Category Archives: Tbilisi

Confronting Structural Violence Through Street Art – 2) Georgia

Georgia: Country-Specific Street Art

Street Art as a Response to Violence by the Clergy

The below painting appeared in multiple places in the central streets of Tbilisi. It was part of the protest wave against violence organized by some clerics of the Georgian Orthodox Church. On May 17, 2013, priests led a mob of thousands against a small-scale demonstration that in turn was organized against homophobia. The mob chased and beat the peaceful rally participants in the narrow streets and in public transport. During these developments cameras captured an image of a priest holding a taburetka (the Russian word for “stool” in turn borrowed from French and still in common use in the Caucasus) and attacking with it the bus and people around it. As a result, the taburetka became a symbol of the church-motivated violence against human rights activists.

Caucasus Edition

“Condemn Taburetka”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 9, 2014.

Following the developments of May 17, 2013, another stenciled message appeared in the underground passage on Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi. The passage is in front of the Kashueti Church and Tbilisi Gymnasium N1. Its location, accessibility by thousands of people on a daily basis makes it popular among street artists. For the same reasons, the street art depicted on the walls of this passage is subject to stricter judgment and “censorship” by those who disagree with its form of expression or messages.

The words in the below stencil are an allusion to a phrase from the Gospel of John 8:1-11 in the Bible, where Jesus stops the mob from attacking the woman “caught in adultery”. In the story, the mob wants to stone her to death, and Jesus tells them, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her”. Hearing this, the mob retreats. The message of this work reminds of the double standards of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Soon the message was painted over.

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“Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the Taburetka first”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 2, 2014.

Another message containing a hint was painted nearby – two hearts, a tiny one and a bigger one with respective writings underneath “The Heart of the Priest” and “The Heart of Jesus”. Similar to the previous one, it was also painted over.

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“The Heart of the Priest” and “The Heart of Jesus”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 2, 2014.

The related piece below presents an “interpretation” of the famous human evolution chart, showing human progress from ape to homo sapiens, and regress from homo sapiens to a priest and a taburetka.

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“Taburetka Evolution”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 8, 2016.

This next piece depicts a box with the writing “donation”, along with the symbols of cars – Audi, Mercedes, and BMW – to hint at the lavish lifestyle of high-level clerics. Receiving expensive cars as gifts and their usage is common among them. With this painting, the author reminds the society how far the clerics are from the values upheld by Christianity such as modesty, humility, and restraint.

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“Donation”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 26, 2014.

The figure of a cleric with the dollar sign on the walking stick sends a similar message. Made in front of the Rustaveli Metro Station in Tbilisi, this piece sarcastically showcases the wealth of the clerics and their luxurious lifestyle, inconsistent with what they preach.

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A priest with a dollar sign above the walking stick and a “VIP-77” sign. Artist: Unknown. Location: near Rustaveli Metro Station, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2014.

A similar figure was photographed only two weeks after the first one. This time, the image had been “edited”.

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The partially erased image of the corrupt priest. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: March 3, 2014.

For the Decriminalization of the Consumption of Light Drugs

A message under a cannabis leaf was part of a campaign devoted to the decriminalization of the usage of light drugs such as marijuana. At the time of the photograph in February 2014, the Criminal Code of Georgia foresaw imprisonment for their consumption. Since then, a long-term struggle and advocacy campaigns resulted to number of changes in the legislation. In December 2017, the Government of Georgia approved changes of legislation, which considered the abolishment of imprisonment for the production, purchase, storage, and consumption of small amounts of marijuana. Respective changes were made in the Criminal Code, the Administrative Violations Code, and other relevant laws. In November 2017, the Constitutional Court abolished criminal responsibility for the repeated consumption of marijuana.

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“It’s you who is a criminal”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 9, 2012.

In Favor of Labor Rights and Against Poor Working Conditions

The below artwork was photographed in January 2014. Back then, news about the harsh working condition of mine workers became very visible in the media. Public concerns grew into a protest campaign, including a small-scale rally in front of the Parliament building and a few graffiti paintings in the street.

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“Low wages are unfair for me”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 24, 2014.

The below painting appeared in Tbilisi around the same time, exposing the inhuman working conditions of the working class.

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“Not a slave! A worker!”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 24, 2014.

The stenciled phrase “The City of Corpses” appeared in the underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University on February 14, 2017. The movement Auditorium 115 placed it there immediately after the news of the death of a construction worker spread. Another phrase was added later – “1209. Rebel”. 1,209 stands as the number of the people who have died at construction works in Georgia in 2010-2017. Within a few months, the stencils were painted over.

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“The city of corpses” painted over. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2018. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili.

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“The city of corpses” painted over. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2018. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili.

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“1209 Rebel”. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2018.

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“1209 Rebel” painted over. Artist: Auditorium 115. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2018. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili.

The phrase “Value human labor” is written in several places in the central streets of Tbilisi. Once again, the author reminds about the need for decent wages for employees.

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“Value human labor”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Underground passage in front of Building 1 of the Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2018.

For the Inclusion of People with Disabilities

The below artwork belongs to the artist under the pseudonym Gagosh who placed it at the entrance of the subway station Medical University. The painting displays one of the challenges of public transport in Tbilisi: none of the metro stations are accessible for people with disabilities.

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A person in a wheelchair wearing a helmet is going up/down the stairs. Artist: Gagosh. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: June 10, 2016.

Small paintings and writings on the walls along Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi expose the exclusion and invisibility of people with disabilities. “Do you really know me?” asks a person in the wheelchair. It hints to the low awareness about the issues and problems of people with disabilities. The photograph was taken on March 3, 2014 and is still there in 2018.

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“Do you really know me?”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: March 3, 2014.

The Struggle for Healthy Public Spaces – the Case of the Vake Park

The graffiti “Beware! A wicked investor is in the yard!” appeared in winter 2014 on the fence located in the Vake Park in Tbilisi. It was part of the widespread protest to protect the park and the largest green space in Tbilisi from the construction of a 7-storey hotel and its facilities there. The movement Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi organized a months-long camp and multiple events there. As a result of the long-term advocacy campaign and court hearings, Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi won the case in the First Instance Court, and the permission for the hotel construction was annulled. In Spring 2018, a new decision of the Appeal Court was announced which allowed the investors to continue construction in that place. The decision can be appealed to in the Supreme Court.

The below paintings appeared during this campaign to emphasize multiple environmental problems in Tbilisi, including the dominating business interests with investors ignoring the public demand on conserving green spaces, the high level of pollution in the city, making the conservation of green spaces even more crucial, the shrinking spaces that are safe and healthy for children to play.

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“Beware! A wicked investor is in the yard!”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 2, 2014.

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“Help” Artist: Unknown. Location: Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 2, 2014.

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A child playing with a kite. Artist: Unknown. Location: Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 2, 2014.

Country-Specific Street Art in Armenia

Against Bullying and Violence in the Army

Every year, several soldiers commit suicide in the Armenian army. According to the statistics brought out by the non-governmental organization Peace Dialogue, for the period of 2010-2015, the total number was 48 (Khachatryan 2017). While the government prefers to keep the circumstances of these cases in secret, the public tries to get more information about the problem. People want to understand the reasons that drive young men to this fatal decision. The below painting was made in Yerevan to visualize the issue and remind the society about it. After some time, it was painted over.

Starting from January 2017, a new tax was introduced in Armenia. Every employee is obliged to contribute 1,000 Armenian Drams (about USD2) per month to a special fund. This fund covers the pensions and other payouts of the soldiers that have been wounded, deceased, or disabled in combat. The funds go to their families if the soldier died. A considerable part of the public negatively reacted to the decision, considering it militarization of the society or unjustified deductions from their low income.

The stenciled phrase “My son died, I paid my bank loan” is supposed to be the voice of the parent who has lost a son and has used the “compensation” funds to cover a bank loan, the latter being another component of the social hardship of many families.

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“My son died, I paid my bank loan. #1000drams”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: November 2016. Photo Credits: Ananun’s (meaning “anonymous”) Facebook page.

