Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze has been accused of engaging in a PR stunt for gifting a flat to a family from Tbilisi’s Aprika settlement after demolishing a nearby squatter settlement. Activists and human rights advocates claim tackling unlawful constructions this way aggravates homelessness in Georgia’s capital.
Over a hundred activists gathered outside Tbilisi City Hall on Wednesday demanding the municipal authorities stop demolishing illegally built houses during winter and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and to provide housing to those left without homes.
Kaladze has come under fire for ordering the Municipal Inspection to bulldozer 12 buildings in the settlement on the city outskirts, in Samgori district.
Hundreds of police officers stopped residents opposing the demolition and arrested up to 12 people, including activists, for disobeying police. One was criminally charged with resisting to police.
Kaladze and local MP Sozar Subari, both from the ruling Georgian Dream party, were criticised by several opposition groups, including the United National Movement and Lelo.
Subari, who was elected in the Isani-Samgori District in 31 October’s election, promised during campaign meetings to help residents of Aprika, some of whom he said had lived there since Soviet times, to legalise their properties. Both argued on 15 December that the recent demolition targeted new and unfinished constructions only.
Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomajaria was among the critics of the move. She said soon after the demolition that the City Hall had the right to stop unlawful houses from being built but that given the circumstances, their actions could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.
Lomajaria said it was ‘very hard’ to watch the scenes of the families looking on as their homes were levelled, and urged the authorities to ensure that those directly affected had housing.
Before gathering in front the City Hall building on 16 November, activists joined local residents outside the Samgori District Administration to protest the demolitions, which they warned could continue.
‘Lord of PR’
Following the events in Samgori, a photo of the mayor and his sons next to one of a father and son looking on at the demolition were widely circulated online and by TV media.
Kaladze reprimanded the media for using images of children and spreading ‘slander’ and ‘lies’.
He insisted the father and a son from the photo lived nearby in poverty and were not among those whose houses were demolished. He announced he had reached out to the man, who he said was caring for six children, to personally endow a flat to them.
‘On the background of so much hate, slander, and lies, making this family happy is the story of the day’, Kaladze wrote.
Critics accused him of cynicism for the move. ‘Let Zeus bless the lord of PR. I’m really sick’, Elene Khoshtaria from the opposition European Georgia Party wrote on Facebook in response.
Kaladze, a former football player who is among the most popular Georgian politicians according to recent polls, insisted that no one had the right to unlawfully take over state property.
During a press conference on Wednesday, he admitted some of those whose houses were demolished faced housing problems and said they would be eligible for flats rented by the City Hall. He also revealed details of other real estate owned by several of those whose houses were demolished to underscore that they were not homeless.
On Tuesday, the Open Society Georgia Foundation said that as anti-pandemic measures had suspended evictions and restricted public movement, it was wrong for the city authorities to treat this situation purely as a case of a construction violation while ignoring the right to housing.
In recent years, critics of Georgia’s housing policy have pointed out that the country lacks legal clarity in the definition of homelessness, and that municipal shelters are inadequate for families and children.
Less than a month before the events in Aprika, Tbilisi-based rights group EMC warned the City Hall against demolishing houses in Samgori without evaluating the risks of homelessness.
Their appeal followed a promise a day earlier by Kaladze to stop ‘this disgrace’ and dismantle ‘illegal plunders’ on misappropriated public land with the help of police.
EMC called the announcement an advance notice of ‘mass repressive actions’. They accused the authorities of showing ‘zero sensitivity’ to the problem of homelessness.
Confronted by journalists in Samgori on 15 December, the Tbilisi Mayor neither confirmed nor denied that the city had a specific buyer interested in the land in question, but said the authorities would be open to selling the land.