The Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is both a hero and a villain for Tbilisi’s 400 year-old Botanical Gardens. Let’s start with the hero part. In 1994, when I first settled in Tbilisi in the “abanotubani” neighborhood next door to the gardens, they were a wild shambles. The irrigation systems were no longer functioning, the greenhouses were smashed and looted, trash littered the over-grown pathways. Today, the gardens are beautiful, clean and well-maintained. The greenhouses have been repaired, new plants are being cultivated throughout the gardens, dozens of staff work across the 160 hectare territory. The Botanical Institute, of which the gardens are a part, carries on scientific work.
All of this was made possible, to my knowledge, by Ivanishvili’s financial support. In exchange for being allowed, first by the Shevardnadze government, and then by the Saakashvili government, to build an enormous glass and steel “business center” on Sololaki Ridge over-looking Tbilisi’s most historic district on one side, and the botanical gardens on the other, Ivanishvili agreed to finance the renovation and long-term maintenance of the gardens. But it wasn’t only the right to shock the senses with his grossly out of place glass palace that Ivanishvili was buying: he also got ownership and/or control over several hectares of land within the boundaries of the gardens. Such “privatization” of lands within a national monument – the Botanical Gardens are classified as such -- was, and thankfully remained until recently, practically unheard of in Georgia.
Ivanishvili completed his glass palace about 12 years ago, and 4 years ago, after a falling out with the Saakashvili government, he became Georgia’s Prime Minister. But he soon tired of that job and returned to “private” life: a private life in which he remains deeply involved in the financing and workings of Georgia’s ruling party, the Georgian Dream, and the government it controls. He is called the “First Citizen.” No major government decision, in any branch, is made without his involvement.
Back to our botanical gardens. Soon after leaving his post as Prime Minister, Ivanishvili undertook to build an even more grandiose complex overlooking Tbilisi: the so-called Panorama Project. Panorama is an explosion of Ivanishvili’s passion for glass, steel, ultra-modernism, and the curious placement of plants on artificially constructed terraces. Instead of occupying a few thousand square meters on one hill, like the “business center” on Sololaki Ridge, Panorama will cover several hectares of pine forest on the neighboring hill, and extend its tentacles into the city with two cableways, one landing in the midst of the City’s central square before its iconic mid-19th Century town hall, and the other in the historic neighborhood between the Orthodox Patriarchate and the site of King Rostom’s 17th Century Palace. Where the cableways end in these two landmark locations will arise huge new multi-story buildings made out of Mr. Ivanishvili’s favorite materials – chrome and glass.
Now we learn there is a third phase to all this: Ivanishvili has been quietly acquiring even more land above the Botanical Gardens, for the construction of hotels and sports complexes. He acquired several hectares of land bordering the Botanical Gardens and has swapped it, through unknown legal mechanisms, for 4 hectares (approximately 10 acres) of land INSIDE the Botanical Gardens, despite its National Monument Status. And, in a rapidly announced and carried out public auction with only one bidder, his company has acquired another 29 hectares (75 acres) of adjacent pinelands.
As a 22-year veteran of legal process in Georgia, including real estate acquisitions and construction approvals, I can say without hesitation that no ordinary private investor could have acquired dozens of hectares of state land inside a national monument, and in its surrounding legislatively protected landscape, for private commercial purposes, as Mr. Ivanishvili has done. And even more, none would be able to get the approvals for construction on these historic and protected lands, for buildings as outrageously out of sync with the natural environment and historic setting as these constructions.
The cost of these projects is more than just the destruction of nature and loss of green space. It is also a hammer blow to the commercial and aesthetic future of Tbilisi. The city’s historic districts consist of medieval churches, even older fortifications, and gracious, crumbling 19th and early 20th century houses and commercial buildings, encompassing styles from the wooden balconies of the Black Sea region, to the pointed arches and delicate filigree of the Persian influence, to European Art Nouveau. Tiny streets wind up and down hills. Balconies tilt crazily. Pot holes fill the streets. The sewage and drinking water systems of the old neighborhoods are in a state of collapse. Surrounding it all are the hills of the river valley into which the city is nestled; the hills that Ivanishvili wishes to cover with glass and chrome, cable-ways and golf courses.
Meanwhile the ancient city continues to sink in a morass of neglect. The cost of Ivanishvili’s projects – Panorama alone is US $500 million – could rescue Tbilisi from its slide into urban decay if spent instead on renovating its deteriorating historic houses and commercial buildings. The City of Tbilisi is spending public funds on road and other supporting infrastructure for Ivanishvili’s hill top vanity projects: money that is needed down here in the real city for public transportation, street repair, public parking, and city services. Ivanishvili has presented his private investment fund as part of his, and his party’s, development program for Georgia. If that is true, the money would be better spent – both commercially for its investor and socially for the population -- on investment in rescuing Tbilisi from its decline: the renovation of historic buildings for high-end residential and commercial use, the improvement and expansion of green spaces, and public-private partnership to finance the maintenance of the economically and ethnically diverse urban life that has been the core of Tbilisi’s identity for 1,600 years.
I’ve made an album to accompany this note of pictures I shot on a very recent hike to the upper reaches of the Botanical Gardens and across some of the protected lands that Ivanishvili has acquired for development. I hope it will help people understand what Panorama looks like; not only in its planned ugliness, but in the beauty it will destroy and replace.
They used to say in America “you can’t fight City Hall.” Successful citizen initiatives to oppose ill-advised highway projects and the demolition of historic buildings and neighborhoods proved that adage wrong many times during the past 60 years. Fighting City Hall is even harder in an underdeveloped country, with young and imperfect mechanisms of democracy and law, especially when City Hall is acting as an adjunct to the richest and most powerful man in the country. But those of us who care about Georgia and care about our city, Tbilisi, must try. It is not only us residents who have an interest in this, but also businesses who wish to see a successful and prosperous future for the country, and a city that will continue to attract tourists and residents with money to spend. Organizations like Guerrilla Gardening, Tiflisi Hamqari, and the Ertad (“Together”) Coalition are rallying against Ivanishvili’s projects. Lawyers are working on litigation strategies. Those of us who care should be in touch with each other, and work together, to help these efforts succeed. It’s my hope that at the end of the day, Mr. Ivanishvili’s capitalist instinct as much as his patriotism will lead him to change his mind about what is in the best interests of the city, and how he can best contribute to its future.