Street Art Expressing Resistance

Vardges Gaspari is an Armenian political activist. He is famous for his nonviolent resistance against the government. He uses “sit-down” or “lay-down” approaches to express his dissatisfaction with the government and its policies.
The below graffiti was made on a wall in Gyumri, Armenia. It shows Vardges Gaspari standing in a faceless crowd. He is the only person facing the audience and holding a placard with the words “Filth, murderer, scoundrel”.

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Vardges Gaspari holding the sign “Filth, murderer, scoundrel”. Artist: Medialab. Location: Gyumri, Armenia. Date of the Photo: February 4, 2018. Photo Credits: Marianna Grigoryan’s Facebook page.

The following stenciled phrases also serve as reminders of the double standards and cases of injustice in the country.

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“I do not tolerate double standards”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Arami Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 13, 2018.

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“Being downtrodden means being deprived of choice. bell hooks”. Artist: Unkown. Location: Spendiaryan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 18, 2018.

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“When we choose to love, we start acting against power, against oppression. bell hooks”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Spendiaryan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 18, 2018.


Khachatryan, Edgar. 2017. “Murders, Suicides, and Fatal Accidents Plague the Armenian Military.” OC Media. February 24. Accessed March 8, 2018.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** Read Part 1 of this Story here.

Confronting Structural Violence Through Street Art – 1) Georgia and Armenia

What can a person or a group do if they are deprived of voice and the freedom of expression? When they cannot speak up about their problems and raise issues they are concerned about in the public space? When they do not have access to mainstream media to reach wider audiences? When they are oppressed in one way or another or struggle for survival? In other words, how can people cope with structural violence – the systematic harm that can be done through certain social structures and institutions?

For the last few decades, street art has increasingly become a powerful tool for the voice of the oppressed in different parts of the world. People from minority groups, the underprivileged, the marginalized, civic and human rights activists often use it as a means of communication. They create influential images and messages illustrating their concerns and troubles. They trigger discussion about underrepresented or tabooed topics. Often anonymous, street art challenges the dominating public opinion, questioning issues of justice, security, roles in the society, raising the voices of those who are excluded from political decision making and the public space.

Publicity and easy access are both a strength and a weakness for street art. Images or messages are usually placed where people can notice them. For the same reason, they are easily spotted and erased by those who oppose the image or the message. Some of them can “live” for a few hours; others “resist” a few days or weeks. Rarely can street art survive for a few months, especially if it represents “unpopular” views. It is impossible to predict the exact “life cycle” of street art. It is frequently erased, broken, deleted, painted over, and dissolved.

For the past decade, the South Caucasus societies have also seen a surge of street art-ctivism. Groups and individuals have used it as an alternative way of public speaking. They have raised and protested issues ranging from unfair socio-political processes to specific cases of oppression, injustice, and violence.

In this piece, we present selected works of street art – street artwork – in Armenia and Georgia. Most of them do not exist anymore. They have been subject to official or unofficial “censorship” and “cleaning”. The photographs were taken in different cities of Georgia and Armenia and depict deeply embedded issues in these societies. Some of these pieces have common topics and address the same issues in both societies. Others are related to country-specific issues. These artworks belong to brave art-ctivists who deliver “unsanctioned” images and messages to the public space, raise the silenced voices in their societies, and strive for changes in their communities. They “speak” about people’s feelings and attitudes and can, therefore, contain commonly used language, including swear words and other kinds of expressive language.

This 2015 piece of street art in Yerevan tells you that street art-ctivism is “A Method to Struggle”. The artist’s pseudonym is Hakaharvats meaning “counterblast”.

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“A Method to Struggle”. Artist: Hakaharvats. Location: Koghbatsi Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: 2015.

Common Topics in Georgian and Armenian Street Art

Against Political Oppression, Regimes, and Surveillance

George Orwell’s famous dystopian book “1984” describes a system where everyone is under the strict control and surveillance of the state. “Thinkpol” – the Thought Police – identifies and punishes Thought Criminals – those who have the capacity of independent thought. There is no space for real freedom in Oceania. Screens and informers are everywhere. Thinkpol immediately eradicates any alternative to the official version of reality. Only one political party is entitled to set rules, take office, and make political decisions. There is no real freedom of choice, democracy, and public will in Oceania.

A similar interpretation of reality inspired an unknown street artist in Georgia to make a number of drawings. The first photo was taken on May 18, 2012 in Tbilisi. It was during the then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s second term in office. It has been widely believed that back then the government systematically violated the citizens’ privacy. Secret phone surveillance was so prevalent that nobody felt safe. The obtained materials were used for blackmail and political repression. Distrust and fear were rooted in all the layers of the political and social structure. “Big Brother is Watching You” was written onto walls in central Tbilisi, among them the wall of the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia and the underground passage of Liberty Square.

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“Big Brother is Watching You”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2012.

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“Big Brother is Watching You”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: May 18, 2012.

The below image that can be interpreted to have a similar message appeared in Yerevan. It seems to illustrate the sense of control and surveillance prevalent in the society.

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A painting of an ear at the turn of a building that was captured by a photographer and posted on Facebook titled “Big Brother is Listening [to] You”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 8, 2018. Photo Credits: Narek Aleksanyan’s Facebook page.

And below is another one from Rustavi, Georgia, illustrating resistance to a democracy that does not work well.

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“Fuck Your Democracy”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Rustavi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 8, 2014.

In March 2018, two initiatives “My Step” and “Reject Serzh” started a movement to prevent the appointment of the former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in the post of the Prime Minister of the country. As a result of the “Velvet Revolution”, Serzh Sargsyan left the post of the Prime Minister where he had stayed only a few days. The opposition Member of Parliament and the leader of the protests Nikol Pashinyan became the new Prime Minister of the country. The struggle of the people against the corrupted authorities and the ruling Republican party took roughly 40 days of street protests. Throughout this period, dozens of new pieces of graffiti appeared in the streets of Yerevan calling people to take their own step and join the movement.

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“The People’s Victory”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: June 13, 2018. Photo Credits: Aren Mkrtchyan’s Facebook Page.

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“The People’s Victory”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: June 13, 2018.

Confronting Gender- and Sex-Based Violence

Many pieces of street art challenge the dominant perceptions about gender and sex. They question the traditionally assigned gender roles and emphasize the need for changes.

The artwork below was photographed in the underground passage at Liberty Square in Tbilisi on September 23, 2011. It is a collage of two famous female-icons. The head of the figure “belongs” to the Statue of Liberty in New York, USA. The body is a modification of the Mother of Georgia statue in Tbilisi. It still holds a bowl of wine intended “for friends” and a sword intended “for enemies”. However, unlike the original one, her dress is short, and she is wearing high heels. This way the unknown artist illustrates the transformations of the traditional role of women.

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A collage of the Statute of Liberty in New York, USA and the Mother of Georgia statue in Tbilisi, Georgia. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: September 23, 2011.

In 2013, UNDP Georgia conducted a research on the “Public Perceptions on Gender Equality in Politics and Business” (UNDP Georgia 2013). Based on the findings, they organized a campaign in Spring 2014. As part of the campaign, the images of the most popular gender stereotypes that hinder the advancement of women were painted on the pedestrian sidewalks in the streets of Tbilisi. Afterwards the images were crossed out by red paint, and the message “Destroy the stereotype” was added below. In March 2014, at the end of the campaign, UNDP Georgia arranged a public discussion, accompanied with a performance. It was called “Gender Stereotypes That Can Be Destroyed by Paintball Bullets”.

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“She will get married, and the husband will take care of her”. Artist: Unknown Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“The place of the woman is in the kitchen”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“He is the man, and he should make the decision”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“It’s only the man’s competence to support the family”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

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“Politics is not a woman’s business”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: December 2013.

In Armenia, gender- and sex-related street paintings appear both in Yerevan and in the other cities.

Arpi Balyan is an artist based in Abovyan, Armenia. Her messages are mostly focused on anti-militarization, the war-business, and feminism. She also considers herself a feminist. In the artwork below, she depicts a woman with the writing, “And what have you done to problematize the war?” The image of the woman is a collage of various female-icons. The head is part of the monument “We are our Mountains” (also known as “Tatik-Papik” meaning “Grandfather-Grandmother”) that is considered a symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh among Armenians. The body “belongs” to the well-known Soviet poster “Rodina-Mat’ Zovyot”[1] meaning “The Motherland Calls”, used for mobilization during the Great Patriotic War[2] .

