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Georgia Tourism Push Marred by Land Disputes

Residents of economic blackspots say they’re losing out amid efforts to attract visitors to the regions.
By Manana Vardiashvili

Georgia’s government is looking to tourism to rescue the economies of its poorest regions, but people there say their land is being unfairly seizing without compensation.

Georgia has created Free Tourist Zones, where investors are freed from tax and other expenses, in Anaklia and Kobuleti, both on the Black Sea coast. It is also building a 145 million US dollar resort in the mountainous Svaneti region that it hopes will compete with the most prestigious skiing areas of Switzerland.

“Tourism gives us the chance in the shortest possible timescale to revitalise the economies of those parts of Georgia which are currently ruled by unemployment and depression,“ President Mikhail Saakashvili told parliament on February 11.

“Therefore, with the direct involvement of the government and in intense cooperation with the private sector, new resorts are being created and traditional tourist areas are being developed.

“Our plan is ambitious, but we will definitely fulfill it. By 2015, the number of yearly visitors to Georgia will hit five million.”

The government’s plans are indeed ambitious since only slightly more than two million people visited the country last year, and local residents of the regions singled out for tourists say the government is pushing ahead without taking their rights into consideration.

In the village of Gonio in the Khelvachauri region on the banks of the Black Sea, some 271 families say they have lost their property. Before the presidential elections of 2008, the titles to their land were officially confirmed, but these were annulled in November last year.

Enver Iremadze in 2007 gained full title to his land, which is just 250 metres from the dramatic remains of Gonio’s Roman fortress, and four kilometres from the Turkish border. He was promised he would be allowed to build a house on the site.

“I sent a plan in for approval and sold my flat to build a house in Gonio. Then I was told that ‘the plan has been refused with the aim of protecting our cultural heritage’. I put a shed on the land and started to live in it, but now this land has been taken away from me and I am left without a roof over my head,” he said.

The residents accuse the Khelvachauri municipal authorities of meeting on November 9 to decide the fate of the 271 families’ land without informing them. The authorities, in turn, say their decision was based on a letter received from the ministry of culture.

“In this letter we were informed that the zone around the Gonio fortress is a zone of archeological protection and is assigned for excavations and other archaeological events. This letter instructed us to study the legality of the assignment of the land,” said Gocha Gabrushidze, chairman of the municipality’s property commission.

Local residents accuse the authorities of wanting to give the land to private investors keen to build tourist infrastructure. Officials in the municipal and regional administrations refused to comment on the topic.

People in Svaneti also accuse officials of giving their land to investors, which is a potential embarrassment for Saakashvili, who personally opened the Mestia airport and a new skiing complex on December 24 last year.

Mestia residents say the new developments are being built on their land. The airport, for example, has replaced a field that previously provided hay for 70 families.

But their case is complicated by the fact that 90 per cent of residents have not registered their land holdings, since the land was held communally both before and during the Soviet Union. Neighbours recognise between themselves who holds which piece of land and rarely argue over it, so they had not bothered to register it with the government.

Now, however, they cannot register it even if they want to, since the registration process has been halted for a non-specified period.

“How can I leave my children without the land of our ancestors? I could sell some property and register this land to myself, but I am not allowed to do this. In the local registry they told me that the registration process is halted and they are not accepting applications,” Arsen Paliani, a Mestia resident, said.

He and his neighbours accuse the authorities of deliberately halting the registration process in order to build tourist infrastructure on other traditionally-held land, although the local administration denies that.

“The process of registration is halted because, on the left bank of the Mestiachala river, there is currently not the possibility of making electronic surveys for a map of the area,” said Zaira Vezdeni, head of the Mestia branch of the public registry.

However, this did not stop the registry assigning the land for the airport, which is also on the left bank of the Mestiachala, to the ministry of economy.

So far neither the local nor national administrations have worked out a system of compensation for residents who have lost out from the tourism development. The economy ministry said that it only receives the titles to lands that already belong to the state.

“If a local official has made some kind of mistake, from which a citizen has suffered a loss, then the victim must appeal to the courts. As for the level of damage caused, of compensation to be paid, this must be decided by the local authorities,” a ministry spokesman said.

A coalition of non-governmental organisations – including Open Society Georgia, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), Transparency International Georgia, The Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters and more – has created a programme to protect local landholders’ rights. The groups are demanding that in Mestia, Gonio and Anaklia, the authorities compensate landholders.

Kakha Kojoridze, director of the Legal Help Centre at the GYLA, said the authorities were not following their own rules when it came to land holdings.

“The law lays out in what cases and by what procedure private property can be taken and how its owners should be compensated. In the new tourist zones, these procedures are not being followed. If the construction of a building is of ‘compulsory social necessity’, then the government has the right to take land from the population, but the law demands that these people receive the market value of their property,” he said.

Manana Vardiashvili is a freelance journalist.

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