Property Rights in Post-Revolutionary Georgia12 January, 2010
Guaranteeing the right to property is essential to defining a market economy-driven liberal state. The right to privately own property (as opposed to collectively where in principle all members of a given society own some portion of something, but in practice cannot claim or use anything for their own) has long been acknowledged as a driving force of economic development. This right is enshrined in the founding texts of almost all contemporary states, true democracies, and other political entities.Georgia is no exception. Property rights are protected by Article 21 of the Constitution - the highest-ranking law. But recently the effectiveness of this article has been called into question. Seizures and demolition of private property that peaked in late 2006 and early 2007 have galvanised public concern about this issue. The media and opposition were the first to reveal the latest round of expropriations in Tbilisi. But these were hardly the first cases to come to light. Provisions concerning property rights are scarce in the commitments the Georgian state has made since the Rose Revolution. In most cases the only aspect of these rights addressed is the right to ownership of certain kinds of property. Generally this is limited to issues related to privatisation of the enterprises/property of “strategic” importance or location. Georgia’s European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan is no different in this regard. It includes neither recommendations on, nor commitments to, the protection of property rights, except in regards to the more sensitive issue of ethnic minorities. Georgian authorities have argued over the years that this issue is a result of the restriction on land (including agricultural) privatisation within a 500-meter radius of national borders. Ethnic Azeri and Armenian minorities constitute a majority of the population in the regions of Georgia bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively and those living within a 500-meter radius of borders have been unable to privatise land nearby. However, according to the government, the reason for this has been the legal restriction explained above and not a deliberate effort to hinder minorities’ rights to proprietorship. In spite of this, ethnic minorities living in border regions have remained concerned over this issue and refuse to accept the Government’s explanation. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the problem has lingered to date and thus it is addressed in the ENP Action Plan. Aside from this concern, however, the EU has not yet recognised the protection of property rights as problematic. But this may prove to be a costly oversight.