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Georgia: Heritage Bill Eviction Fears

A draft law could end up forcing residents of Tbilisi's historic centre out of their homes.
By Tamar Dvali
The Georgian parliament is set to pass a bill aiming to preserve historic parts of the city, but critics say it could lead to the eviction of people living in these areas.



The bill obliges people living and working in so-called cultural heritage zones, to pay a monthly fee of around three laris (1.50 US dollars) for every square metre of their property.



The initiators of the proposed legislation say its necessary to help the reconstruction of the Georgian capital's cultural and historic zones. However, people living there together with the parliamentary opposition believe that the authorities are trying to use the new legislation to clear the city's old centre of its population.



The bill has already passed its second reading in the Georgian parliament, with deputies failing to agree only on the size of the monthly fee. The opposition and the public demand that the latter be revoked.



The initial version of the bill had the fee ranging between 10 tetris (five cents) and three laris (1.50 dollars) per square metre. In Georgia, where the average salary is just 200 laris, the average pension 38 laris, and unemployment is high, not many can afford to pay.



The Gegechkori family has lived at No. 12 Chonkadze Street since 1924. Their house is one of the oldest buildings in Tbilisi. Tika, 28, is the only surviving member of the family. Her mother died recently, having been predeceased by her father several years earlier, leaving her the sole occupant of the house.



Tika is an art critic. Her monthly income does not exceed 200 laris. The floor area of her house is 100 square metres. If parliament approves the bill, Tika will have to look elsewhere to live.



"I can hardly cope with my utility bills, how am to pay this fee?" she said, as she paced her room nervously. "I cannot sell the house of my ancestors, this is the only thing I have left. For years, my parents obediently paid all taxes, including property ones, which were to be used to repair the house."



She said her family had repeatedly filed complaints, both during Soviet times and after Georgia became independent, asking to have their house repaired, but in vain.



"Since the house is regarded as part of the cultural heritage, the ministry of culture wouldn't allow us to repair it on our own," said Tika. "Now I think that the state wants to reduce the house to such a state of disrepair, that they could get hold of it for peanuts."



The author of the new bill is the Georgian ministry of culture. An initial law was adopted in 1999, but since then it has become clear that it left many questions unanswered.



The ministry says the old law prohibits selling state-owned cultural monuments, which has stymied efforts to draw private investments into the historic centre of the city and carry out large-scale reconstruction works there.



"As a result, the state has born the burden of upkeep on its own, which has had a negative impact on monuments and heritage as a whole. Because of these flaws, it's become necessary to adopt new legislative acts," the ministry said in an explanatory note.



The size of the fee will be determined after research is carried out on which places need repairing.



"The bill is not seeking to introduce a universal tax," said Minister of Culture Goka Gabashvili. "The rehabilitation tax will be levied only on streets with a high number of buildings that have cultural heritage status."



The minister said the total area to be rebuilt would be extremely limited, as the government could not afford to repair all buildings that are heritage sites.



"Payment of the tax and rehabilitation of cultural heritage buildings is a privilege, not a punishment," said the minister.



Opposition politicians say the government is trying to drive people out of the city's historic centre.



Leader of the Conservative Party Kakha Kukava told IWPR, "The sum collected from the fees will be paltry. The government itself has admitted that the fee has no fiscal significance. It's clear that the real aim is to evict people from the historic area. People won't be able to pay the fee and will have to sell their houses."



The leader of another opposition party New Rights David Gamkrelidze said, "It should be noted that when they talk about the payment depending on floor area, they mean not only dwelling premises, but an entire building, including flights of steps, the roof and even the basement. I think that if the fee is imposed, the residents will face a big problem."



David Narmania, who heads the Young Economists Association, said adoption of the fee was unacceptable from the economic point of view.



"When money is paid regularly, it's not a fee, but a tax," he said. "According to the bill, the population is expected to pay a specific sum for a certain period of time - months, or even years."



Narmania said the initiative violated the constitutional rights of Georgian citizens, as "people, who could not afford paying the fee, would have to move, which was an infringement on their right to choose their place of residence".



Tamar Dvali is a correspondent with 24 hours newspaper in Tbilisi.