From conflict zone to tourist zone

By bne IntelliNews April 13, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

Georgia is banking on two new developments on the Black Sea to bolster investment, and create a modern image for the conflict-ridden country. But a sluggish economy and lingering problems with property rights has cast doubt on the projects' durability.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is behind both ambitious initiatives: plans to rebuild the Black Sea village of Anaklia as a modern sea resort, and create Lazika, a completely new city next door.

Lazika is the star in Saakashvili's vision for the future. Slated for development in western Georgia, plans for the city were first announced late last year. On April 2, however, the cabinet met to discuss the city's "concept" - a plan that pins development on foreign investors rather than government-funded building.

But the scale and scope of international interest is far from the government's projections for the project and the neighbouring pasture land it plans to develop into a new city, Lazika. A promotional video, posted on YouTube on March 28, depicts a ultramodern metropolis with skyscrapers, quiet suburbs, and modern planning - a city of the future. Yet during a recent trip to the region, just horses roamed in the vast marshland where Lazika is slated for development. Locals report some basic work has started to clear the area for a new road, but no buildings have started yet.

Carlo Rotti, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) SENSEable City Lab, tells bne that "organic" cities, which put the emphasis on investment, rather than "top-down" planning is a core part of building a successful city. "The best way is still to build cities in an organic way... top-down planned cities can be a failure, as we saw in many cases in the 20th century," he says. "Usually, the government will put in the infrastructure and private developers will then build homes and sell them - this is why cities can be a business opportunity for them."

But for Saakashvili the city is as good as built. With an eye to his image as the builder of modern Georgia, Saakashvili reminded the country during his annual address to parliament that his vision for the future is bright, and focused on new buildings, new cities, and new resorts. "When you ask what I plan - my plan is to build Lazika... I will definitely be in the built Lazika and I will take part in its construction... You wonder what my plans are - my plan is to live in a brightened Georgia, which no one will ever be able to darken and it will be achieved too in few years," Saakashvili told parliament during the annual debates on February 28, noting the ruling party has a "modernisation" plan. "[W]e should make a leap from third world countries into the team of developed countries and Georgia now is in this process of making this leap."

Rebuilt, rebranded

Factoring equally high in Saakashvili's plans for rebranding Georgia from conflict-ridden to tourism-driven is Anaklia, a sleep seaside village roughly 30 kilometres from the Abkhaz conflict zone and immediately to the north of the Lazika project.

The tiny hamlet has been the site of intensive construction over the past two years. In 2010, there was no road and no cafes for tourists. Today, three new hotels grace the sandy beach, and the government built a "bridge of peace" to connect its new boulevard.

Keti Bochorishvili, head of the Georgian National Investment Agency (GNIA), says government investment is on track: the state is preparing infrastructure like new roads. Foreign investors, she notes, are also interested: WhiteWater West Industries, a Canadian-based water park developer, has announced plans to build the largest water park in the Caucasus in Anaklia. The park will open in August, according to the company's website.

For the current residents of the region, however, the developments are far from positive. Allegations of a massive government attempt to usurp land rights abound as the state prepares for the region's development. A report published on April 11 by four non-governmental organisations in Tbilisi found property rights are regularly violated in the build up for major government projects.

Omar Akubardia, a farmer in Anaklia with large land holdings, discovered 49.7 hectares of his land "disappeared" from the public registry in 2010. The public registry denied any wrongdoing; Akubardia submitted his case to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights.

Development projects, notes Irina Lashkhi, a human rights and good governance program coordinator at Open Society Georgia, should not come at the expense of human rights. "There are lots of other human rights violations where the ombudsman or the US State Department Human Rights report states the facts. But not the property rights violation," she says. "This is of crucial importance - not many people are talking about it."

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