Several dozen activists protested in the Georgian Black Sea resort and port city of Batumi on Sunday against what they said were uncontrolled construction projects in the city.
Participants of the rally included members of local civil society groups Society Batomi and Protect Old Boulevard.
In a statement on Facebook, the organisers described newly built residential buildings in the city as ‘gruesome’ and ‘dysfunctional’, leaving locals and tourists breathing polluted air due to the construction, as well as buildings blocking the sea breeze in the city centre.
Signs held at the protest called the city municipality ‘Batumi’s enemy’ for failing to curb uncontrolled high-rise residential buildings and skyscrapers, while one speaker said the projects were jeopardising the ‘authentic image’ of the city’s historic district.
Salome Tsetskhladze, a musician living in Batumi who took part in the rally, told OC Media that Old Batumi, which was originally made up of two to three-storey buildings, had been compromised.
Tsetskhladze said that activists were reacting to the practice of stripping cultural heritage status from buildings throughout Batumi, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara. She said that objections were dismissed with the ‘quick decision of two or three officials’.
The main target of the activists’ criticism was the Zoning Council of Adjara’s Cultural Heritage Protection Agency, which according to them, was ‘putting Batumi into concrete’ with the goal of luring investments.
The Zoning Council, under the head of the Government of Adjara, oversees construction applications and recommends to the City Hall whether they should accept or reject permits.
In recent years, members of Society Batomi have been critical of the council. In 2017, AdjaraTV cited the group accusing the authorities of including former and current ‘bureaucrats’ that lack qualifications and architects with links to the construction industry on the council — ‘instead of having specialists in relevant fields’.
Speaking to OC Media, Shota Gujabidze, a member of Society Batomi, said that contrary to the law, the Zoning Council was mostly made up of officials ‘with bad reputations’ who have no expertise in the relevant fields, rather than art historians or urban planners.
Society Batomi has demanded that the Chair of the Adjara government, Tornike Rizhvadze, scrap the Zoning Council entirely.
Protesters demanded that official documents regulating protected zones and development of the historical part of the city be revised.
Another demand of the rally concerned the planned construction of a chemical terminal in Batumi’s port, scheduled to be completed in 2020. Activists insisted this should not happen without an environmental impact assessment.
At Sunday’s rally, activists said they planned to come up with an online petition to mobilise the public around their demands.
According to InterPressNews protesters vowed to take more ‘radical measures’, including permanent protests, if their demands were not met.
The government of Adjara and Batumi City Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Construction on the Riviera
Tsetskhladze told OC Media that in addition to developments in the historical section of the city, she was directly affected by the Batumi Riviera seafront project, which faces her home.
On 14 February, the Protect the Old Boulevard campaign, which endorsed Society Batomi’s other demands, called on the public to ‘save Riviera’, a coastal district of the city where private Georgian investment holding Silk Road Group has planned a $250 million multi-functional complex which includes high-rise residential buildings.
The Batumi Riviera project has been supported by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund, co-founded by former Georgian prime minister and the current chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
In October 2018, members of Society Batomi accused city mayor Lasha Komakhidze of greenlighting the project in disregard of the area’s recreational and historical value.
Tamar Mameishvili, an activist involved in urban campaigns in Batumi since 2015, told OC Media that the Riviera Project’s planned skyscrapers would ruin Old Batumi, block the sea view, and undermine the city’s tourism industry.
‘I get involved because I want residents of Batumi to shape the future of this city, not officials or investors’, Mameishvili said.
‘I want this city, which had been developing harmoniously and with the right planning for years, to be preserved […] and also to become economically lucrative due to its cultural heritage. I want to live in a pretty, calm, clean city, where the air is not contaminated and sunlight is not blocked by dust, and where concrete doesn’t block the view to the sea.’
According to Society Batomi’s Shota Gujabidze, the Cultural Heritage Protection Agency in Adjara has recently become critical of the Riviera project and has returned it to Batumi City Hall with recommendations.
Gujabidze told OC Media that recent protests around these topics in Batumi had spontaneously assembled people from different walks of life, which he said was ‘a new experience’.
‘This means these demands have become more social rather than an area of specialists only’, Gujabidze said.