Grand designs of Georgia's president not welcomed by all


GEORGIA LETTER:Luxury hotels, sleek public buildings and plans for a new city: is Georgia’s president building a foundation for the future or is this the work of a megalomanic?

THE GRANDFATHER clock in the parlour is English, but the piano is French, like the fine porcelain that sits on the dining table between glinting Russian cutlery.

The Chavchavadze family brought the best of Europe, east and west, to their Italianate villa in Georgia, and made it an oasis for cultured society in the shadow of the wild Caucasus.

Alexandre Dumas was a guest here at Tsinandali, as were Russian writers Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Griboyedov, the last of whom married 16-year-old Nino Chavchavadze.

They strolled through gardens planted with trees from around the world by Nino’s father, the poet, soldier and statesman Alexander Chavchavadze, and sipped crisp white wine from his vineyards on the villa’s balcony, which looks out towards the jagged mountains.

But the tranquillity was deceptive on this ragged edge of Russia’s empire and chaos and tragedy often wrecked the elegant order of Tsinandali.

In 1829 Griboyedov was hacked to pieces by a mob in Tehran, where he was the tsar’s ambassador to Persia, making a widow of young Nino after less than a year of marriage.

Later, Muslim fighters loyal to Imam Shamil, who was fiercely resisting the Russians in the Caucasus, stormed over the mountains from Dagestan and plundered Tsinandali, kidnapping the wife of Nino’s brother David and their nine children and French governess.

In buying his family’s release, David Chavchavadze lost their home, forfeiting Tsinandali to the tsar upon his failure to repay loans to Russian banks.

Today Iran still stirs to the south, Dagestan is still restive beyond the Caucasus, and Tsinandali is still a finely cut jewel amid the rough-hewn beauty of the surrounding vineyards and mountains.

Life is changing here, though, and fast, as workmen restore the estate’s wine cellars and a striking new building takes shape.

It will open in 2014 as a 100-room Radisson hotel, according to the Silk Road Group that is investing some €15 million in the project and earlier restored the historic villa and gardens.

Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili has given his personal blessing to the project. On a recent visit to Tsinandali, he highlighted the role that regional development should play in boosting the economy of a nation that lost a short but damaging war with Russia in 2008.

That push to bring investment and jobs to places far from Tbilisi, which is already replete with luxury hotels, sleek new public buildings and fountain-sprinkled plazas, saw Saakashvili host US tycoon Donald Trump last month in the Black Sea resort of Batumi.

There they unveiled plans for a €200 million 47-storey Trump Tower, a residential block also to be built by the Silk Road Group, which they hope will become a landmark in a subtropical holiday spot that the US billionaire dubbed “the Monte Carlo of the region”.

“I think you have a lot of investment opportunities in Georgia,” Trump said during his visit. “It’s amazing what’s going on. It’s one of the really amazing places in the world right now.”

Saakashvili would no doubt agree, as would the foreign firms that ploughed some €770 million into Georgia in 2011, a 20 per cent increase on the previous year.

The president is banking on foreign investment for most of the estimated €500 million he needs to create a new coastal city, called Lazika, on swampland north of Batumi.

Saakashvili says Lazika will be home to half a million people within a decade, making it Georgia’s second largest city after Tbilisi.

Georgia’s second city is currently Kutaisi, between Tbilisi and the coast, where on Saturday parliament held a symbolic first session in an unfinished new €60 million building.

Deputies will work there permanently after October’s parliamentary election.

Saakashvili’s critics – tens of thousands of whom rallied in Tbilisi on Sunday – call these plans the vanity projects of a megalomaniac.

They are baffled as to who would live in the enormous Trump Tower, they have no idea where Lazika’s 500,000 putative residents would come from; and they see political machinations behind the transfer of parliament from Tbilisi.

They also complain that Georgia’s existing infrastructure needs urgent renewal, as evinced by the collapse of dilapidated houses and the death of five people during flash floods in Tbilisi this month.

As well as modernising Georgia, Saakashvili hopes regional development will help him regain Abkhazia, a separatist-run region propped up by Russia.

Lazika will be right next to Abkhazia and Batumi is just down the coast, and officials believe bold displays of growing prosperity there will persuade Abkhazians that they would be better off under Tbilisi’s rule. Parliament’s relocation to Kutaisi is part of the same programme.

“Turning Kutaisi into [Georgia’s] second capital, like it was under the great King David the Builder, is a very important foundation for the start of restoration of full control over western Georgia,” Saakashvili said. “We should return Abkhazia from Kutaisi.”

David the Builder united Georgia in the 12th century, and Saakashvili often draws parallels between his reign and that of the medieval king.

From the Caucasus to the Black Sea, the clang of construction serves as a soundtrack to Saakashvili’s presidency.

But is he building solid foundations for Georgia’s future or costly Potemkin facades?

If his achievements withstand fortune’s arrows as well as the Chavchavadzes’s villa at Tsinandali, then he will have earned an enduring place in Georgia’s turbulent history.