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“And what have you done to problematize the war?”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Abovyan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“I did not get married with the state and the army”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Abovyan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“My body is not subject to your commercial standards”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Vanadzor, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“My womb is not a deal for your war business”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Abovyan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“No to the war business”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Gyumri, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

Arpi is not the only artist who expresses direct protest against the existing order of the society. Others also challenge the male-dominated and masculinist culture and norms.

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“Fist the Patriarchy”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Arami Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 28, 2018.

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“In the name of the mother and of the daughter and of the holy spirit”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Mashtots Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: January 5, 2016. Photo Credits: Ananun’s (meaning “anonymous”) Facebook page.

A banner against sexual violence in conflict was placed onto the wall of the British Embassy in Yerevan, next to the residence of the President (now residence of the Prime Minister) of the Republic of Armenia.

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“Time to act. End sexual violence in conflict”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Baghramyan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: February 20, 2018.

The painting below exposes the structures that oppress women and their struggle for their rights – the police and the court system. It depicts a woman who is trying to speak out but two hands – one labeled as belonging to a judge and the other to a policeman – cover her mouth to force her to stay silent.

Medialab made the painting in October 2017 to draw the attention of the Armenian society to domestic violence. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Armenia’s Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, an alliance of nongovernmental women’s rights organizations, reported that at least four women were killed by their partners or other family members in the first half of 2017, and at least 50 were killed between 2010 and 2017. The Coalition received 5,299 calls about incidents of domestic violence from January through September 2017” (Human Rights Watch 2018).

The painting was made as part of the campaign that supported the adoption of the law on domestic violence (Stepanian and Aslanian 2017). The law was passed in December 2017 with great difficulty, and it caused heated debates in the society. Some parts of the society perceived it as a threat to the traditional family and values. They also have argued that the police and the state should not have the legal right to interfere in family matters.

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“Don’t remain silent”. Artist: MediaLab. Location: Harav Arevmtyan District, Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: October 29, 2017. Photo Credits: Marianna Grigoryan’s Facebook page.

This next piece is a parody of a popular TV commercial in Armenia from several years ago. In the commercial, two women, Parandzem and Taguhi, are cooking. Taguhi, who chooses to cook the meal with the advertised grains, is able to finish earlier and leave for the dance club. Meanwhile, Parandzem has to keep on cooking the entire night since she chooses the “ordinary” brand of grains.

Women’s rights supporters considered the advertisement sexist and assigning women the role of the cook in the family. Since there is little space to contest this role on the same media platforms that would air such a commercial, street art is the alternative space to challenge the engrained perceptions of women’s roles and needs.

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“Parandzem and Taguhi were having sex all night”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Amiryan Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 13, 2018.

The below photo was taken in January 2018. The stenciled phrase is located on Parpetsi Street where the only LGBTI bar in Yerevan used to operate. The exact date the phrase appeared on the wall is unknown, but we can assume that it was made after 2012, when the bar closed after an arson attack, and the owner of the pub had to leave Armenia.

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“DIY Street”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Parpetsi Street, Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Aren Melikyan. Date of the Photo: January 14, 2018.

The below graffiti directly challenges the traditional viewpoints on love, relationships, and hierarchical, male-dominated structures of the society. It has two women with the phrase, “My love shall break your patriarchy”.

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“My love shall break your patriarchy”. Artist: Arpi Balyan. Location: Vanadzor, Armenia. Date of the Photo: September 12, 2017. Photo Credits: Arpi Balyan’s Facebook page.

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“Some people are gay. Take it easy”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Mashtots Street, Yerevan, Armenia. . Date of the Photo: August 6, 2015. Photo Credits: Pure-af’s tumblr page

Against State Violence, Lack of Justice, and Police Violence

On May 31, 2018, the Tbilisi City Court announced a decision on the so-called “Case of the Khorava Street”. On December 1, 2017, in broad daylight and in front of many witnesses, a group of teenage boys brutally killed two 16-year-old schoolmates – David Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili. Multiple wounds inflicted by knives caused their deaths. Based on the evidence presented by the investigation, the court found guilty one person in the death of Levan Dadunashvili and another one in the “attempted murder” of David Saralidze. The father of the victim Zaza Saralidze asked people for support to achieve justice for his son and punishment of his killers. He believed the prosecution covered up the criminals and did not investigate the case properly, due to their connections with high-ranking law-enforcement officials.

Thousands of people gathered on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi to express support to Saralidze. They required justice and the resignation of the high-ranking governmental figures. On May 31, 2018 the Prosecutor General of Georgia resigned. The mass protest lasted for several days. The Prime Minister, the President, and the Public Defender of Georgia and other officials met Saralidze and promised fair investigation of his son’s case. Civil society representatives, writers, and other groups also empathized with him. The Parliament formed a Temporary Investigative Commission to study the “Case of the Khorava Street”. As a result of mass protest, the Ministry of Internal Affairs started the re-investigation of the case.

These developments inspired two artists to create new artwork. They reflect the struggle for justice that grew from personal grief to public support and wider socio-political outcomes. On June 2, 2018 Gagosh published a new photo on his Instagram page: “2 murdered pupils + 1 unpunished murderer = 3 injustices”. The caption at the photo says, “Arithmetic actions always lead to indisputable truth. Today the Prosecutor’s Office and the Government are standing at the blackboard and cannot solve the simplest equation…”.

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“2 murdered pupils + 1 unpunished murderer = 3 injustices” Artist: Gagosh. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: June 2, 2018. Photo Credits: Gagosh Instagram page.

Another artwork appeared two days later and almost immediately became subject to alteration. It was made on June 4, and the next day someone “corrected” it, erasing the writings.

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“14 years old. 13 cuts. 0 murderers”. Artist: Sandro Pachuashvili. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: June 5, 2015. Photo Credits: Salome Barker’s Facebook Page.

On August 7, 2017, 22-year old Demur Sturua committed suicide in the village of Dapnari, Samtredia Municipality, Georgia. In his farewell letter, he accused a police officer in persecuting him and threatening his life. He wrote that the officer was forcing him to share information about people who cultivated cannabis. The stenciled art with an excerpt from his letter appeared in several locations in Georgia, among them Kutaisi, Zugdidi, and Tbilisi.

The words “Mom, you are left alone, but I have no other way” have become the voice of those who have been under the pressure of the police and other state structures, especially those who have been victims of the very strict anti-drug policy.

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“Mom, you are left alone, but I have no other way”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Kutaisi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: November 12, 2017. Photo Credits: Street Sentiments Facebook page.

Caucasus Edition

“Mom, you are left alone, but I have no other way”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Zugdidi, Georgia. Date of the Photo: August 20, 2016. Photo Credits: Misha Dzidziguri.

On December 24, 2017, the Georgian poet Zviad Ratiani was beaten in the street and arrested by police officers. Insults and resistance to the police were named as the official reasons for the arrest. Meanwhile, the poet stated that the incident started because the officers did not like his colorful jacket. This inspired Gagosh (it is the pseudonym of a Tbilisi-based street artist, who creates stencils, installations, street poetry, and mosaics) for the new artwork in the center of the city.

Caucasus Edition

The black and white policeman confronting the colors. Artist: Gagosh. Location: Underground passage in front of Kashueti Church, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 16, 2018.

In July 2016, an armed group called “Sasna Tsrer” (meaning “Daredevils of Sasoun” and borrowed from the title of the Armenian epic poem) captured a police station in Yerevan and took hostages. The demands of the attackers included the release of one of the opposition leaders Jirair Sefilian from prison and the resignation of the then President Serzh Sargsyan. The police surrounded the station, and the siege lasted nine days, leaving those inside without food. A man named Artur Sargsyan drove through the police barricades delivering bread and food to those inside the police station. He was arrested as a “supporter of terrorists” and died in prison as his health issues were complicated by a hunger strike ( 2017). Many in Armenia consider him a role model of humanism. The below painting was made on the wall of the Parliament of Armenia.

Caucasus Edition

“The Bread Giver”. Artist: Hakaharvats. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: March 2, 2017. Photo Credits: Hakaharvats’s Facebook page.

