Regional autonomy in rich regions: evidence from Ajara, Georgia

In: Caucasus Survey
William O’Brochta Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1063, St. Louis, MO, USA

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Previous models of individuals’ preferences for decentralization have focused on either economic- or identity-based motivations. In some cases, however, elites in rich regions with high inequality prefer decentralization contrary to their economic preferences. This paper proposes a model to explain these instances by focusing on the preferences of self-interested elites who manipulate a strong regional identity for personal gain. I develop the hypothesis that a strong regional economy, combined with a regional identity, provides the incentive for and the mechanism by which elites prefer decentralization. I test this hypothesis using the puzzling case of Ajara, Georgia, a rich region with high inequality and a strong regional identity where elites, contrary to expectations, pushed for decentralization. Results suggest that regional identities are used by elites in order to seize on a strong economy for personal gain. This motivates future study on the interaction between regional economies and identity.

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