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Guerrilla War In Tbilisi: Activists Battle City Hall To Preserve Georgian Capital's Shrinking Green Spaces

One of Tbilisi's green spaces that has been cleared of trees and other greenery for the sake of development. (file photo)
One of Tbilisi's green spaces that has been cleared of trees and other greenery for the sake of development. (file photo)

Nata Peradze is largely unknown outside of her native Georgia. But she is rapidly becoming one of Tbilisi's best-known figures as she leads a protest movement to stop rampant urban development from swallowing up what is left of this once leafy capital's green spaces.

This month she raised the stakes in her three-year battle to keep some of Georgia's most powerful businessmen from building on land that for decades has been preserved as parks or wooded areas in this city in the heart of the Caucasus.

Instead of leading yet another band of activists to face down bulldozers or protest outside city hall, Peradze went on a liquids-only fast that she says won't stop until the city official responsible for overseeing the city's parks steps down.

"We have to do extreme protests sometimes, like climb fences to occupy sites that are being spoiled," Peradze said, explaining why she began her protest fast on August 17. "Gandhi-like methods won't work here."

Six days after beginning the fast, Peradze's health failed and she had to call it off on doctor's orders. But it was immediately taken up by a fellow activist, Elene Malashevski-Jakeli, under the same conditions.

City authorities have refused to comment directly on the protest fast. But the official Peradze is calling on to resign -- the head of the Office of Environment and Green Spaces Nino Sulkhanishvili -- said she has no intention of doing so.

"Only the mayor has the right to ask me to step down," she told RFE/RL on August 18.

Still, there are signs that city authorities are worried. In an apparent effort to defuse the crisis, Tbilisi Mayor David Narmania announced on August 22 a 10-day moratorium on felling trees in the city and offered to "sit down with all interested parties to discuss these issues."

However, Peradze said she will not budge. "Maybe it will be enough to start some negotiations, but so far no one has contacted us so we continue our protests," she told RFE/RL after the moratorium was proclaimed.

Daunting Odds

At issue are two different visions of a city that, since Georgia's independence in 1991, has seen frequent construction booms after the country's economy initially collapsed but has since grown steadily.

Businessmen have put their profits into building new residential and commercial properties in the city, often without regard for Tbilisi's earlier architectural traditions or its once abundant greenery.

Activists charge that city authorities give priority to development and construction projects that create jobs while ignoring the steady loss of trees. While no environmental assessment exists for Tbilisi, activists and city officials say the ratio of green-space-per-person is today well below the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommendation of at least nine square meters per capita.

Peradze, who worked for the city's landscaping office before quitting over what she sees as its "unprofessionalism," said her protest fast is a last-resort effort to battle what she admits are daunting odds. She said that, since founding Tbilisi's Guerrilla Gardeners movement three years ago, she and her core group of some 50 other activists have been ignored by city officials under both the previous administration of former President Mikheil Saakashvili and the currently ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

"For the last three years, every week, we have been visiting either the mayor's office or City Hall in order to try to solve issues by meetings and negotiations," Peradze said. "If the previous government kept all doors shut for us, this government in the early stages organized a couple of meetings with us and we thought that the situation was changing. But later on we realized that it was just a strategy for dragging things out."

Significant Victories

When Narmania campaigned for mayor in 2014, he promised to plant 1 million trees in Tbilisi, and he did so last year. However, the trees were planted hurriedly and close together, causing most to wilt, as was widely reported in the Georgian media. Peradze said she wants the resignation of the head of the Office of Environment and Green Spaces in part over how the planting was implemented.

Peradze can expect her demand to be noticed because her group has scored some successes in earlier battles with Tbilisi authorities. The Guerrilla Gardeners, who are inspired by the global movement of the same name, mobilized as many as 1,000 demonstrators last year to protest the planned construction of a large hotel in a corner of Tbilisi's central Vake Park. The dispute ended with a court deciding this year that the city had illegally issued a construction permit for the land.

Georgian environmental activist Nata Peradze
Georgian environmental activist Nata Peradze

Observers call victories like that significant not only for ecologists but for the development of civil society generally in Georgia, a country with EU aspirations but where powerful figures routinely disregard public opinion and do as they like.

"In the last 10 years or so Georgia has become more European, with a much more functional government, but it needs to be matched by the development of civil society," said Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi. "Generally, civil society is weak in Georgia, it does not have real social power, but gradually it is acquiring some of that social power."

Bigger Tests

However, bigger tests lie ahead. Looming on a hillside overlooking one of Tbilisi's oldest neighborhoods is a new construction project that dwarfs any previous developer's efforts not just in size but also in terms of backers.

The project, dubbed Panorama, is a futuristic complex of hotels, business centers, and residences whose major investors include tycoon and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili -- the founder of the Georgian Dream coalition and the country's most powerful individual. Critics fear it will turn much of the hillside from forest green to metallic grey as it uses cable cars to connect four towering glass-and-steel complexes, including one in the heart of Tbilisi's historic downtown.

The Guerrilla Gardeners and other activist groups have already designated Panorama as their next big target for civic protests. But Ivanishvili has signaled he has little interest in hearing criticism of the project.

Asked recently by RFE/RL how he reacts to critics who say modernistic development complexes clash with the city's historical look, he gave a curt response.

"Everything is as it should be," he told RFE/RL Georgian Service's evening television program InterVIEW on June 2. "I know this won't be enough for you but I am not using any more time this way and not answering any more questions on this issue."

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Thea Topuria and Nino Tarkhnishvili in Tbilisi and Salome Asatiani in Prague contributed to this report.

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