On 21 February 2014, while delivering a speech at the Parliament of Georgia, Majoritarian MP of the Chkhorotsku Municipality, Vakhtang Lemonjava, discussed the infrastructural projects planned at various times in the Samegrelo Region. According to Lemonjava, after the Georgian Dream coalition came into power, the construction of the Poti airport and the Poti-Anaklia highway was suspended. Moreover, construction of a regional medical centre in Zugdidi, as well as the rehabilitation of the Menji resort in the Senaki Municipality, never started.
FactCheck took interested in the accuracy of the abovementioned statement and investigated the facts.
Vakhtang Lemonjava informed FactCheck’s Parliamentary correspondent that the construction of the Poti airport took its start in 2011 by the Arab group, Rasal Khaima. Earlier, the aforementioned investment agency bought the Poti port and established a free industrial zone although the construction of the new airport was suspended by the new government.
Of note is the fact that based upon the statement of the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the Poti airport project was absolutely inadmissible because of its location in a swampy area with a no-fly zone in observance of the route of migratory water birds. Therefore, according to the Minister’s explanation, an international airport will be built in Anaklia instead of Poti. However, Vakhtang Lemonjava reported to FactCheck that the migrating birds and the Ramsar Convention have nothing to do with the suspension of the construction as the Poti airport was built long before Georgia adopted the Ramsar Convention. The Poti airport offered local flights in the past but with the rehabilitation, international flights would be available as well. According to Lemonjava, the argumentation of the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development is irrelevant since the bird migration zone is stretched from Poti to Kulevi and, according to this argument, even the city of Poti should not have been constructed as well.
Based upon Vakhtang Lemonjava’s statement, the construction of the medical facility and the rehabilitation of the Menji resort, promised by the Georgian Dream coalition prior to the elections, also remain unfulfilled. Moreover, the MP claims that the central government was responsible for the aforementioned projects. In respect to the Poti-Anaklia highway, Lemonjava declared that the construction was halted in response to the demands of environmental non-governmental organisations.
FactCheck continued its investigation for further verification of the abovementioned statement. Bidzina Ivanishvili mentioned the rehabilitation of the Menji resort during his live press conference on 16 September 2012. As he put it, the Georgian Dream coalition would rebuild the abovementioned resort by all means. FactCheck got in touch with the Senaki Governor, Gocha Dgebuadze, to better orientate towards this issue. According to Dgebuadze, Turkish investors are taking interest in the rehabilitation of the Menji resort. Based upon his information, Turkish experts are currently expected in Senaki and will prepare a report about whether or not the resort rehabilitation process will take start. Dgebuadze declared that the Menji resort is planned to be leased out to investors in return for employing the local population. Details of the negotiation are not yet clear since the Turkish investors are waiting for the final report. According to the statement of the Senaki Governor, the central government is trying to attract foreign investors. Of note in particular is the fact that the investors took interest in the Menji resort in past as well although no rehabilitation processes have hitherto been initiated.
As for the construction of the Poti-Anaklia highway, FactCheck contacted the Road Department of Georgia for information but without any success. According to the statement of this agency, the state budget has not encompassed the construction of the Poti-Anaklia highway and so the process never started. It should be mentioned here that the author of the initiative about building the Poti-Anaklia highway is the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who spoke about this project at the joint sitting of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia on 10 October 2010. FactCheck spoke to the Acting Mayor of the City of Poti, Vasil Todua. Based upon his information, construction of the Poti-Anaklia highway never started as this was just an idea with the respective project never having been drafted.
Vasil Todua also commented on the construction of the Poti international airport and reported that the process should have been finalised in May 2013; however, the central government halted the construction. In addition, the decision was made to build the airport in Anaklia instead of Poti.
Of note is the fact that environmental experts believe it is inadmissible to build an international airport on the territory of Poti due to the ecological risk factors. The Chairman of the Agromedia NGO, Irakli Absandze, declared that: “There are a number of solid arguments against the construction of a big airport in Poti. The first one is that this park is extremely important for the migrating birds on the Africa-Eurasia track. The new airport will completely destroy the unique ecosystem which would be a global ecological crime. On the other hand, a bird-rich environment is a serious threat for the safety of flights. Due to the abovementioned factor, the administrations of big international airports have specifically trained birds of prey against the migrating birds.” Additionally, Absandze stated that the Poti airport also contradicts the Ramsar Convention.
The Ramsar Convention (the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat) was signed by 18 states on 2 February 1971 in the city of Ramsar (Iran). This intrastate treaty envisages the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands by guaranteeing international cooperation in this respect. Under the term of wetland, the convention means swamps, mires, peaty soils, all types of reservoirs including natural, artificial, constant, temporary, drained and stagnant, fresh, semi-salty and salty; as well as sea basins where the water depth during reserving is less than six meters. These lands are particularly important for waterfowl habitats. The aforementioned Convention imposes certain obligations upon the parties. They have to provide protection and countrywide sustainable usage of the wetland areas. As a part of the land use planning process the governments have to foresee the necessity of wetland protection. In addition to the general obligations, the Ramsar Convention set some specific requirements as well: each party should announce at least one so-called Ramsar site from the list of the Ramsar sites – a wetland of international importance. The selection is conducted in accordance to specific criteria. The parties have to maintain the ecological character of these areas and cooperate in terms of the protection of the cross-border wetlands and the species passing through them. The geographical area of the Convention has expanded since 1971 and currently involves 138 parties. Up to 1,366 sites are recognised as Ramsar territories or so-called Ramsar sites. The overall area of the Ramsar sites covers more than 119.6 million ha (www.ramsar.org). Georgia joined the Ramsar Convention in 1996. The wetlands of the Colchis Lowland (in particular, Churia marshes, Nadari marshes, Pichora-Paliastomi marshes, Paliastomi Lake and the Black Sea basin) as well as the Ispani marshes near Kobuleti were recognised as Ramsar sites.