The piece below represents a Santa Claus as he is being arrested by a policeman. The painting refers to incidents in Yerevan around New Year 2016. In December 2015, an opposition movement called “New Armenia Public Salvation Front” protesting on Freedom Square tried to have an “alternative celebration” of the new year with the attributes of Grandpa Winter, Snow Maiden, and a new year’s tree. The attempt was blocked by the police. On January 1, the member of the movement Gevorg Safaryan dressed as a new year tree tried to join the others on Freedom Square. He was arrested and later sentenced to two years for “use of force against the police” (Human Rights Watch 2016). Many in the civil society in Armenia consider him a political prisoner. He was released from detention most recently.

Caucasus Edition

Policeman arresting the Santa Claus. Artist: Hakaharvats. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: December 31, 2016. Photo Credits: Hakaharvats’s Facebook page.

Opposing Social Injustice and Poverty

These two small artworks at the entrance of the British Council were photographed in September 2012 on Rustaveli Street in Tbilisi. They depict the devastating poverty that some people live in. One of the figures has a loaf of bread instead of a head and the other one has a house. Respectively, the writings above them say, “I am hungry” and “I want a house”.

Caucasus Edition

“I am hungry” and “I want a house”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: January 26, 2014.

This next writing on a wall on Atoneli Street in Tbilisi emphasizes a tragic reality – thousands of people have lost their houses because of debts.

Caucasus Edition

“Shelter to the people. People without houses and houses without people”. Artist: Unknown. Location: Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo Credits: Maia Shalashvili. Date of the Photo: February 21, 2014.

The following stenciled phrase also emphasizes social inequality in Armenia.

Caucasus Edition

“Snatch the Rich”. Artist: Uknown. Location: Yerevan, Armenia. Date of the Photo: December 13, 2017. Photo Credits: Narek Aleksanyan’s Facebook page.


[1] The original poster can be viewed here:Файл:Ussr0437.jpg.

[2] The term “Great Patriotic War” is used in some of the former Soviet Union countries to describe the conflict fought within the Second World War from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945 between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and its allies.

Bibliography 2017. Bread Bringer Dead, Things Growing Tense in Yerevan. March 17. Accessed March 6, 2018.

Human Rights Watch. 2018. Armenia: Little Protection, Aid for Domestic Violence Survivors. January 12. Accessed March 6, 2018

—. 2016. Armenia: Opposition Activist Jailed. January 8. Accessed March 6, 2018.

Stepanian, Ruznna, and Karlen Aslanian. 2017. “Armenian Parliament Passes Bill Against Domestic Violence” December 8. Accessed march 8, 2018

UNDP Georgia. 2013. Public Perception on Gender Equality in Politics and Business. November 25. Accessed March 6, 2018.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** Read Part 2 of this Story here.

Tbilisi’s Megaprojects

Is There Any Way to Stop a Billionaire-Backed Megaproject?

A battle over the fate of one of Europe’s oldest city centers has pitted preservationists and urban planners against a powerful oligarch.

STORY BY David Lepeska

If you were looking to cast the villain in an urban development battle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Worth about $5 billion, or a third of Georgia’s gross domestic product, he’s the country’s wealthiest person by a long shot. A former prime minister and the founder of the ruling party, he’s also Georgia’s most powerful figure, infamous for pulling government strings from behind the scenes since leaving politics in late 2013. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, a cache of leaked tax documents revealing how the world’s richest people exploit tax havens. He’s eccentric enough to dig up and ship a lone 650-ton tulip tree across the Black Sea, and his Tbilisi home is tailor-made for an evil mastermind: a 108,000-square-foot steel and glass palace, poised on a hill overlooking the city and complete with helipad and shark tank.

No surprise, then, that not only is Ivanishvili behind the largest real estate development in Georgia’s history — a controversial project known as Panorama Tbilisi — until recently he owned some of the land slated for development. If all goes as planned, Panorama would bring three new hotels, two cable cars, 1,800 underground parking spaces, luxury residences and a convention center to the Georgian capital. The project has become a lightning rod amid a nationwide boom that has attracted international developers, including one Donald Trump — who until January had planned to back construction of the country’s two tallest towers.

As rapid construction has taken hold in the capital, Tbilisians have watched green space shrink in the city center and the horizon crowd with towers. The number of cars in this city of 1.5 million people has doubled in the past seven years. Meanwhile, Georgia’s per-capita rate of air pollution-related deaths ranked number one among the world’s nations in a 2012 report from from the International Energy Agency.

As construction begins on Panorama, locals fearing more congestion, deadlier pollution and the loss of their beloved Old City have rallied to the cause. Some want to kill the project, but most would be happy to move it to a different location, or shrink it to better fit to its surroundings. “Look at Amsterdam, Paris, you don’t have great skyscrapers in the main heritage areas in those cities,” said Tbilisi urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania.

The municipal government, meanwhile, finds itself squeezed between modernization and preservation, between an oligarch who controls the purse strings and power and an electorate increasingly concerned about the impact of unfettered development. “The result is that city officials don’t want to upset the public, or Ivanishvili, and are always looking to find a balance,” Erekle Urushadze, program manager for the anti-corruption program at Transparency International Georgia, said in a recent interview in a Tbilisi cafe.

That balance is rarely found. As a result, Georgians are learning the extent to which committed citizens can participate in development, if at all, in the face of an all-powerful developer-oligarch. And whether Ivanishvili is indeed a villain.


Dusty, 15th-century-old Tbilisi is a head-spinning crossroads of culture and religion. Periods of rule by Arabs, Mongols, Iranians and Russians have left their mark, sandwiching eras of independence. Tbilisi grew to some 100,000 people during the Georgian Golden Age in the 12th-13th century, emerging as a regional power, a node of Silk Road trade and a center of culture. From the early 19th to the early 20th century, it served as the capital of the Caucasus.

Today, dozens of conical-roofed churches dot the Old City skyline beneath the imposing stone walls of Narikala, a rebuilt fourth-century fortress, and the gleaming steel statue of Mother of Georgia. Sleek, modern buildings rise from streets radiating like spokes from Freedom Square, site of 2004’s Rose Revolution. The nearby neighborhood of Sololaki is seeing swift gentrification, with hip locally-sourced restaurants and a busy farmer’s market. Up Shota Rustaveli Avenue, the Soviet-era institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin has been topped with a gleaming blue skyscraper and transformed into the Biltmore Hotel. Along the Kura River, two gherkin-shaped glass towers are rising, set to become the high-end King David Residences. There’s also Axis Towers (a five-star hotel, with residences, retail and office space), a new Sheraton across the river in Avlabari, and talk of a new Radisson next to the Biltmore. After decades of post-Soviet instability, Georgia appears to have found its stride: Economic growth peaked at seven percent in 2011 and 2014, and Tbilisi is booming.

The New York Times’ T Magazine recently dubbed Georgia “the California of the Caucasus,” in apparent reference to its wine, natural beauty and casual hipness. But the makings of a tech industry have also begun to emerge, thanks to new incubators and coworking spaces, the recently opened Tech Park, a sleek government-backed mentoring space, and Silicon Valley Tbilisi, an Israeli-supported IT academy, with satellite offices of 60 foreign firms. Outside town, construction recently began on Georgia’s Technological Institute. A Chinese conglomerate is building a new city along the Tbilisi Sea, in an effort to revive Silk Road-style trade. Nearby, a Slovakian firm is building an “Eco Green City” of its own. It’s expected to cost up to a billion dollars, with 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.


Some credit Georgian Dream, the ruling party, for Tbilisi’s growth spurt. The party rose to national power in 2012 behind the backing of Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister for about a year. Weeks before he stepped down, in late 2013, he announced the creation of the $6 billion Georgia Co-Investment Fund (GCF), to which he contributed $1 billion of his own money. With investors like Ras Al Khaimah (one of the seven emirates of the U.A.E.) and the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the fund aims to spur foreign investment and economic growth in Georgia and has already backed some $2.1 billion worth of projects in industry, agriculture, energy and tourism.

