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Racha forest protests enter fourth week in Georgia

20 October 2023
Varlam Goletiani outside Oni city hall. Screengrab from a Facebook live video. 

A protest against the sale of public land in Racha, northern Georgia, to a private company has entered its fourth week, after protesters attempted to blockade a municipal building.

The protesters, mostly residents of the northern Georgian region, have demanded that the government revoke a 49-year license granting a private company the right to establish a private hunting farm in Racha. The company is owned by Davit Khidasheli, a Russia-based businessperson with ties to billionaire ruling party founder and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. 

On Friday, protesters moved to the town of Ambrolauri, an administrative centre of the Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region, demanding a meeting with regional governor Papuna Margvelidze. 

A day earlier, activists briefly blockaded a municipal hall in Oni, in response to the cancellation of a meeting with Margvelidze and representatives of the environmental protection ministry. While the meeting had been set to take place on Thursday afternoon, Oni city hall staff demanded protesters not film the meeting in a live broadcast, a proposition the protesters rejected.

Activists have been protesting in Oni, the administrative centre of the namesake municipality, since 27 September. 

Protesters set up a tent outside Oni city hall on 6 October, and refused police demands to remove it. However, on Thursday, police officers successfully prevented activists from setting up a second tent outside the building. 

Protesters blocking the motorway in Oni on 16 October. Image: Saving Rioni Valley

The demonstration has been led by Saving Rioni Valley, one of Georgia’s best known grassroots activist groups, that in 2021 claimed a victory when the construction of Namakhvani hydropower plant (HPP) was called off after 18 months of protest. 

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While it has received little media attention, the campaign in Racha has been supported by Labor — a trade union of agricultural, trade, and industry employees, miners from Chiatura, leftwing youth collective May Student Movement, and feminist and queer group GrlzWave

‘Who did you ask?’

A law on the establishment and management of Racha National Park came into effect in Georgia on 1 January 2023. 

While the legislation promised to establish protected areas in Racha, in April, it emerged that around 100,000 square kilometres of publicly owned land in Racha,, had been auctioned off to a private firm to establish hunting farms. 

The Georgian government states that the auction, held in February 2022, was public and transparent, but local media and activists have claimed that local residents, many of whom heavily depend on the land for natural resources, knew nothing about it. 

A banner on the protesters’ tent in Ambrolauri reflected this allegation, reading ‘who did you ask?’

[Read more on OC Media: Opinion | Local voices were ignored in the auctioning of Racha's forests

According to Varlam Goletiani, one of the leaders of the Saving Rioni Valley movement, the municipalities of Oni, Ambrolauri, and Lentekhi failed to hold legally binding consultations with local residents before privatising the lands. 

Oni City Hall, the office of the region’s governor, and Georgia’s Environment Ministry did not respond to OC Media’s requests for comment. 

Ties to Ivanishvili

The auction attracted wider public attention after it emerged that HG Capra Caucasica, which won a lease to the site for 49 years after an auction in which it was the sole bidder, was connected to Davit Khidasheli, a businessperson based in Russia. 

HG Capra Caucasica is owned by Global Victory Investments Limited, a United Arab Emirates-based company owned by Khidasheli and his daughter, Mariam Khidasheli. 

Khidasheli is also a former vice-president of Sistema, a conglomerate founded by the internationally sanctioned Russian tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov. 

Saving Rioni’s Valley’s Goletiani and head of nature and wildlife preservation group Sabuko Irakli Macharashvili have stated that when creating Racha National Park, Georgia’s government included large areas of land that did not require protection within the protected areas, while transferring smaller but more resource-rich plots to HG Capra Caucasica. 

The company first requested a lease on the land from Georgia’s National Environmental Agency in October 2019. 

Activists and environmental organisations have also noted Khidasheli’s ties to  billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party and ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is frequently referred to as Georgia’s ‘informal ruler’. 

In January 2021, Ivanishvili praised Khidasheli for locating and handing over to Georgia a historical map that was used as evidence in a criminal case against two former members of Georgia’s state border delimitation commission. In the lead-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections, the two ex-officials were accused of conspiring to yield Georgian territory to Azerbaijan during the process of border delimitation. Government critics viewed the case as an electoral gimmick aimed at damaging the opposition United National Movement party, as it had been in power at the time of the alleged border ‘treason’. 

‘I always have a feeling that I’m indebted to him’, Ivanishvili said of Khidasheli on 12 January 2021 while praising his contribution to the criminal investigation. 17 days later, the government run by the party he had founded issued an order specifying licencing rules for Racha’s public land. 

Watchdog group Transparency International — Georgia cautioned last November that providing Davit Khidasheli with a licence for a hunting farm, which they indicated was a less lucrative choice for the state than establishing a larger protected area, suggested a quid-pro-quo arrangement with the businessman who had previously aided the Georgian government.