Construction has begun on what is slated to be the country’s second city, in the swampy lowlands of the Black Sea coast.by Mariam Betlemidze 20 July 2012
ANAKLIA, Georgia | Building Lazika is a bit like gambling on a shell game. Georgia’s ambitious project to build a new city on its marshy Black Sea coast could turn out to be an unprecedented economic success, a boomtown burdened with environmental costs, or an unmitigated ecological disaster. In the absence of any environmental impact assessments or economic feasibility studies, the ball could be in any of those cups.
In less than 10 years, in place of lowland swamps, reed beds, and a choir of frogs, the government envisions a gleaming city of skyscrapers, golf courses, and upscale housing. There will be a new seaport, airport, and highways. Edged out, too, will be existing homes and wildlife, including white-tailed eagles, which are climbing back from the brink of extinction.
But instead of protesting, many who will lose their homes see it as a fair tradeoff for local development.
Zoia Tsirdava, 67, and her husband received 150,000 laris ($91,000) for their house, which stands in the path of a new highway linking Lazika to the port city of Poti 16 miles to the south and the seaside village of Anaklia to the north.
“I have nothing to complain about. I’m satisfied with the compensation,” Tsirdava says, as her husband furiously cuts down a tree full of nearly ripe figs in their yard. Work on the road is set to begin in two months. The couple does not yet have a new place to live, but they are confident they will find a room to rent soon after getting their compensation check from the government.
As many as 150 families in Anaklia have already sold their property to the government. Many say they are happy with the payment of 20 laris per square meter ($1.20 per square foot), although Ekaterine Bokuchava of Transparency International in Georgia says a square meter generally goes for around $50 ($4.65 per square foot) in Anaklia.
Only three or four years ago, Anaklia was just another of the country’s poor villages. But with the government offering a package of benefits that includes tax holidays, free land, and Georgian citizenship for investors, luxury hotels and tourist amenities are going up there and in the neighboring village of Ganmukhuri, which abuts the territory of Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region. Both villages will become part of the sprawling Lazika project.
Georgian officials are long on superlatives but short on detail when it comes to Lazika.
The only official information on the project’s funding was a statement by President Mikheil Saakashvili in December that it would cost “a billion or a billion and a half laris” ($600 million to $900 million) to build, of which 200 million laris would come from the government.
The project will take in about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of shoreline and extend inland by about 10 kilometers. Saakashvili said Lazika would be home to about 500,000 people, although a government representative recently backed away from that figure.
Work started here four months ago and already a swamp 40 meters (130 feet) deep has been drained. In its place is the metal skeleton of Lazika’s first building, thrusting its foundation 18 meters below ground.
Fifty-some Georgian and Turkish workers are busy at the scene. While the Georgians don’t want to say much, the Turkish workers provide what scant information there is about their employers, apparently a company called Ankara Engineers.
Part of Lazika sits on a wetland protected by the international Ramsar Convention, to which Georgia signed on in 1997. Some ecologists here are puzzled by the government’s attitude to the convention and question the compatibility of major urbanization with ancient swamps.
“This area was declared off-limits for draining during the Soviet era – partially because of its role as a barrier for the Black Sea, preventing it from flooding western Georgia,” says Rezo Getiashvili of the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network.
Nino Chkhobadze, director of the Greens Movement environmental group and natural resources minister under former President Eduard Shevardnadze, is also concerned. “There are tens of unique varieties of bird and fish species that will go extinct because of large scale construction there,” she says.
Echoing Getiashvili, Chkhobadze adds that the dried-up swamps will remove a flood barrier. In 50 years, she warns, the city of Kutaisi about 100 kilometers (62 miles) inland “may well be the Black Sea coast.”
Questions about environmental impact, investors, architects, and city planning are referred to Giorgi Vashadze, the deputy justice minister. Vashadze is overseeing the project because it will have a legal status different from the rest of Georgia in order to ease investors’ concerns about dispute resolution.
Vashadze says the government has not done any economic feasibility studies for Lazika. Asked which environmental experts or organizations Tbilisi has consulted on the project, Vashadze draws a blank until he is queried specifically about the Ramsar Convention, which he says the government is “taking care of.”
“Everything will be done to position Georgia as one of the eco-friendly countries of the world,” Vashadze says, referring reporters to the Environment Ministry for specifics.
He notes that “many” cities, like Venice and Poti, were built on wetlands and swamps. “As for those unique birds and fishes,” he says, “they will find their new home in the Lazika zoo.”
The liaison to Ramsar in the Environment Ministry, Tamar Kvantaliani, is playing catch-up, having been on the job for less than a week. So far, she doesn’t have much specific information from the government to act on.
“I know that there has not been communication with Ramsar regarding the construction of Lazika yet. I am planning on contacting [Ramsar officials] once there is a plan for Lazika construction and development,” Kvantaliani said.
Nor does she know if the government has an environmental plan for dealing with the Ramsar site, or what sanctions, if any, it could face for damaging it.
The government is marketing Lazika as a gateway between Europe and Asia, seeking to attract thousands of tourists and finance, logistics, and retail businesses. “There is no new city on the same level in a 2,000-kilometer radius of the area,” Vashadze says.
“We need a big breakthrough in order for us not to have poverty here anymore,” Saakashvili told residents of Zugdidi, the regional capital, in December.
But there are other reasons to create Georgia’s second-largest city here, the president said. “[W]e will create a new city, which will be a solid foundation of the fact that Georgia will by all means regain its territories. The existence of Georgia is certainly inconceivable without Abkhazia, but for this we need development and action.”
Meanwhile, peacekeepers in the zone separating Georgia proper from Abkhazia watch the construction in the future Lazika from the trenches. They are a jarring contrast with plans for a modern tourist and business hub – and with the young family from St. Petersburg sunbathing 20 or 30 meters away.
Restaurants, cafes, a multiplex cinema, European-standard soccer fields, luxury hotels, and a 555-meter-long pedestrian bridge connecting Ganmukhuri and Anaklia already await tourists. Shota Izoria, who coordinates Lazika’s construction for the local government, boasts of a planned “dancing fountain” along the Ganmukhuri-Anaklia bridge and underwater flood protection for the new city.
Asked about rumors that the basements of Anaklia’s new hotels were flooded for having been built too quickly and in a swamp, Izoria eagerly takes visitors to see for themselves. They find no water.
People in Anaklia are looking forward to the huge leap from village to metropolis and are already benefiting from the construction. Eka Gvilia says the new roads have shortened the 30-kilometer drive to Zugdidi from 2½ hours to 20 minutes.
A 47-year-old housewife, Gvilia plans to rent out rooms in her house. She has watched friends and relatives open cafes and shops and get Lazika-related construction jobs.
“Five years ago, this area was economically dead,” she says.