In March 2014, GCF presented plans for Panorama, showcasing a 10-story, “seven-star” hotel at Freedom Square, luxury apartments and a convention center overlooking the Old City from Sololaki Hills, near Ivanishvili’s mansion. Toss in two other GCF projects — Tabori recreation area, with a golf course, hiking paths, planetarium and aquarium, to be built further above the city on Sololaki Rise and linked to Panorama by cable car; and Galleria mall, already under construction across the street from the Freedom Square hotel site — and the total cost comes to about $580 million. (Consider that at a Georgian bar a beer costs about $1 and you begin to appreciate the relative scale of $580 million.)

New development is popping up around Freedom Square.

One of the largest-ever private developments in the Caucasus, Panorama would be built amid some of Tbilisi’s oldest buildings, on protected land. City Hall swiftly rejected the plan, advising GCF to build outside the city center. Three months later, Georgian Dream swept to power in Tbilisi, with their mayoral candidate, David Narmania, taking more than 72 percent of the vote. Later that year City Hall changed the zoning category of the Sololaki Hills land, lifting the heritage protection status. The next spring three companies were granted permissions to build there, in a process that activists saw as rushed.

In a conference room at the downtown offices of GCF, a trio of staffers recently sat down to explain how the Panorama plans first made public two years ago were far from final. Public input led to alterations, including the removal of a cable car that would run through the Old City and the reduction of the footprint of construction on Sololaki Hills. A new video rendering of the completed Panorama project showed the Sololaki Hills apartments and convention center hidden behind tall trees and Ivanishvili’s mansion, and difficult to see from the Old City.

In the rendering, the 10-story glass tower for the Marriott Autograph hotel at Freedom Square stood out from its historic, low-rise surroundings. But it also reflected the square back to the viewer, expanding the sense of place, to an extent. GCF argues that Panorama will enrich Tbilisi’s core and become the city’s calling card. Responding to accusations that Panorama would harm the environment and only benefit the elite, Tsotne Ebralidze, GCF’s Managing Director of Hospitality and Real Estate, pointed out that the project expects to plant some 30,000 evergreen trees and employ up to 6,000 people during construction, with 2,000 employed after completion in 2019.

In addition, cable cars running from the top of the Freedom Square hotel to Tabori would be open to the public for the cost of a metro ride — giving Tbilisians a vast green space minutes from the mostly gray and concrete city center. “It’s accessible and affordable,” Ebralidze explained at the meeting. “Anybody can just take the metro to Freedom Square and get on the cable car and you’re at this huge recreation area in 5-7 minutes, able to run and bike and enjoy.”


Nata Peradze, a leader of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi, is among the many who disagree. Last fall she organized a protest to call for several city officials to resign. A hip, young crowd of about 150 people — lots of full beards, dogs and dreadlocks — gathered on the grounds of City Hall one early afternoon. Next to 5-foot-tall speakers, a DJ started spinning 70s funk. Municipal officials returning from lunch in twos and threes slipped past the crowd and into the building. After a short speech, Peradze oversaw an auction of environmentalist artwork by local activists. The proceeds, more than 700 Georgian lari, would help plant more trees.

“Our form of protest is not based on aggression and violence,” Peradze later explained. “In our post-Soviet reality, because of the nihilistic attitude of society, we choose a form of protest that is creative and peaceful. We manage to achieve way more by adopting these methods.”

That’s not to say Georgian activists are soft. Organizations like Guerilla Gardening and Tiflis Hamkari, which works to preserve the city’s heritage, argue that Panorama will increase congestion and upset the architectural style and character of the Old City. Transparency International Georgia complained that no investors other than Ivanishvili had been named and that some of the land was sold too quickly for others to make bids.

Urushadze, of TI Georgia, points out that dozens of government officials are former employees of Ivanishvili, from mid-level officials up to the minister of the economy and the prime minister. “Whenever Ivanishvili wants a project he finds a way,” he said. “There’s really nobody to stop him. He controls the government entirely — all branches and all levels of government.”

That control has given Panorama a boost. Last year, more than two dozen NGO’s and activist groups joined forces, creating the Ertad (“Together”) Coalition to organize as one against the project. But the coalition essentially disbanded earlier this year after dissolving into petty squabbling over strategy and objectives.

“Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to stop Panorama,” Elene Margvelashvili, director of Iare Pekhit, a pedestrian rights group, said during a recent interview at a cafe overlooking Freedom Square. “But there would have been a precedent of a big crowd coming together over this kind of issue.”

Margvelashvili and others admit that, despite growing activist numbers, still too few people are involved to make much of an impact. One problem is a lingering, top-down Soviet mentality, among officials as well as citizens, particularly people over 40 years old. This will likely change as today’s younger generation matures.

Construction of the Panorama project is underway.

Still, the battle over Panorama is far from over. In August, a Tbilisi court accepted a case arguing that the city’s 2014 re-classification of protected areas to enable Panorama construction contradicted a 1985 cabinet ministers decree and a law on cultural heritage, and was thus invalid. The case was suspended at an October hearing, and as of early April, remained suspended. If the judge agrees with the plaintiff’s argument, the decision could ultimately invalidate the building permits and halt construction.

Such a reversal would not be unprecedented. In 2013, Guerrilla Gardeners Tbilisi set up a camp at the site of construction for a major new hotel in Vake Park, preventing bulldozers from doing their work. When the new government arrived the following July, they halted work on the project. A Tbilisi court soon decided that the construction permit had been issued illegally. Today, there’s still a big hole in Vake Park.

From a distance, the city appears to be embracing urbanist ideas. It’s installing vertical gardens, sprucing up several streets and aging buildings and adding pedestrian-only areas as part of the $8.5 million New Tiflis project. When he took office, Narmania promised to plant one million trees in his first year, and his City Council invited activists to monthly meetings to offer ideas.

But critics say these steps are small-bore and predominantly cosmetic. Margvelashvili points out that some of the newly pedestrianized streets were already car-free, and that city officials never listened to activists at those monthly meetings.

Of the half million trees Narmania planted, many reportedly withered and died because they’d been planted too close together. Meanwhile, Georgia’s ministry of environment has questioned the methodology of the IEA report, which found that in 2012 Georgia had the world’s highest mortality rate attributed to air pollution — nearly 300 deaths per 100,000 people. The ministry argues that pollution-related mortality should also take other factors into account, such as indoor air quality and the prevalence of smoking.

Activists point to increased construction, reduced green spaces, poor-quality fuel from Azerbaijan and old, high-emission vehicles due to the absence of mandatory inspections. The World Health Organization says cities should have at least nine square meters of green space per resident. Tbilisi has maybe half that.

Last year the city hired a planning firm to develop a comprehensive urban plan. Meanwhile, it has continued to approve major projects like Panorama while waiting for the plan’s completion later this year. Activists are growing impatient. At a recent meeting between NGO leaders and top city officials, a member of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi urged officials to address the city’s environmental problems rather than make populist statements. In response, Mayor Narmania called him a “monkey, son of a donkey” (a harsh Georgian insult), and expelled him from the meeting.

“All these problems work hand in hand and will soon make the city unlivable,” says Peradze. “Already it’s dangerous and can have serious physical and mental health effects. If no imminent changes occur, health problems will skyrocket, forcing people to leave Tbilisi.”

In September, Narmania acknowledged that the number of cars in Tbilisi had doubled since 2010, from 200,000 to 400,000. He called for steps to reduce congestion, including better roads, improved public transport and stronger regulations. He also promised to implement restrictions to regulate the height and size of buildings in central neighborhoods and encourage green roofs.

Zhvania advises locals wondering how quickly the city might implement such plans to contemplate the forest of empty apartment towers surrounding City Hall. They were built years ago, then left to rot after the developer went bankrupt.

Urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania stands before City Hall-area construction.

“What do you expect from an administration — both the previous and the current — that has this view from their windows?” asked Zhvania, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Fulbright scholarship in 2014-2015. “How can these people take care of the entire city when they can’t even make their own block look decent?”

Yet when the powers-that-be want something to happen, it gets done. A few years ago Zhvania served on a council protecting Tbilisi’s culture heritage. It had one non-voting member, plus 12 independent experts — architects, planners, historians. But in 2014 it was folded into a federal agency and filled with officials from the ruling party. “This way, the government could be sure that any project they wanted to go through would go through,” Zhvania explained. “The reason for this was very clear: Panorama was coming.”