Based upon the information of the Media and Society association and the Guria News new portal, it was reported that the construction of the Poti international airport contradicted the Ramsar Convention; in addition, according to Guria News the aforementioned project was never submitted to the Department of Ecological Expertise and Inspection of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection of Georgia for an ecological report.
Environmentalists also opposed the construction of the Poti-Anaklia highway. On 12 October 2012 in an interview with opinion.ge the coordinator of the Biodiversity Programme of the Green Alternative, Irakli Macharashvili, declared that the Kolkheti National Park is one of the highest levels of protected areas while the multiple-use area is characterised by a low level of protection even though it remains inadmissible to use it for the construction of a highway or any other infrastructural facilities.
A document entitled Environmental Policy, Institutional and Regulatory Gap Analysis, prepared by the Green Alternative, reports: “Besides the abovementioned amendments, by law N5128 dated October 13, 2011, 842, 4 ha were removed from the Kolkheti National Park (strict protection zone) and a multiple-use area was created. The key goal of this amendment was to allow the construction of the Poti-Anaklia highway and the development of the city of Lazika. Making such an amendment to the law in order to implement an infrastructural/economic project was a mistake made by the Ministry of Environment Protection (initiator) and the Parliament: according to the Law on the System of Protected Areas, it is not allowed to implement similar projects on multiple-use areas. In order to construct the Poti-Anaklia highway and the city of Lazika without violations, the Parliament will now have to abolish the protected area. In terms of biodiversity, it means the degradation of the middle of the Kolkheti National Park. This is the only place in the entire Black Sea basin where the marine protected area joins the terrestrial protected area. By such actions, Georgia violates its multilateral agreements (Ramsar, Bern and Aarhus Conventions; Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Water Birds), as well as contradicts the EU Habitats and Birds Directives.”
FactCheck also verified Vakhtang Lemonjava’s words about the medical centre promised by the Georgian Dream coalition. Bidzina Ivanishvili’s statement made in Zugdidi on 22 September 2012 should be mentioned: “An international medical centre and educational institution for the Caucasian region will be built in Zugdidi. We want to start the construction in 2013 and we definitely will. The most important thing is that the treatment and education will be free-of-charge for the local population as well as the population of Abkhazia.” Irakli Alasania, a Majoritarian Candidate of the Georgian Dream coalition in the Zugdidi Municipality, also spoke about the construction of the regional rehabilitation centre in a video clip of the pre-election period. Of note is the fact that both Irakli Alasania and Bidzina Ivanishvili promised to invest GEL 100 million in the Zugdidi economy in the case of their success in the elections. The abovementioned investment was due to funding the construction of the regional rehabilitation centre.
Recently, during his tour throughout the regions of Georgia, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili declared that the construction of the abovementioned rehabilitation centre will take its start in two months.
In respect to this issue FactCheck also interviewed Zugdidi Governor, Edisher Toloraia. According to his statement, the construction of the rehabilitation centre is planned to be initiated in the Zugdidi Municipality, in the area of the village of Rukhi, in two months. The centre will assist about 220 people and employ up to 600 people including technical personnel. The project will be funded by the central budget and implemented with the joint efforts of the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure and the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia. FactCheck got in touch with the latter and inquired about the amount allocated in the Ministry’s budget of 2014 for the aforementioned project. Based upon the information of the representative of the Ministry, the project is currently being elaborated and final information about budgeting as well as starting and ending dates of the construction will be published later. According to the information of the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia, the Foundation for Municipal Development is conducting respective geological research at the request of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia.
FactCheck’s research revealed that the medical centre project for the Zugdidi Municipality is currently being elaborated. Therefore, no information has been provided so far concerning the starting and ending dates of the construction. Nevertheless, Vakhtang Lemonjava’s statement cannot be regarded as false due to the unknown dates of the construction. In addition, by the time he made the aforementioned statement, the construction of the medical centre had not yet been announced by the government.
Vakhtang Lemonjava is right when declaring that the Poti international airport and the Poti-Anaklia highway projects have been suspended. According to the Government of Georgia and environmental organisations, this is due to contradictions with the Ramsar Convention. Based upon the statement of Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia, the abovementioned argument serves as one of the reasons for moving the construction of the international airport from Poti to Anaklia. However, of note is the fact that environmental organisations believe it absolutely unacceptable to build an international airport on the territory of Poti, as well as that of the city of Lazika, as it contains serious ecological risks and contradicts the Ramsar Convention. As for Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s statement about building the airport in Anaklia instead of Poti, FactCheck possesses no information about whether or not it is also connected with ecological threats.
In regard to the Poti-Anaklia highway project, construction is not in progress at the moment. Based upon the report of environmental organisations, this project is unacceptable because of the obligations imposed by the Ramsar Convention.
The last part of Vakhtang Lemonjava’s statement about the unfulfilled promise of the Georgian Dream coalition concerning the rehabilitation of the Menji resort is true as the rehabilitation process never started in the post-election period, or afterwards.
Based upon the facts discussed throughout this article, FactCheck concludes that the statement of MP Vakhtang Lemonjava is MOSTLY TRUE.
Originally published in The Financial, issue N. 17(397)