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On Black Sea Swamp, Big Plans for Instant City

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/world/europe/in-georgia-plans-for-an-instant-city.html
April 21, 2012
On Black Sea Swamp, Big Plans for Instant City
By ELLEN BARRY [Georgia] [former USSR] [Trans Caucasus, Georgia] [democratization and rule of law in Russia] [real hostilities between Russia (former USSR of which Georgia was a part) and Georgia, particularly since the 2008 war] [however, recently we’ve seen both trying to put that past behind them] [use psci350] [here Georgia moves ahead with creation of an entirely new mega city on the Black Sea] [*]
ZUGDIDI, Georgia — Reaching the site where Georgia’s government is breaking ground for Lazika, its grandiose city of the future, requires navigating livestock — shaggy cows and huge spotted hogs that sunbathe on the road to the hypnotic chirping of innumerable frogs.
Along the way, one finds varying opinions about the proposal to build a city of half a million here on a stretch of marshy land near the Black Sea, a project based on the Chinese concept of the instant city. [*]
Khatia Ochiava, a schoolteacher in a village of 330 beside the building site, is so inspired by the idea that practically every day she watches a government promotional video, whose computer animation shows a Dubai-like cluster of skyscrapers and a teeming cargo port. She is already planning to open a restaurant called Café Lazika.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/world/europe/in-georgia-plans-for-an-instant-city.html
April 21, 2012
On Black Sea Swamp, Big Plans for Instant City
By ELLEN BARRY [Georgia] [former USSR] [Trans Caucasus, Georgia] [democratization and rule of law in Russia] [real hostilities between Russia (former USSR of which Georgia was a part) and Georgia, particularly since the 2008 war] [however, recently we’ve seen both trying to put that past behind them] [use psci350] [here Georgia moves ahead with creation of an entirely new mega city on the Black Sea] [*]
ZUGDIDI, Georgia — Reaching the site where Georgia’s government is breaking ground for Lazika, its grandiose city of the future, requires navigating livestock — shaggy cows and huge spotted hogs that sunbathe on the road to the hypnotic chirping of innumerable frogs.
Along the way, one finds varying opinions about the proposal to build a city of half a million here on a stretch of marshy land near the Black Sea, a project based on the Chinese concept of the instant city. [*]
Khatia Ochiava, a schoolteacher in a village of 330 beside the building site, is so inspired by the idea that practically every day she watches a government promotional video, whose computer animation shows a Dubai-like cluster of skyscrapers and a teeming cargo port. She is already planning to open a restaurant called Café Lazika.
Others, like Kakha Pachkua, 38, have their doubts about the plans. A Megrelian, from the ethnic group that has lived here for centuries, he works at the edge of the site and says the ground there is so saturated that the proposed high-rises would require foundations nearly 80 feet deep.
“Any Megrelian will tell you it is impossible to build there,” he said, looking over at the wetlands. “Lazika is only a word — Lazika. There is nothing else. Those are huge buildings; I don’t know how the swamp will hold them.”
Government officials have little time to engage with skeptics. The headlong pace of new construction in Georgia has not allowed for public debate over the projects’ financing, environmental impact or merit. Despite queries raised on all of these scores, Lazika’s first building — a futuristic Public Service Hall for the new city — is already under construction, and due to open in September. Ten years from now, President Mikheil Saakashvili has said, Lazika will be Georgia’s second-largest city after Tbilisi, which has a population of about 1.5 million, and a leading Black Sea trading hub. [*]
Since taking office in 2004, Mr. Saakashvili has based his leadership on one big idea after another: the dissolution of the notoriously corrupt traffic police; changing the country’s second language to English from Russian; moving Parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, a small city a three-hour drive away; and, now, confronting poverty in the agrarian west by building a city from scratch. [*]
“The main reason we are changing our country so fast is that we are quite smart and very young and we want to do everything fast,” said Giorgi Vashadze, a deputy minister of justice, who is overseeing the construction of sleek new government service buildings in cities across Georgia. “We don’t have time, like in Europe and America, to think about the project for 10 years and then start implementation. That’s why these kinds of crazy ideas are sometimes coming to our mind.”
