By Nino Kharadze
The vibrant Black Sea port of Lazika, with half a million residents making it second only to Tbilisi, is the economic powerhouse of western Georgia. Or at least that is the plan, if it is ever built.
Georgians were taken somewhat aback this week as they absorbed news of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s latest project.
“We have decided to build a big city between Anaklia and Kulevi, and to call it Lazika,” Saakashvili told residents of the western town of Zugdidi on December 4. “In ten years’ time, there will be a minimum of half a million people living in the city. It will be Georgia’s second biggest city after the capital Tbilisi; the main trading and economic centre in western Georgia, and Georgia’s principal centre on the Black Sea.”
Many were left wondering whether it was possible to raise a city on a green-field site in just a few years, and what the point of doing so was, anyway.
Georgia already has major port facilities at Batumi and Poti, the latter not far from where the future Lazika is to be.
Many of the president’s grand plans – including building a Free Industrial Zone outside Poti – have faltered or fallen flat. (See, for example, Georgian Port Braces for Refugee Influx.)
Saakashvili insists that work on Lazika will start next year and employ thousands of people, on a project currently costed at between one and one-and-a-half billion laris, or 600 to 900 million US dollars, of which the government is putting in some 200 million laris.
“We have already begun talks with some large investment groups from Asia and Europe about them investing money in building the new city,” Saakashvili told his audience in Zugdidi.
Many Georgians asked themselves whether it made sense to throw money at the Lazika project when their country faced so many immediate challenges.
Nor is it clear who would make up the 500,000 residents. Georgia has only 4.5 million people, of whom 1.2 million live in Tbilisi.
Saakashvili appealed to “people who have left Georgia, and to refugees from Abkhazia, to return and build the new city together with us”.
Presidential spokesperson Manana Manjgaladze said the plan was to finish building work by 2015.
“As for the city’s population, some of them will be from villages, and some will be Georgians who have returned or will be returning from abroad,” she added.
There is a strong political undercurrent to the Lazika project, with its location only few kilometres from the border with Abkhazia.
Abkhazia has declared independence from Tbilisi and won Russian recognition. Saakashvili has always said he will regain control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway entity supported by Moscow.
Lazika seems to be both an attempt to outshine Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital and port city now beyond Georgian control, and to create a sort of economic bridgehead for getting Abkhazia back.
As Saakashvili put it, “We are founding a large new city which from the start will be a lot bigger than Sukhumi is today, and which create a clear basis for Georgia to regain its remaining territory, because Georgia naturally cannot be conceived of without Abkhazia.
The reaction from many commentators was dismissive.
“This is propaganda and PR designed to instil new hopes in the population. The government is already short of resources, yet they want massive new projects,” Giorgi Khukhashvili, head of the Centre for Civic Projects, told IWPR.
“How can you talk about this project being successful when you have the experience of its immediate neighbour, the Free Industrial Zone in Poti, and of other giant projects in which the authorities have invested such hopes. And where are they going to find half a million people?”
Merab Chkhenkeli, a former minister of construction and urban affairs, outlined the problems of building a city up from zero, including transport provision, schools, hospitals and much more.
“I think it’s going to be impossible to create all of that within ten years,” he said.
Chkhenkeli said urban populations tended to grow up around some existing form of production.
“You can build a village around a factory, but not a city of half a million people. I think the authorities would be better off thinking about how to develop those cities that already exist,” he said.
The president’s spokesperson Manana Manjgaladze refused to entertain such pessimism.
“No is under any illusions that the city will be built in a day, or even in a year. The main advantage of the site is its natural location, which is very suitable,” she said.
According to Khukhashvili, when Saakashvili informed local officials of his Lazika plan, their reactions said it all.
“I think the future of this project could be best read in the eyes of the regional government officials in western Georgia who were present when the president made this very unexpected announcement. There was horror in their eyes,” he said.
Nino Kharadze is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for Radio Liberty in Georgia. This article was published in IWPR’s CRS Issue 621.