Legend has it that Tbilisi was founded after a fifth-century king found his hunting falcon drowned in a hot spring and decided to build a city on the site. The name Tbilisi is derived from the Old Georgian for “place of warmth,” a reference to the sulfur springs that still today feed the city’s public baths. These days, Tbilisi is as unruly as those bubbling waters. Sidewalks are crowded with parked cars, so walking space is scarce. With few crosswalks, one often sees pedestrians, even the elderly, standing in the middle of a busy street, turning their heads this way and that and waiting, Frogger-style, for a break in the stream of passing vehicles.

Georgians are conservative folk, and particularly resistant to change. Yet the capital’s varied architecture — Medieval, Middle Eastern and Modernist; Stalinist, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau — suggests change has been one of the city’s few constants. Across the West, a debate has been raging about the insertion of contemporary architecture into historic urban areas. Some tilt toward conservation, imitation and preservation, while others embrace progress and the inevitability of urban change. The goal is striking a balance between private profit and public good, finding a way to preserve the character of an historic area while facilitating enough progress to sustain it.

Whatever its shortcomings, Panorama links Georgia’s two great assets: the capital’s charming historic core and the country’s lovely mountain scenery. Richard Tibbott, chairman of international advisory services at the real estate consultancy Cushman & Wakefield, has advised London’s tourism department and worked on the London Eye and other Thames attractions. He argues that Panorama does not contradict or compete with Tbilisi’s historic environment, but complements it. “This is a very bold mixed-use investment that appears to provide a very strong boost to the Tbilisi visitor economy,” he wrote in a review of the project for GCF.

Thanks to Ivanishvili, Tbilisi tends toward the example set by Dubai or Istanbul — cities dominated by the vision of an all-powerful leader. Yet the country’s richest man has done much to improve Georgia. In the last couple decades he has resurrected Tbilisi’s 400-year-old Botanical Gardens, which had fallen into disrepair, and built the Sameba Cathedral, the country’s largest church and an immediate tourist attraction, along with national parks and hospitals. He has helped renovate Tbilisi arts outlets, and in his home district built roads, an army base, a cinema, library, water-treatment plant and more. More broadly, GCF has invested in several major projects likely to benefit all Georgians, including $1 billion worth of hydropower projects.

Few Tbilisians would call themselves NIMBY’s, and many locals appreciate what Ivanishvili has done. “We don’t mind development, we just want to keep our city as attractive as it’s always been,” Zhvania said during an interview at a stylish bar just off Rustaveli Avenue. “Building Panorama right here destroys the character of the Old City, disturbs the setting, takes away any chance of gaining UNESCO Heritage status. … Let’s keep this area the way it is, keep it charming, and do the big projects outside the center, where we have more space.”

Tbilisi’s Sidewalks

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Automobility and Shame in Tbilisi, Georgia

Peer Reviewed Open Access

In July 2015, I met the urban planner Vladimir (Lado) Vardosanidze in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall, a round, glass-plated building located at the convergence of a bewildering traffic pattern where two multilane one-way streets combine in a swirl of traffic to form a bidirectional road that becomes the main drag in Tbilisi’s downtown. Lado, a spry seventy-year-old professor with specializations in urban planning, architecture, and culture, greeted me with a smile and told me that he had selected this location to meet because he wanted to point out some features of the urban landscape that were indicative of larger trends in the development of Georgia’s capital city. This area, he told me, was nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle because of the erratic traffic patterns that render it particularly dangerous for pedestrians. As we walked toward his home office nearby, Lado drew my attention to a variety of sidewalk hazards: a set of plastic bollards that had been cut off at the base to allow cars to park on the sidewalk, loose and missing bricks in the pavement that made walking treacherous and wheelchair travel impossible, and a kiosk situated so close to the curb by a bus stop that it forced riders to wait on the street rather than the sidewalk, with the sharp edge of its exterior metal counter positioned at eye-level overhanging the ramp from sidewalk to street.1 Cars were parked on the sidewalks, and pedestrians dodged traffic to cross the busy street. The boundary between street and sidewalk was at risk of collapsing, and with it, the moral orders that the sidewalk symbolically supported.

The “Bermuda Triangle” traffic pattern in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall. The glitzy rotunda stands on a concrete expanse flanked by steps descending to the tunnels of an underpass, a series of underground crosswalks by which pedestrians traverse a city block in order to reach Vera Park, where there is a busy bus stop and taxi pickup point

Figure 1. The “Bermuda Triangle” traffic pattern in front of the Tbilisi Concert Hall. The glitzy rotunda stands on a concrete expanse flanked by steps descending to the tunnels of an underpass, a series of underground crosswalks by which pedestrians traverse a city block in order to reach Vera Park, where there is a busy bus stop and taxi pickup point. Map data by Google.

Cars have steadily colonized the sidewalks in downtown neighborhoods in Tbilisi since I first visited in 2009. In recent years, the process has intensified. According to Lado, the municipal and cultural acceptance of behaviors such as driving or parking on sidewalks is one of several developments in Tbilisi urbanism since the 1990s that have set new unfortunate precedents. Once established as normative, certain modes of public comportment prove difficult to reverse. Lado contended that many decisions by the local government had ignored urban planning and environmental considerations in crafting Tbilisi’s urban landscape, demonstrating the triumph of private over public interests (Vardosanidze 20032009). After the political instability and economic hardship of the 1990s, the pattern of urban development since 2003 shifted toward the privatization of transportation and a rise in what some critics have termed “investor urbanism” (Van Assche and Salukvadze 2013, 94). Following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement (UNM) ousted Eduard Shevardnadze and came to power, implementing changes to the built environment as a means to remake public perception. Transformations of public space, such as the construction of glass police stations meant to symbolize transparency, have provoked scholarly inquiries into the political and social significance of the broader project that is afoot in the architectural reshaping of Tbilisi urbanity (Frederiksen 2012Curro 2015).2 Mundane elements of urban material culture, such as parking, also underwent renovation during the same period. This article focuses on the politics of parking as a way to understand contested visions of the public good taking place at the edges of official, large-scale urban development projects.

The sidewalk bisects public and private life, and as a consequence it has become an enduring trope in narratives about how modernity can be reconstituted. In Georgia, this reconstitution has involved literally standing on cemented layers of the Soviet past, while tempering the meaning of these layers with corporate interests, emerging environmental concerns, and visions of a European material and ideological future for the built environment. Disputes about parking engage fundamental questions about the forms that urban public spaces and transportation systems should take. The conflict between two dominant modes of urban order—vehicle-centered or pedestrian-centered—is a central object of concern for citizens, planners, and urban theorists alike (Jacobs 1961Berman 1982Holston 1999). Resolutions, compromises, and redescriptions of this fundamental conflict manifest different perspectives on the functions that sidewalks serve as elements of public space. Although the tension between pedestrianism and automobility has been present in urban modernism since the nineteenth century, in the twenty-first century this conflict has become more pressing as privatization-centered urban growth and a dystopian present of automobility grind against desires for ecological sustainability and urban livability. As this conflict has become more acute around the world, the remaking of the city has received increasing attention: from the promotion of bike lanes, pedestrian zones, and green spaces, to a restructuring of public transportation.

Shame has entered into discourses of urbanism as an instrument of pedestrian activism. For example, members of the Young Greens (Green Party; akhalgazrda mts’vaneebi), launched a campaign against large vehicles called didi jipi = pat’ara ch’uch’u (large jeep = small penis), which targeted SUVs and other large vehicles as signs of conspicuous consumption.3


Figure 2. Image from the didi jipi = pat’ara ch’uch’u (large jeep = small penis) campaign. Image by the Georgian Young Greens.

This shaming campaign connected masculine insecurity with social and environmental disregard. On June 30, 2015, I met with several members of the Young Greens to learn about their organization’s vision and programs. Following the large jeep = small penis campaign, they were working on a policy document focused on transportation in Tbilisi. They defined themselves as a leftist political and activist organization with a broad agenda of political change, in which ecological and transportation issues were just two dimensions. I inquired about why, in recent years, the number of organizations of young people in Tbilisi trying to change urban space had increased and become more visible. One of the members, Stela Namgaladze, offered multiple reasons, including an increase in old and cheap cars (that make it so you “can’t move” on sidewalks), a lack of ecological regulations resulting in greater emissions, and a government under which “young people see that they can express themselves more freely.” She added that “this kind of activism became cooler than it was five years ago . . . but only in terms of this ecological stuff and this urban stuff, not with worker rights or something.” She added that for urban and ecological issues, they could mobilize thousands, whereas other campaigns, such as the May 1 International Workers’ Day events, only attracted a hundred supporters. In reference to the large jeep = small penis campaign, another member of the group emphasized that the proliferation of vehicles in urban space partly resulted from the social status that these vehicles conferred, an association that the campaign sought to challenge.

