Push to Rebuild Brings Protest in Georgia's Capital

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia -- The 1,600-year-old capital of Georgia has seen its share of high-speed redevelopment. The Arabs torched it in the 9th century, the Persians razed it in the 18th, the Soviets demolished entire neighborhoods, and shells fell on it in a 1991 civil war. Each time, the city's people rebuilt, often along the ancient streets' original foundation lines.

Now the city of Tbilisi, an eclectic blend of winding alleys, overhanging wooden balconies, art nouveau detail and muscular Soviet architecture, is undergoing yet another transformation. Developers are eager to pull down many of its old buildings and replace them with bigger, modern ones.

The issue has sparked emotional debate among Georgians over what they envision for the character of their city, home to about 1.5 million people. Some say it needs to become a 21st-century high-rise metropolis that will attract international investors. Others argue that it must protect its unique ambiance. Keeping it old and picturesque, they say, will draw tourists and, in the long term, more economic benefits.

The battle has coalesced around a three-story, 19th-century neoclassical building on Freedom Square, the city's main plaza. Late last month, its owner began to demolish it to build a $5 million business center. But then came a series of demonstrations, with protesters holding signs bearing such slogans as "Stop the Barbarism!"

"The demolition . . . will make a precedent to do the same with other buildings, and then we will lose the most valuable part of our city," said Levan Simonishvili, 23, one of the protesters.

They had little effect; this week the demolition was near complete. But some people say it has woken them to an issue they hadn't thought about before.

Despite neglect and bulldozing when Georgia was a Soviet republic, enough of Old Tbilisi survived that in 2001 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization nominated it for consideration as a World Heritage site. But the Georgian government did not come up with a management plan, and after six months the recommendation was deferred.

In 2003, reformer Mikheil Saakashvili led the country's Rose Revolution. As the new president, he railed against high-rises erected during the previous administration. A two-year moratorium was imposed on construction in the old part of the city. It has lapsed, though some buildings still have individual protection as historic properties.

Today Saakashvili's government has energetically embraced the free market. The state has privatized resources such as forests, municipal water, energy and health care, prompting critics to charge that instead of developing self-sustaining industries, the government's economic plan depends largely on selling off property -- old buildings included.

Citing Singapore and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, as models, his administration has minimized or eliminated many regulations in hopes that investors will pour in. They have. The World Bank recently named Georgia the 18th-best country in which to do business. Foreign investment increased by 17 percent last year, and 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product came from real estate development.

Saakashvili also hopes to recast Georgia, with its beaches, mountains and ancient sites, as an international tourist destination. Preservationists say he should look to Europe's capitals, which strictly regulate development in central historic districts, in part to attract visitors.

"The wealthiest cities, they do have historic downtowns or centers, sometimes even creating one where there wasn't one," said Nato Tsintsabadze, secretary general of the Georgian branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a conservation group. "But there is no basic understanding of heritage in this country." In Georgia, officials have heritage programs "because they have to, and they use it in some cases to show patriotism and so on. But I'm afraid that they think it is a field for luxury, and they say we are a poor country and we can't afford it."

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