The case of Vake Park is one of the successful cases of urban activism in Tbilisi. In the middle of the city’s central park – a beloved place for locals – Mayor’s office issued a permit to an investment company to build a hotel, a decision that stirred an outrage among and fuelled up waves of protest in numerous groups of the society. Activists fought vigorously and unceasingly against the construction in Vake Park, and this fight lasted for three years. Activists were able to stop the construction by using variety of legal and activist tools, media and the Internet platforms.

Vake Park brought together many groups and was able to demonstrate large-scale and almost unprecedented cases of protest. Even though the construction of the hotel has been on halt, legal battle for Vake Park is still ongoing and its outcomes still not final.

Observation over the Vake Park case shows that the way the process unfolded, along with numerous challenges and successes, should become subject to significant observations and reflection for future activism efforts.

 Start of the fight and unification of activists

Total deregulation of the city’s urban policy and space opened by city government to development companies for action, have damaged significant public goods. Green areas of the city, environment, recreation and public spaces were continuously sacrificed for chaotic and undocumented issue of construction permits.

In summer 2013, in response to massive reduction of the green cover of the city, Tbilisi Guerrilla Gardening – a civic activism movement was created. It brought together volunteer activists and aims at planting and taking care of green trees and plants across the city. The movement created a Facebook page, which continues to enjoy unprecedented popularity with the number of users reaching 30,000: https://www.facebook.com/Tbilisitrees/

In early July 2013 – individual environmental activists – Green Fist movement, Tbilisi Guerrilla Gardening and local community came together to protest the construction of a restaurant and cutting down trees on the slope of the Turtle Lake, in an area commonly known as “squirrels”. The Squirrels protest provided the first venue for activists’ gathering and getting to know each other. Regardless of the efforts, Squirrels area was nevertheless brought down, which now hosts the restaurant.

 Vake Park case – essence of the protest

Vake Park, built in Tbilisi in 1950-ies is a recreation area of special importance frequented by Tbilisi residents of almost all neighbourhoods, so the emotional attachment and sentiments are immensely high.

A two-storey Budapest hotel, built in the heart of Vake Park during the Soviet times had already been depreciated and torn down. Against the backdrop of construction boom in Georgia, Gigi Ugulava, then Mayor of Tbilisi used its authority to allow exception and on July 24, 2013 permitted construction of large-scale, 27-meter tall, 7-storey hotel on the territory of former Budapest hotel. The construction project also envisaged cutting trees and arranging parking space. Specialist believed that, the hotel, together with all of its infrastructure and weight, would cause significant damage to the public space of Vake Park and its visitors and guests. On September 20, 2013 the construction permits finally legalised the plan of the city administration.

During the second half of September 2013, the city administration launched a full rehabilitation of Vake Park territory. One of the individual activists that happened to be on Vake Park territory at that time, was infuriated by rigid structure of the planned rehabilitation works and suspiciously fenced construction territory. He spread this information through social networks followed by a wide-scale frenzy, as a result of which, the Head of the Vake municipal district contacted the author of the post and offered a meeting to discuss the project details.

Information of the meeting was spread through social networks and up to 20 independent activists agreed to come at the meeting. After the meeting, based on the information found through the Internet, activists found out that the city administration had made decision on permitting construction process without engaging with public stakeholders.

This information stirred heavy protest and emotions. Activists started mobilizing to plan strategies for struggle.

Action Strategies

The information that activists had collected was immediately released to social networks and prompted a series of discussions on different strategies. Activists had come to an agreement to engage with representatives of the Mayor’s Office and City Council to discuss perspectives of annulling permit and talk about other details of the protest. In spite of the promises, the meeting was postponed several times. This had resulted into public discontent featured on Tbilisi Guerrilla Gardening page and led to media coverage. Media coverage forced representatives of City Council and Mayor’s Office to finally hold the meeting, which took place on December 16, 2013. Even though the meeting was opened to the public, only a limited number of environmental activists were allowed to attend. Before the meeting activists collected signatures of those opposing construction in Vake Park and planned a rally at the City Council.

After completion of the meeting, activists started systematically patrolling on the territory of Vake Park. Such cases were frequently covered by the media.