The idea of Lazika was rolled out four months ago, when Mr. Saakashvili was visiting Zugdidi, a city of about 65,000 that has been gradually losing population. The area, which produces tangerines and nuts, suffered greatly when Russia shut its markets to Georgian goods in 2005 and 2006, and two years later, when Russian forces sealed off the neighboring separatist region of Abkhazia. Ketevan Gvinjilia, 50, says residents have begun to economize by using electricity in only one room. [*]
“We are sitting here in a vacuum,” she said, adding that the region’s economic stagnation was beginning to remind her of the period before Mr. Saakashvili came to power. “We haven’t gotten to that point, but we are gradually approaching it,” she said.
The president acknowledged Zugdidi’s troubles in a Dec. 4 speech, saying, “We need a big breakthrough if we are not to have poverty anymore.”
The breakthrough, he said, would be a brand-new city and maritime port on the coast, 18 miles away — an idea now common in China, which has erected dozens of cities to house its flood of rural migrants, but highly unusual for Europe. [*]Mr. Vashadze said he was browsing on the Internet when he came across the idea of a “charter city,” with distinct regulatory and judicial systems that could attract foreign investors to build factories.
“This idea came to us — why can’t we do that in Georgia?” he said. “We looked out and we saw there is free space on the Black Sea coast.”
That the space is watery poses no problem, he figured, because “if you go to China, you will see the new cities are all built on a swamp.”
When asked how many officials were working full time to plan Lazika, Mr. Vashadze said that it was only one, though he added that 10 to 15 people were on the project part time.
The presidential announcement has prompted a flurry of questions. The proposed site is at the edge of the Kolkheti wetlands, where in 1997 Georgia committed to preserve about 82,000 acres as part of the international Ramsar Convention. Though the convention, overseen out of Switzerland, has no power to punish violators, it warns of “political and diplomatic discomfort in high-profile fora or the media.” So far, Georgia’s minister of environmental protection has responded rather sarcastically to concerns about the wetlands.
“Please help me and tell me what I will do to attract tourists who will come here and see these swamps, donate, take photos, write something about it, spend money here, tell others, ‘These swamps are cool!’ ” the minister, Giorgi Khachidze, told students in February.
The questions extend to practical matters, like how Lazika could attract half a million residents in a country of about 4.5 million that is neither growing in population nor urbanizing.
Financing is another concern: Four months ago, Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia had begun talks with several large investors from Europe and Asia who would shoulder most of the long-term building cost, which the president estimated at $600 million to $900 million. No investor has yet publicly committed, though, leaving it unclear how much of the burden would fall to Georgia’s budget, which was $4.2 billion last year.
“We don’t know how much it will cost, how much budget money will be spent,” said Eka Gigauri of Transparency International, an anticorruption group that April 11 released a new study documenting violation of landowners’ rights by state development projects. She said some of Mr. Saakashvili’s huge building projects — road construction in particular — had greatly benefited Georgia, but she expressed doubt about the priority put on Lazika.
“There are so many things that need to be done,” she said. “Why build a totally new city? What stands behind that? There was nothing, no explanation. Just the president said, ‘We are building a new city there.’ ”
Similar questions have occurred to ordinary Georgians; in a poll released last month by the National Democratic Institute, 59 percent of those who were aware of the proposed construction said they supported building Lazika, but 68 percent said there should be public discussion in Parliament beforehand. [*]Kakha Bakhtadze of the Caucasus Environmental N.G.O. Network said it would be difficult to have a serious debate about the environmental impact of the project because the government had not yet published a site plan. He added that he had little doubt that Lazika would be built.
“The government and the president announced that there will be a city,” he said. “Very often, when our president is announcing something, it is happening.” [let’s be clear] [Saakashvili is not particularly worried about the niceties of democracy] [when he wants something done, it’s done or else] [why certain constituents in the U.S. have supported him is not entirely clear] [he has much in common with Putin, in terms of trampling on democratic governance when it serves him] [**]
Indeed, at a site 200 miles west of the capital, Merab Chkhikvadze, an engineer, was overseeing a crew of about a dozen workers on a recent day. As a pump squirted muddy water out of a 72-foot hole that will help make up the Public Service Hall’s foundation, he said the project made him feel like part of history, and recited a proverb about the rewards that await the bold. But besides that one building, his site plan showed a six-lane circular road and nothing else. “I don’t exactly know,” he said when asked what the rest of the city would look like. “But a plan exists, of course.”

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