It is not surprising that affect plays a role in activism. What is distinctive, in this case, is how shame operates to inform, but not determine, the perspectives around which activists mobilize in Tbilisi. Shame draws together a series of asymmetric power relations without catalyzing a particular form of politics against them. As Silvan Tomkins (1995, 139) points out, shame-humiliation “does not renounce the object of identification permanently, whereas contempt-disgust does.”4 Shame, as a dominant affect and discursive hinge in activist interventions, organizes a series of asymmetric power relations, including geopolitical (between Russia and Georgia), modal (between local car-driving elites and proponents of pedestrianism and public transportation), and aspirational (between an imagined European order and a lived urban experience characterized by dismal frictions). While shaming belongs to the domain of environmental activist tactics in many parts of the world, what is notable in this context is that the promotion of pedestrianism, as a seemingly neutral ideology about comportment in public space, is politically underspecified and can therefore be associated with either capitalist or socialist values.

This article draws on fifteen months of fieldwork conducted in Tbilisi in 2009, 2011–2012, and 2015. My perspective on Tbilisi urban life is informed by the traffic, parking, and pedestrian discomforts I witnessed there. The rapid growth of car ownership since the 1990s has exerted pressure on urban infrastructures, as the city was not planned with extensive automobility in mind. Old, cheaply purchased cars crowd the roads, producing environmental strain, road fatalities, noise, and an increasingly congested road and parking system.5 Cars comprise part of a larger infrastructure that the sociologist John Urry (2004) has termed “automobility,” or what Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez (2010, xi) term the “car system” (see also Lutz 2014).6 Within the Tbilisi car system, I found that contestations over sidewalk space revealed a moral underpinning to the banality of parking. In the media, political discourse, or casual discussion among friends and acquaintances, conversations about sidewalks quickly turned to the moral qualities that the city has engendered in its citizens. What seemed like a chaotic collapse of sidewalk order gave rise to a host of responses about the primacy of certain material and social practices as pathways, literally and figuratively, to civilizational modernity (or what Saakashvili, in a speech in 2013, referred to as Georgia’s “European destiny”). Like much of the public symbolic repertoire in Tbilisi, sidewalks function as a prism refracting the neoliberal cityscape through the mixed legacies of Soviet modernism.

In what follows I first describe some of the frictions in Tbilisi’s car-and-sidewalk system that have emerged from the juxtaposed logics and legacies of liberal and socialist urbanism. I then focus on two authorities that organize public parking in the contested zone of the sidewalk in Tbilisi: the corporate parking company CT Park and self-appointed parking attendants. The afterlife of socialist urbanism has resulted in a situation in which different institutions of parking order coexist, for the moment, under the pressures of an expanding car system. In the final section, I analyze how pedestrian activists in postsocialist space share forms of engagement by connecting the Georgian case with the contemporaneous Stopkham (“Stop a Douchebag”) campaign in Moscow, Russia. Activists attempt to redirect their frustration and sense of shame toward obnoxious drivers, transforming imagined global hierarchies into admonitions about failures of personal responsibility. The comparison between Russian and Georgian activists demonstrates an emerging sensibility of pedestrian rights across postsocialist spaces. Even as Georgian activists recognize a substrate of commonality with Russian activists, they are careful to disavow direct Russian influence on the strategies they adopt.


Sidewalks show the economic, political, and social stakes of the public good at a different scale than other transportation infrastructures, such as roads and highways. The adjacency of the sidewalk and the road has meant that the tropes each engages (such as freedom, connectivity, and movement) work in parallel.7 Social-scientific scholarship on the sidewalk has registered the power relations, ideological orientations, and imaginative and affective parallels among the various institutions and actors that exert influence over the contours of public space. Jane Jacobs (1961, 29) famously wrote that sidewalks, the “pedestrian parts” of the streets, “serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians.” Research on sidewalks has stressed their multiplicity of functions, particularly as domains of commerce, mobility, and sociality (Duneier 1999Kim 2015Goldstein 2016). Much of the literature on urban design celebrates the multifunctional, crowded sidewalk as a source of enjoyment and prosocial frisson, providing what William Whyte (2000, 242) termed “vital frictions.” By contrast, I concentrate on the negative dimensions, or dismal friction, of Tbilisi’s sidewalks as infrastructure elicits shame and provokes debate about what constitutes the public good.8 As the car system’s demands exceed the capacities of infrastructure constructed during the socialist era, the public/private distinction comes under stress in architectural zones like the sidewalk, spaces that have fallen outside the main foci of research on architecture and material culture.9

The sidewalk represents a crucial zone for ethnographic attention and anthropological theorization because it is the ground on which memories of past urbanisms accrue and claims to potential future urbanisms are staged. The case of Tbilisi epitomizes the contested status of the sidewalk, where certain social actors see it as a space for the growth of commerce and parking, whereas others are fighting to promote pedestrianism by restricting automobility. The idiom of personal freedom, which provided a rationale for the growth of automobile use, also forms the basis for activist contestations of the resultant car-crowded sidewalk space. Pedestrian activists describe the inferiority of Tbilisi street-and-sidewalk spaces with reference to what they imagine to be superior “European” modes of order, predicated on sharp boundaries. At the same time, they recognize that European cities, too, are struggling with automobility and its discontents. A new set of solutions must transcend, rather than recapitulate sharp divisions between what Fernando Rubio and Uriel Fogué (2013, 1037) have described as the political surface of human relations and domesticated nature, on the one hand, and the black-boxed subpolitical spheres of infrastructure, on the other. In Tbilisi, aspirations to pedestrianism risk appearing either as a return to a form of failed socialist modernity or as an anachronistic imitation of European modernity. Because pedestrianism does not have a clear political anchor in the Georgian context, it is a signifier with a mutable relationship to the utopian visions of socialism that the sidewalks in Tbilisi once served. Without a positive ideal, the pedestrian activist project lingers in contradiction: it is a campaign of hope conducted in the negative.

The present-day dismal friction of Tbilisi sidewalks is rooted in an uneasy relationship to twentieth-century state socialism, which incorporated many material and ideological elements from the nineteenth-century European liberal city. This included the street-and-sidewalk complex as a manifestation and index of modernity. Writing about the taken-for-granted dimensions of the logics of sidewalk infrastructure, the geographer Nicholas Blomley (2011, 36) argues that “pedestrianism” holds the facilitation of mobility as the self-evident rationale for the orderly sidewalk.10 He contends that pedestrianism, as a logic of circulation that focuses on the entanglements of people and things rather than primarily on the human subject, departs from the commitments of civic humanism that scholars of urbanism have mobilized for understanding the production, regulation, and evaluation of public spaces. Blomley (2011, 47) interprets the genealogy of the modern European and North American street-and-sidewalk complex in terms of fashioning a “nebulous collective end of the ‘public good,’” rather than of the individual liberal subject. Meanwhile, the historians Patrick Joyce (2003) and Chris Otter (2007), also working within frameworks that emphasize materiality and technology, have described how the Victorian city street enabled forms of governance and subjecthood. Developing and displaying civility in the Victorian city involved crafting “public spaces conducive to the exercise of clear, controlled perception: wide streets, squares, and parks” (Otter 2002, 3). Blomley’s view is compatible with Joyce and Otter’s arguments about liberal subjecthood in this crucial way: the design features of the modern liberal city can be mobilized by engineers and other municipal actors to generate an abstract principle (circulation) for an abstract collective (the public), while at the same time producing certain modes of liberal subjecthood. Pedestrianism, as a seemingly neutral, apolitical rationale for public space as a zone of circulation, can be mobilized to support differing concepts of the public good under socialism and modern liberalism. In Georgia, new impingements on pedestrian mobility have catalyzed discourses of entitlement about the use of public space, thereby prompting the specification of a previously nebulous public good. Rather than approach the issue through the lenses of legal dispute or expert discourse, I focus here on popular discourses about what has gone wrong with cars and sidewalks in Georgia and what might be done to set things right.

