Activists block hotel construction to protest Tbilisi's shrinking green space

Activists protest outside City Hall against the construction of a hotel in Tbilisi's Vake Park. Photo courtesy of Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi.
 
Day and night, activists in the Georgian capital are manning roadblocks in Vake Park to stop work on a new hotel. During the last few months, a protest camp has grown around the site of the proposed hotel that protesters say would wreck one of Tbilisi’s last recreational areas.
 
The protest, which began in December, has mushroomed into a full-sized camp in scenes reminiscent of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Under a colourful canopy of flags and posters, kitchen facilities, educational workshops and free DJ sets are all on offer. For two weeks activists have been manning roadblocks 24 hours a day to stop construction workers reaching the hotel building site, which is situated on a small parcel of land in the centre of the park.
 
Video of protest created and uploaded to YouTube by Nika Mchedlidze.
 
The developers behind the proposed seven-storey building were given the go-ahead by Tbilisi’s City Hall. But protesters accuse City Hall of being at fault for granting planning permission without first consulting the city’s residents. They also argue that it would wreck one of Tbilisi’s last large parks. Tiflis Development - the company that owns the land - argues that the plot is not part of the park because it’s private. That position is backed by City Hall, which also says that a hotel would serve Tbilisi’s interests.
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"We have had cases where the police tried to physically drag people away"

Nick Davitashvili is a member of the group ‘Guerilla gardening Tbilisi’ which has played a key part in the protest.
 
Construction has already started. They’re digging holes for the foundations, but we caught them in the process and forced them to stop. Now they can’t continue so long as we’re there. We’ve made the roadblocks to stop workers from reaching the construction site. If they try to push through, we organise for more people to come and stand with us. They offer to stay at night because we may get tired. Two weeks ago, there was a small incident where workers managed to get equipment on the site during the night time. After that we decided to stay there day and night to stop them.
 
"We’re using technology a lot... If we didn’t have this form of immediate communication I don’t think we could win"
 
We have two huge tents: inside one there’s heating, chairs, sofas and a kitchen. There’s a free market and poets. There are people teaching at various workshops, and others who play music. One day, we asked a bar to come and sell sandwiches, coffee and tea. Once they’d set up the tables and spoke to protesters, they decided to give everything away for free instead. A lot of citizens bring food. The only rule we have is that you can’t drink alcohol.
 
Two girls hug a tree in Vake Park. Photo courtesy of Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi.
 
We’re using technology a lot. We found each other through Facebook. Then we started using Twitter to let people know when the police were coming to try and take down the roadblocks to let workers in. Whenever that happens we tweet a message that about 300 people receive by SMS. Within 15 minutes we have about 100 people with us to stop the police. It's a deciding factor: if we didn’t have this form of immediate communication I don’t think we could win.
 
The police tell us that the camp is fine but that we can’t build roadblocks. So far we’ve fought them off by force of numbers, because there are usually enough people to protect the roadblocks. But we have had cases where the police tried to physically drag people away. This week we’re also going to court. We have a lawyer who works for free and has decided to bring a case against City Hall. We’ll try to force them to cancel the construction because their decision was made without any consultation or solid reasoning.
 
"People still don’t believe they have the power to bring change. Our Soviet heritage created that mindset"
 
If the hotel is built, it could set a precedent. Other developers could quickly follow suit. The environmental situation is already quite bad. According to a survey done in 2001, there was only 5 square metres of green area per capita in Tbilisi [the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 9 square metres of green area per capita for cities].
 
Protesters blow heart-shaped bubbles in Vake Park. Photo courtesy of Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi.
 
The Government hasn’t really responded to us so far, despite us having gathered 7,000 signatures for a petition. Only the Ministry of the Environment has spoken out against the project: they say it shouldn’t be done, but they can’t do anything about it because environmental issues are under the jurisdiction of City Hall [Contacted by FRANCE 24, a spokesperson said that the ministry had no jurisdiction over the project and declined further comment on the matter].
 
If people see that they can change things by protesting that would be a great boost for democracy in Georgia. People still don’t believe they have the power to bring change. Our Soviet heritage created that mindset. By winning this case we can show a lot of people that their involvement and their voice counts.
 
The below image was provided to FRANCE 24 by 'Safe Space'. The group says it shows how, in stages, portions of the park have been successively sold off to private developers over a period of ten years starting in 2002. Private land plots are coloured white, while portions that remain publicly owned are shaded blue. The site of the hotel is the white part seen in the centre of the first map. The park's shifting boundaries are also indicated.
 
Map provided by activist group Safe Space and sent to FRANCE 24. 
 
FRANCE 24 contacted Tbilisi City Hall for comment, but at the time of publishing had yet to receive a reply.
 
This article was written by France 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).
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