjomi Council is the only council in Georgia not controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party. While Georgian Dream has 13 out of 28 seats on the council, the Alliance of Patriots has 11 councillors, the United National Movement has two, and European Georgia and the Labour Party have one councillor each.
According to Samtskhe-Javakheti based news site Samkhretis Karibche, 11 members from Georgian Dream voted to approve the draft on 28 February, while 15 opposition councillors voted against it. This was the first council session in which Georgian Dream’s councillors showed up, after boycotting it for several months since local elections.
The council has failed to convene five times due to a lack of quorum, as only opposition members were attending.
Samkhretis Karibche say the crisis started on 18 January, after the council’s first special session refused to approve the new staff budget. The special session was called after a 16 January planned hearing failed to reach a consensus.
The first draft submitted by the mayor’s office proposed a ₾3,450 ($1,400) monthly salary for the mayor, an increase from ₾2,650 ($1,070) in 2017. The salaries of several other senior positions were also increased, to ₾2,400 ($970) for the first deputy, ₾2,300 ($930) for other deputies, and ₾2,000 ($810) for department heads.
On 31 January, the mayor’s office proposed a revised draft, with the mayor agreeing to take a pay cut to ₾2,450 ($990) but maintaining the increased salaries for other positions.
The council said the money required for the increased salaries should be spent elsewhere, such as on healthcare.
‘We would have welcomed increased salaries if it would be for ordinary employees. But according to their draft, the salaries would increase for the mayor, deputies, and heads of departments by ₾700–800, while ordinary employees would get only ₾20–30 more’, deputy head of the council, Giorgi Gogichaishvili, said.
A session on 28 February was followed by a brawl between members of the council, while a number of employees of the mayor’s office locked the head of the council, Zaza Chachanidze from the Alliance of Patriots, in his office for several hours.
More than 100 police officers from the Interior Ministry’s Special Tasks Department were dispatched to the council office in response to the violence, and councillors from opposition parties were prevented from entering the building.
At the end of the day, another session was held at the council attended by just 17 members — 13 from Georgian Dream and four from the Alliance of Patriots. The draft was approved by 13 votes to 3. The head of the council could not attend the meeting as he was still locked in his office, and was freed only once the hearing was over.
Gigi Chikhladze, a lawyer from Transparency International’s Borjomi office, told Samkhretis Karibche that only the head of the council has the right to call a special session, and since the session was conducted by his deputy, it couldn’t be considered legitimate.
A number of employees of the mayor’s office rallied the next day demanding another special session at the council and for the head of the council to resign.
Mayor Levan Lipartia, who is from the ruling Georgian Dream, said that they will demand another special session be called on Monday, and then decide whether to resume work or not. Lipartia issued a statement on 1 March accusing Council head Zaza Chachanidze and other councillors of ‘artificially’ escalating the crisis in Borjomi’s local government.
‘Dozens of people haven’t been paid for several months due to their narrow partial interests’, he wrote.
‘Certain political forces desire to mislead people, assuring them that I want to increase my own salary’, he wrote, adding that he is ready to forego his salary rise and he calling on Chachanidze to approve the draft and allow employees of the mayor’s office to resume work.
Chachanidze responded the same day saying ‘this is not the council’s fault; this is the mayor’s fault, who doesn’t want to negotiate with us’.
He told journalists he does not plan to resign, but is ready to appoint a special session if the strike is called off.
‘Either the mayor or members of the council have to officially appeal to me to call the special session’, he added.
Gedevan Popljadze, Borjomi’s majoritarian MP from Georgian Dream, told journalists on 1 March that he thinks the way out of the crisis is to dissolve the council and call a council by-election.
‘The Labour Party, Alliance of Patriots, and the National Movement stood together in this with the only goal being to blackmail and sabotage Georgian Dream so that we failed to do anything here. This harms the whole region and its residents. Of course there can be different ways out of it, but one solution could be holding a by-election’, he said.
Giorgi Lomia, an MP from the Alliance of Patriots, said on 1 March that the salaries of local municipality employees all over Georgia have increased this year.
‘Why should Borjomi be an exception? People have bank loans, they have children, families, they haven’t been paid for two months’, he said, adding that Georgian Dream is responsible for the crisis in Borjomi as they have been boycotting council sessions for months.
‘Three of our representatives voted for the draft salary budget, which means we think the employees have done nothing wrong and are ordinary people. If others got increased salaries, of course they should too’.
Opposition MPs attempted to raise the crisis in parliament on 1 March at a session of the Regional Politics and Self-government Committee. However, after Georgian Dream offered to discuss the issue only after the committee hearing concluded, opposition committee members walked out in protest sparking a verbal confrontation between MPs.