By Yana Israelyan

TBILISI, Georgia, April 10, 2014 (ENS) – Activists who have set up a protest camp in a central Tbilisi park say they are fighting to save one of the Georgian capital’s rare green spaces.

The city government has given planning permission for a seven-story hotel on the site of a long-defunct restaurant in Vake Park, an area that activists say is one of the capital’s most precious open spaces.

Vake Park

Protesters’ camp in Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia, April 6, 2014 (Photo by Gaioz Mekhrishvili)

“Many generations of people in Tbilisi grew up in this park,” said Tiko Suladze, who regularly attends the “Guerrilla Gardening” protest against the development plans. “I spent my childhood here. People used to come from other parts of the city, and children still love it. You can say this is a cult place for Tbilisi residents.

“Now there are buildings all around us, and if they build a hotel here as well, it will mean that we haven’t just lost Vake Park, we’ve lost our city.”

Tbilisi’s green spaces began dwindling in the 1990s, when Georgia’s economic collapse led to residents chopping down trees for fuel, and the cash-strapped city authorities did not have the funds to protect their parks. A period of privatisation also saw some parks divided into smaller spaces, many of which were then used for housing.

According to the NGO Safe Space, some of Tbilisi’s parks have lost 90 per cent of their area in the last decade, at least partly thanks to defects in the laws that should have protected them.

The Guerrilla Gardening protest began at the end of last year, and activists have set up small, symbolic barriers on the site of the planned hotel.

“They would be easy to take away, of course,” said Nato Peradze, one of the leaders of the protest. “They are psychological barricades. Our people are the real barricades. We have set up tents and now we’re in the park round the clock. We have a timetable so that there’s always one of the activists in the park at night. This has worked, and construction has stopped.”

Vake Park

A view of Tbilisi’s Vake Park (Photo by mtownsend42)

Local residents brought the activists fuel, food and water over the winter, which was unusually cold.

Tiflis Development, the company in charge of building the hotel, accuses the protesters of delaying the project for financial gain.

“Various organisations are funding this movement,” said company spokesman Gogi Zakaidze. “These people have previously protected other buildings, which they then suddenly stopped protecting. That raises certain suspicions.”

“This is about how the state protects private business. The land was obtained from a private owner, not from the state. It is not part of Vake Park, and we are acting entirely within the law,” he added.

The activists deny they stand to make money by delaying the project, and said they had in fact spurned attempts by the developers to buy them off.

“Some acquaintances came to me as mediators,” said Vaja Kakushadze, another protest leader. “They offered 50,000 US dollars for us to stop our protest, saying they would still take our concerns into account. We turned them down, and we intend to stay here till the last.”

The environment ministry says it has no powers to intervene in the dispute, since under Georgian law it does not have a remit within the capital.

The park activists have prepared a court case against the city government, in which they want it to reverse the planning permission for the hotel and offer the developer a different site.

protest

Protest against construction of a hotel in Vake Park, downtown Tbilisi, Dec. 25, 2013 (Photo by Guerilla Gardening)

City officials say they have acted strictly according to regulations.

“By law, it is legal to build on category 2 recreation zones,” said Malkhaz Kunelauri, head of the Tbilisi administration’s legal department. “The patch of land the activists are talking about lies outside the Vake Park’s administrative boundaries. It is private property, and we can’t stop the owner building anything he wants there, as long as it isn’t against the law. We will wait for the courts to decide, however.”

The activists disagree, arguing that the park is part of Tbilisi’s cultural heritage and that new construction there should be subject to tight restrictions. They say the city authorities have repeatedly pared down the park’s administrative boundaries over recent years, thus reducing the area of the land subject to protection.

“Vake Park is the oldest and biggest park in Tbilisi,” said Alexander Saralidze, an architect, adding that its territory has been steadily reduced over the last 20 years. “It is illegal to put up a building there without special permission. City hall gave its permission in a hurry, without properly investigating the matter.”

The Guerilla Gardening protest has 14,000 followers on Facebook, and Peradze said that although they do not all come to protests, “we had more than 1,000 people at our biggest gathering.”

Vake Park

Trees marked for clearing to make way for a hotel in Tbilisi’s Vake Park, Jan. 4, 2014 (Photo courtesy Guerilla Gardening)

Among the tents is a military helmet belonging to Kakushadze, painted in bright colours, which has become a symbol of the movement.

“I fought in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and I never thought my military experience would help me in peacetime,” he said. “But now we are fighting a little green war, without weapons. I have lost many wars in my life, but I don’t intend to lose this one.”

The fight has drawn the attention of politicians, including Gia Tsagareishvili, head of the Georgian Parliament’s Environment Committee, who has promised new legislation.

“We will lose the city if we don’t react in time to the situation around Vake Park,” he said. “We have submitted a bill to parliament that will protect our green spaces. There is already a law, but it was passed in 2000 and it’s now out of date. The new law will be in line with the new realities.”

{Yana Israelyan is a freelance journalist in Georgia. This article was originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on April 1, 2014.}

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