After the rally, the investor contacted activists and requested a meeting to talk through details of the project. Negotiations ended without any results. On December 22, 2013, based on information published on Facebook, Guerrilla Gardening and its supporters gathered at the Mayor’s Office. Against expected turnout based on strong support demonstrated by the public through social networks, only up to 100 individuals showed up at the gathering, Participants protested against the planned construction. A head of the department responsible for mainaining green cover met with participants in an attempt to convince them that the decision had been made without breaching the law.

During the action, future strategic steps were discussed. A petition was submitted with over 8,000 signatories. The petition can be seen here.

Key requirements towards the city administration were as follow:

  • Annulling hotel construction permit
  • Do not allow construction of hotel in Vake Park
  • Provide investor with another place for construction
  • Fill in the trench and cover the territory with plants.

On December 25, 2013, activists met again with Tbilisi City Council to discuss Vake Park issue, but to no avail. The failure had been seen as an indication for more systemic and radical activism.

To plan systemic and organise protests, representatives of Guerrilla Gardening set up a closed group “Virtual Tent”, bringing together the core group of Guerrilla Gardeners and individual activists. Later, members of the group became more diverse, and so did their action strategies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures: action in front of Tbilisi City Council

Tents in Vake Park

The core group of activists was organised within the closed group, and a decision-making rule was established. It was agreed that logistical, technical and basic activities, not requiring theoretical discussion, would be agreed upon through the Facebook voting mechanism. Activists coming up with specific ideas would submit written description of the idea to the members of the group, for voting. If the initiative would be liked by at least 7 individuals, it would be considered as accepted, and members of the group would comment to start implementing organisational issues. Significant decisions that required in-depth discussion and subsequent decision-making, would be discussed during meetings of activists in Vake Park. During such discussions, decisions were made by majority vote. It is important to emphasize how representation for meetings and media was selected and legitimated. During meetings with the Mayor’s Office activists were selected according to respective competences. One of the important features of the Vake Park protest was the inclusiveness of various occupations and professional groups, which made it possible to send representatives of appropriate professions to discussions on selected topics. Groups sent to meetings with Mayor’s Office, City Council, and investors would always have a lawyer or someone well aware of legal topics, an urban planner or architect and a representative from the larger activist movement.[1]

Based on decisions made in the “Virtual Tent”, on December 28, 2013 Guerrilla Gardening and their supporters set up the tent in Vake Park and organised a demonstration. Later, on January 10, 2014, another demonstration was organised, where activists added other tents and ensured 24-hour surveillance of the Park. A special SMS system was put in place, which, if needed, would notify larger group of activists on a looming danger. Appeals for tents, food, firewood and primary items were posted on Facebook, while another group of on duty activists would deliver donated items to the destination. Activists arranged barricades on the road used by heavy equipment to reach the construction site. Permanent demonstrations were planned, until the needs were met.


Pictures: barricades to block access to the construction site; Guerrilla nights

Permanent demonstrations in Vake Park

Demonstrations in Vake Park became eventually permanent. Activists managed to maintain a continuous cycle of demonstrations for three years.

Type and intensity of demonstrations. From January 2014 to January 2016, more than 50 demonstrations of different natures were held in Vake Park, near the Mayor’s Office and in front of the City Council.

The type of the activities and their scale were different. Activists managed to mobilize resources of supporters from different sectors. Entertainment and animation companies were mobilized to plan children’s entertainment activities; art studios were mobilized to hold plenary art sessions; musicians were actively involved, as numerous actions were accompanied with concerts of popular performers, which were especially useful in winter. Numerous posters, stencils, street and trash art were produced during activities; flea markets, swap meets and movie sessions were held regularly. Various charity organisations contributed to purchasing stationery, plants, gardening tools and other instruments, lights and other products. Groups of sportsmen helped to organise various extreme sports activities, while artists and photographers organised exhibitions. According to the activists, it was important to show that the park had very diversified use, and that there was no place for a hotel in the park. This was also the purpose for organising imitated activity-performance “Picnic in the Mayor’s Office”.

Use of media and internet platforms. For three years, all demonstrations were accompanied with constant media attention. Vake Park’s surveillance and independent demonstrations were covered by mainstream TV outlets. Reports were produced on the movement as well as on specific members. Studio Monitor dedicated an investigative report to Vake Park case (with English subtitles). Numerous audio, video, photo materials and articles were created by Vake Park media friends including Liberali, NetGazeti, and Radio Liberty. Activists created a free blog, where information on Vake Park protest was regularly published, along with demands and news around the case. Any alarming development would be voiced by activists on special press briefings.

