Tbilisi is of central importance to Georgia’s economy, civil society, development, culture and political life. According to preliminary census data, the population of Georgia is around 3.7 million and Tbilisi’s is approximately 1.1 million, although many believe the latter number to be somewhere between 1.5-2 million. Therefore, a today a substantial percentage of the Georgian people in Georgia, perhaps even one half, live in the capital. Although there are tourism destinations scattered throughout the country and Batumi is emerging as a destination for conventions, beach goers and nightlife seekers, Tbilisi is still by far the largest and most important city in the country.
Today, Tbilisi is a fascinating mix of old and new, urban and almost rural, and highly functional and deeply dysfunctional. The city has also come a long way in the last decade or so. Large scale rolling blackouts and persistent lack of running water are, for the most part, a thing of the past. Tbilisi is dotted with new buildings and roads; the police are more competent and friendly, and less corrupt than they were at the turn of the century, and there is even a public WiFi system that, although sporadic, works from time to time. These improvements over the last decade were largely envisioned and implemented by the previous government. The United National Movement (UNM) leadership actively sought to change the culture of policing in Tbilisi, while also investing in renovations and new construction. The current government has continued this development and investment in beautifying some parts of the city.
The UNM government also spearheaded a dramatic modernization of Batumi, a city that 15 years ago was a sleepy coastal town led by a nasty warlord who was only occasionally accountable to Georgia’s central government. Today, Batumi is home so several new hotels, a renovated boardwalk, beautiful public art and a booming tourism sector. There are, of course, problems of urbanism in Batumi as many residents are not happy about the destruction of the historic parts of the city, but the development there shows that in Georgia it is possible to change the character of a city. Doing the same in Tbilisi will be much harder as Tbilisi is several times bigger than Batumi and is in need not of a shiny new hotels and tourist attractions, but of a renovated infrastructure, updated laws and regulations and a new urbanist culture.
Visitors to Tbilisi who spend their time in expensive and often stylish hotels, strolling the streets of the Old City and in tonier neighborhoods like Vake and Vera, can easily overlook the poverty, inadequate housing, infrastructure and public transportation with which residents of many other parts of Tbilisi must live every day. That, however, is normal. Almost all of the major cities of the world have areas that are poorer and less visited by affluent tourists. Many visitors who claim to love New York, for example, rarely make it out to the South Bronx, other than perhaps to go to a Yankee game.
The bigger challenge facing Tbilisi is that even a casual visitor cannot help but notice the poor air quality, dependence on automobiles, seemingly uncontrolled and unregulated construction, absence of pedestrian sidewalks, bike paths and the like. Again, these same conditions can be found in many cities, but generally in poorer countries. Georgia’s European aspirations are real and critical to the future and identity of the country. Its capital city, however, is lagging badly behind in this regard. European cities, with emphases on livability, neighborhoods, means of transportation other than the car, clean air and an environmental consciousness, seem distant from a Tbilisi that is still stuck in an earlier and less hospitable urban paradigm.
Changing Tbilisi into a modern, affluent, green, pedestrian friendly, European style city, may not be possible, and cannot happen quickly. However, beginning to turn Tbilisi around and at least halting some of the most egregious practices and policies that threaten to further damage quality of life in the city can be done. The failure to do thus far has been due to problems of vision and governance, but also of competing interests in Tbilisi.
The interrelated challenges of vision and governance spring from the relationship of Tbilisi’s politics with those of the country more generally. Significantly, Tbilisi has only directly elected its mayor twice, in 2010 and 2014. In both of those elections the candidate from the ruling party won easily. There is nothing particularly wrong or unusual about that, but in both those elections the vote in Tbilisi was more of a general referendum on the ruling party, as well as, inevitably, some kind of test on Georgia’s democratic progress, than a forum for meaningful discussion and debate about Tbilisi’s future. Therefore, politicians, even when campaigning for mayor of Tbilisi, have rarely been called upon to offer a vision for the city; and the city has been without powerful and independent political advocates.
Even if Tbilisi were governed by a strong independent mayor, efforts to remake the city based upon a modern European model would encounter enormous obstacles including raising the necessary money for things like bike paths, expanded metros and widespread infrastructure improvements, taking on powerful business interests who currently benefit from the city as it is structured and even changing the culture of how many residents live and use the city. None of those things would be easy, but with vision and strong governance, would be possible.
Remaking Tbilisi so it could become more attuned with a European model of urbanism is additionally difficult because it requires a kind of governance that is counter to, or at least different from, much of the reform efforts that have occurred in Georgia since 2003. After the Rose Revlution, the United National Movement (UNM), with good reason, busied itself with eliminating Communist era bureaucracy, making it easier to do business, and reducing regulations of all kinds. Gradually, this gave way to a rhetorical commitment to an almost libertarian approach to economic development. While the current government, does not share that ideological perspective, they have generally sought to reduce, rather than increase, regulations.
The problem with this approach is that urban development requires regulations, planning and government investment of a kind that has not occurred in Georgia in recent years. A visionary of Tbilisi would need not just to strip away regulations from previous eras, but pro-actively legislate and regulate issues like construction, traffic, industry and parking as well as undertaking infrastructure projects that were consistent with the vision for the city’s future. Some of this occurred under the previous government, particularly in areas like policing or remaking the old city, but there was no holistic plan.
The governance that is required for Tbilisi is a combination of new and smart regulations, a visionary approach to new construction, roads, transport systems and the like, incentives for citizens to change their economic and other behaviors and a corresponding public education campaign that would help wean Tbilisi residents from an over-dependence on cars, disregard for existing zoning laws and other concerns.
There is a nascent movement in Tbilisi that, thus far, has organized around a battery of contemporary urban issues such as preservation, public gardens, parks and humane treatment of stray dogs that suggests there is a growing appetite in Tbilisi for this kind of visionary urban reform. While there is some demand for a new urbanism in Tbilisi, there will also be resistance from people who like to be able to drive their cars everywhere, do not want to see building codes increased or enforced and those who are concerned about the cost associated with this urban project.
Clearly, in Tbilisi today, the latter interests are winning. There may be a growing preservationist movement, but the unregulated construction keeps occurring, traffic continues to get worse and wanton disregard for basic rules governing things like where one can or cannot park a car also persist. This is unfortunate, because if Tbilisi continues in this trajectory, residents of the city will suffer the health and other consequences of poor air quality, shrinking park space, hours spent in traffic jams and other conditions. There will be a hidden financial cost to this as well, as Tbilisi residents, for example, will require more health care to address these consequences and workers will continue to lose substantial amounts of time to commuting. It will probably be Tbilisi’s poorest residents who will suffer the most if Tbilisi declines in this way. They will have the longest commutes, will be less able to afford to leave the city or move to surrounding areas with cleaner air and less noise pollution and who depend more on public parks for recreation and fresh air.
Tbilisi’s continued dysfunction will also impede Georgia’s path to Europe, and be a disincentive to investors, as visiting diplomats, policy makers, businesspeople and even tourists, perhaps not even consciously, will judge Georgia based on a capital that looks and functions radically differently than any major European city. Georgia invests a lot of energy into showing the world its beauty, but a few days in Tbilisi, especially for those foreigners who make it out of the old city or who walk a few blocks from their hotel, can rapidly undermine that perception.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.