On Sunday, thousands gathered in the central Georgian city of Kutaisi to protest the construction of the nearby Namakhvani hydropower project.
The main demand of the protesters, who have been rallying intermittently for the last 141 days, is for the Georgian government to cancel its ‘unlawful’ decision to support the construction of the Namakhvani hydropower plant. An additional and more recent demand is the resignation of Economy Minister Natia Turnava.
[Read on OC Media: Activists protest dam construction in northwest Georgia]
Turnava together with the Minister of Agriculture, Levan Davitashvili met with the protesters and human rights groups 12 March — following a mass protest two weeks prior — but the meeting, which the ministers left without answering any of the protesters’ questions, was seen by dam opponents as a slight.
After the meeting, Turnava announced that Georgian authorities reached an agreement with the investors to halt the construction of the dam and reservoir until further ‘major research’ was carried out.
While smaller protests against the dam continued daily, Sunday’s gathering in Kutaisi’s central square brought together not only local residents but demonstrators from all over Georgia.
‘It is a very good symbol of how out of touch our political field is from the needs of ordinary people’, Giorgi Ptskialadze, Secretary-General of the Mtsvaneebi (Greens) group, who was present at the rally, told OC Media. ‘This is a real protest here and what the people actually feel that we are in this crisis, political crisis, and ecological crisis.’
Protesters said on Sunday that the next big protest will be held in Tbilisi at the parliament and that they will announce the date soon.
Kutaisi-resident Luiza, 44, came to the protest together with her family. She told OC Media that she is against HPP projects that damage the environment. ‘I’ve been protesting my whole life. Entire Georgia stands here today and this spirit will not wear out easily’, she said.
Ptskialadze thinks that the size of the demonstration in Tbilisi will be even bigger than in Kutaisi.
‘The government should be afraid of these people, not the people in the political parties’, he said. ‘These are the people who are representing the whole country right now.’
A troubled project
Opponents of the Namakhvani project have been critical of the Ministry of Environment for issuing early approval to Enka Renewables a year ago.
Frustration grew when the company, according to watchdog groups Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), Green Alternative, and EMC, started ‘preparatory works’ in Zhoneti on 22 February without providing ‘up to 25’ studies on the project’s environmental, social, and cultural impact demanded by even that disputed conditional approval.
Critics also highlight that local residents have been mostly deprived of participating in public discussions over the project, as per Georgia’s Environmental Assessment Code.
They also say the government has responded to their demands with a heavy police response, ensuring that the company’s work was not hindered. On 23 February, police apprehended one local activist after opponents tried to halt construction in the village of Namokhvani.
According to the Green Alternative, in November 2019 — months before the approval of preparatory works that was later reversed — the Georgian government transferred more than 5.5 square kilometres of state lands to Enka Renewables in Tsageri, Tskaltubo, and Tkibuli Municipalities.