Activists made a good use of alert signal messages. Social networks and closed Facebook group “Virtual Tent” was used to plan activities, needs, surveillance duties and agreements, where activists united and voted for one or the other decision, and gathered supporters. Negotiations were conducted with partners on provision of various services needed for the action.

Besides, activists started spreading videos of supporters through social network. Famous people denounced the construction in Vake Park and expressed their support to the movement.

Even though tents were removed from Vake Park in October, permanent activities continued even after removal of tents.

Pictures: activities for children and family in Vake Park, exhibition of portraits

Pictures: demonstrations in Vake Park

Legal fight

Activists mobilized in the tents were well aware of the importance of not only activism but also of the legal struggle. Therefore, a legal strategy was adopted. On December 31, 2013 activists filed an administrative complaint to the Mayor’s Office of Tbilisi, which was reviewed on January 6, 2014. Within the framework of the claim, Mayor’s office of Tbilisi did not uphold requirement of citizens to invalidate the construction permit. In February and again in March 2014 an independent group of citizens and Green Alternative association submitted three independent lawsuits to Tbilisi City Court, requesting cancellation of the construction permit. Activists believed that filing several lawsuits to the court would increase sensitivity of the Court towards the case, and would draw closer attention. [2]

The Court started case revision very late, in November 2014, on the grounds of procedural reasons. During this period, in parallel to waiting for court decision, activists carried on with their activities including public demonstrations, meetings with investors, Mayor’s office and with City Council.

On March 2, 2016 Tbilisi City Court partially upheld the claim of the activists and cancelled the construction permit. The decision was appealed by the investor (Mayor’s Office refused to go to the Court of Appeals). On May 15, 2018 Court of Appeals finished revision of the claim of the investor, annulled decision of the court of the first instance, and enforced the construction permit, even though it had already expired in May 2016. Annulling decision of the court of first instance under conditions when construction permit had already expired, was perceived by activists as a presiding judge’s attempt to avoid an open confrontation with the investor, shirk the responsibility, but at the same time, “justify” its decision in front of activists as inability of executing the permit. [3] Decision of the Court of Appeals potentially allows for construction in Vake Park, since, if the decision is also upheld by the Supreme Court, or a cassation claim of the claimants is left without review, the investor has a chance to gain another construction permit, or make attempts to restore the expired permit.

In conclusion, this decision of the court has opened up a space for an endless protest or bureaucratic dispute around Vake Park, and by neglecting public requirements for years, and postponed completion of this case for unlimited period of time.

Political events and their influence over activism

Political changes in the country have greatly influenced the activist movement of Vake Park. The construction permit, as an expression of strong will of previous incumbent authorities, was issued by Tbilisi Mayor’s Office during the rule of United National Movement. It should be emphasized that personal connections of Nata Peradze, member of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi to this party has become subject to criticism and controversy from the side of opponents and authorities on numerous occasions. More specifically, rhetoric of the activists usually conveyed demands towards Tbilisi City Council. At that time, the City Council was comprised of representatives of the Georgian Dream Coalition, who indicated their inability to reach consensus with the Mayor, who represented the Georgian National Movement and its political interests, and constantly diverted activists towards the Mayor. In spite of that, the City Council still remained a central figure for activists to address queries to, as well as the Mayor’s office. On December 22, 2013, Giorgi Ugulava, then Mayor of Tbilisi was convicted, and Sevdia Ugrekhelidze, a representative of the United National Movement became temporary officer in charge. The latter turned down any constructive cooperation with the activists. The main argument was that the construction was not on the territory of Vake Park, but in the territory adjacent to it. At the same time, due to upcoming Olympic Games, Mayor’s Office constantly emphasized the need for hotel rooms in Tbilisi and for constructing this hotel.

Following the elections, on August 2, 2014, David Narmania, representative of the Georgian Dream Coalition took the Mayor’s office. Narmania slammed the decision of his predecessor, and during pre-election campaign and as well as after winning the elections, made promises to save Vake Park. As a result, the City Council lost its long-held argument after the election of the Mayor as it could no longer rely on the controversy argument of political opposition. Activists had hoped that the decision on the construction inside Vake Park could be revised alongside with urban policy of the city. Unfortunately, the new administration failed to meet hopes of activists. Its opposition to investors was weak and inconsistent. On January 28, 2015, the construction of Budapest hotel was suspended temporarily, on account of eliminating technical issues. Representatives of the Mayor’s Office released a statement on a launch of negotiations with the investor on offering another location, while during meetings with the City Council and Mayor’s Office, the activists were advised to stop the demonstrations and to move to quieter format.

Reasons for success of activist movement

Interviews with activists show that the success of Vake Park campaign had several reasons.

Frequency of demonstrations and their persistent nature. If it had not been for restless efforts the Vake Park case would not have remained on political agenda for such a long time. With this respect, persistence of Nata Peradze, an activist of Guerrilla Gardening has to be noted. Nata Peradze has always been on the forefront of the Vake Park protest. Media consistently covered various dimensions of the case – activism, political, ecological. The issue was discussed at significant political and media platforms. In spite of the lack of resolution of the issue, continuous actions of the activists resulted into placing Vake Park issue amongst the most significant public demands.

Diverse groups of activists. Vake Park case is significant for bringing together groups with diverse opinions and outlooks. Guerrilla Gardening managed to maintain its political impartiality, while Green Fist, Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center and several individual activists identified themselves as left-wing actors. These activists later formed Young Greens movement, which still leads left-wing ideology platform on environment and gender issues. A large spectrum of organisations participated in the activities: Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, Safe Environment, Green Alternative among many more. It is important to note that together with activists, several nationalist and conservative groups also protested against construction in Vake Park.[4] Besides, numerous professional groups and unions were engaged in Vake Park protest alongside citizens of various age, occupation, experience and mentality. Interviews with some activists show that such eclectic composition still enabled cooperation, as ideological differences were not yet distinct. [5] At that point, activists did not well know each other’s activities, which, in a way, helped them to work in unison.

Universal importance of the Vake Park. Interviews with activists show that success of Vake Park case resulted from emotional importance of this park for the citizens living in the central area of Tbilisi.[6] This park identifies with childhood and youth of many citizens; numerous films have been shot here; so the issue touched personal emotions of many. Such personal attitude resulted into restless and continuous fight of people of various generations to prevent the construction within the park.

Combined approaches. Success of Vake Park was also a result of a combination of approaches and strategies. Activists did not settle with demonstrations and events only, but also conducted a legal battle. In parallel, activists continued meetings with Mayor’s Office or the investors. At the end of every meeting, information on the results and process was communicated widely. Each undesired result would become subject of a new protest. Activists correctly captured passiveness of the new city administration towards the case, inconsistent nature of promises, and standing alone against state decision, used every possible leverages and diverse strategies to complete the case.

Conclusion

After the ending of the Vake Park demonstrations, activists failed to maintain their integrity. Getting to know each other better revealed differences in opinions between various groups. Significant differences were also identified among preferred methods for struggle. While one group of activists was in favour of less radical, artistic formats, another group raised the need for more politicised and radical measures or combating political and systemic incompliances[7], and focusing on forms of protest that would not include fun and entertainment, as the latter group believed such forms were only understandable and acceptable to certain groups of the population. This group saw the need for fighting for environmental, urban and political changes, even outside of Tbilisi, and opted for deeper reflection on systemic changes. Even inside specific groups, there were inconsistencies in opinions on the format and content of the fight. Some members requested formalisation of the movement and applying for grants to donor organisations, while others considered maintenance of more spontaneous format of activism, non-political combat as the only way to maintain public trust.[8]

These differences between the sub-groups created obstacles for common battles using common platforms.

The last united protest of urban activists was a large demonstration against the construction of Panorama Tbilisi complex in the old Tbilisi area, after which the unified platform fell apart. Activists were unable to succeed as they did in the case of Vake Park.

 

This case study was compiled by Anano Tsintsabadze for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

 

Notes:

[1] Interview with Mariam Bakradze, member of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi. May 21, 2018.

[2] Interview with Nino Gujaraidze, representative of Green Alternative. May 19, 2018

[3] According to Irakli Jugeli, activist, the judge stressed lack of importance of the decision of the process, due to expiration of construction permit.

[4] Interview with Nata Peradze, representative of Guerrilla Gardening. May 18, 2018.

[5] Interview with Nata Peradze, representative of Guerrilla Gardening. May 18, 2018.

[6] Interview with Levan Lortkipanidze, representative of Green Fist. May 22, 2018.

[7] Interview with Levan Lortkipanidze, representative of Green Fist. May 22, 2018.

[8] Interview with Nata Peradze, representative of Guerrilla Gardening. May 18, 2018.