Contestation about how to reconcile the inheritances of the European liberal city and their refraction through socialist modernism has been a hallmark of the postsocialist order (Manning 2009a). The Georgian experience of liberal modernity, moreover, was filtered through socialist modernity (though the two are, as one reviewer of this article put it, “uncanny doppelgängers”). The sidewalk-and-street infrastructure of contemporary Tbilisi is a product of socialist modernity, as the transport network was Soviet-made (Van Assche and Salukvadze 2013Salukvadze and Golubchikov 2016). The organizing ideological principles of the neoliberal postmodern order in Georgia exhibit inheritances from liberalism, which enabled ruling through freedom (Joyce 2003) via technosocial affordances of a built environment that was organized around clear vision, movement, civility, and socialism. Under socialism, the inculcation of interior moral dispositions was achieved in part through the doctrine of kul’turnost’ (culturedness), which offered a system of exterior, material forms allowing one to express one’s civilized status and encompassing both private domestic spaces like apartments and public spaces like parks (Dunham 1990Fitzpatrick 1992Boym 1994, 102–106; Kelly and Volkov 1998Volkov 2000). The forms and social meanings of kul’turnost’ changed over time. Kul’turnost’, as a “program for proper conduct in public” (Dunham 1990, 22), represented Soviet ways of displaying and interpreting the material world as expressive of moral qualities related to civilizational ideals. One of the postsocialist legacies of kul’turnost’ was the notion that sidewalks, and the ways that one comported oneself on them, constituted symbols of a moral order. Kul’turnost’ provided a template with which to understand diverse practices of consumption and comportment as constitutive of embodied civilizational modernity.

This 1949 poster reads: “Protect the children!” (Georgian: <em>gauprtkhildit bavshvebs!</em> Russian: <em>oberegaite detei!</em>). The man physically diverts the scooter-riding child away from the road and onto the sidewalk. A series of such street behavior posters focuses on instilling rule-and-norm-abiding behavior in drivers and pedestrians alike

Figure 3. This 1949 poster reads: “Protect the children!” (Georgian: gauprtkhildit bavshvebs! Russian: oberegaite detei!). The man physically diverts the scooter-riding child away from the road and onto the sidewalk. A series of such street behavior posters focuses on instilling rule-and-norm-abiding behavior in drivers and pedestrians alike. Image by I. Kutsenko for the State Traffic Police,
This 1947 poster reads: “Walk on the sidewalk, only on the right side.” Pedestrian comportment was an object of state-directed instruction

Figure 4. This 1947 poster reads: “Walk on the sidewalk, only on the right side.” Pedestrian comportment was an object of state-directed instruction. Image by the City Council Utility Division,

New corporeal competencies proved to be crucial components of urban space, as car and pedestrian instructional texts and warnings attest. The wide sidewalks that flank major avenues were once conducive to a pedestrian culture that embodied what Joyce (2003, 213–15) has termed “liberal walking.”


The conditions of Tbilisi’s present-day street-and-sidewalk system reflect an acceleration of investor urbanism, which has exacerbated and made visible tensions among different aspirations toward urban harmony. Many sidewalks operate according to a de facto model of shared space, one often experienced as dismal friction, reducing pedestrian enjoyment of the city.11 Wide sidewalks on Rustaveli Avenue, once intended to support a pedestrian culture, have now been overtaken by outdoor seating for restaurants and cafés. Elsewhere, as on Chavchavadze Avenue, sidewalks have provided the space for an expansion of the parking system. Cafés are potent symbols of the everyday infrastructures of sociability under modernity (Manning 2013). But installing a café does not suffice to ensure the creation of European-type sociality. Activities on the sidewalks outside cafés and other places of commerce also contribute to the forms of sociality that the city engenders. The Saakashvili-era government targeted merchants, as unwanted social pollutants, for removal from public spaces like these (Rekhviashvili 2015). Outdoor seating for cafés, like automobile parking on sidewalks, can function either as a sign of affluence and freedom or of waste and selfishness.12 In Tbilisi, the perimeters of restaurants and roads have expanded, engulfing the sidewalk archipelagos that lie vulnerable between them.

The colonization of the sidewalk by cars has not occurred evenly throughout the city; instead, it has concentrated in areas of commerce. Certain areas of Tbilisi, including much of the downtown strip of Rustaveli Avenue and Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, are designed with physical barricades to prevent cars from invading the sidewalks. Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue underwent major renovations beginning in 2010. Then president Saakashvili said about these renovations: “This area most resembles Paris, and we will make it look like Paris” (Kirtzkhalia 2010). The resemblance to Paris, however, remains purely aspirational.13 A more accurate analogy would be to Saint Petersburg, but Saakashvili’s distaste for Russianness precluded such a comparison. Installing bollards that firmed up the boundaries of street and sidewalk was one element of the project intended to make Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue look like Paris. Barricades include waist-high metal posts, elevated flowerbeds, and small trees. Such demarcation is modeled on an imagined European city in which the respective worlds of car and human remain clearly marked off from one another. When a recent renovation program on Davit Aghmashenebeli was finished in 2016, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili remarked at the opening that “the price of the real estate has shot up fivefold . . . this will be one of the most attractive districts in Tbilisi for all tourists” (Georgia NewsDay 2016). The most carefully controlled pedestrian zones in Tbilisi are those that are intended to be tourist-friendly shopping areas. These zones are fashioned as European spaces conducive to orderly forms of commerce. Distinct conduits for pedestrian and automotive movement, with a backdrop of leisurely commerce, are interpreted as signs of Europeanness.

Within the ecology of transportation infrastructure in Tbilisi, another factor that has contributed to a predominance of cars is the class-linked devaluation of public transportation. In Tbilisi, many who have aspirations of upward mobility avoid public transportation, including metros, minibuses, and buses, in favor of private cars or taxis. One afternoon on Kostava Street, I counted as forty taxis drove by in one minute. The ubiquity of the taxi is connected to its special status as semipublic and semiprivate, symbolizing multiple forms of freedom, including commerce, movement, and distance from other commuters. Public transportation, including the metro, constitutes an infrastructure of public life in which there was considerable investment under socialism (Jenks 2000). In the postsocialist world, narratives about human potential have been tethered to transport, as Alaina Lemon (20002015) has described in the forms of order and disorder attached to the Moscow metro. In Tbilisi, this has meant that the metro, as a socialist-era infrastructure, has diminished in status, having become associated with low social class as a consequence of an expanding car culture. As Inga Grdzelishvili and Roger Sathre (2011, 44) argue, based on a survey of more than three hundred transportation users in Tbilisi, combating the growth of an increasingly “car-oriented culture” depends on “making public transportation options competitive with the perceived advantages of the car.”


Frustration, dissatisfaction, and shame emerge against the backdrop of large-scale changes in the ways that a growing car culture has impacted street-and-sidewalk order. For this reason, it is important to take stock of who controls parking in Tbilisi, and how public and governmental actors have assumed responsibility for sidewalk governance. Parking politics offer a lens onto disputes about the public good. In 2007, a private group called CT Park signed a contract to serve as the exclusive parking-management company in Tbilisi until 2022. The company’s practices provoked public frustration and a new focus on the forms of authority governing street and sidewalk parking. Parking politics in Tbilisi also open a window onto contests for control among actors including the municipal government, CT Park, and a fleet of self-appointed parking attendants (st’aianshik’ebi) who direct cars into spots on the sidewalk and street for spare change.14 A holistic account of parking labor must take into account the uneven relationship between CT Park and the st’aianshik’ebi, who operate around, and at times within, the official zones of CT Park.

A self-appointed parking attendant at work, 2015. The three cars on the left are parked on the sidewalk in an area adjacent to Chavchavadze Avenue

Figure 5. A self-appointed parking attendant at work, 2015. The three cars on the left are parked on the sidewalk in an area adjacent to Chavchavadze Avenue. Photo by Perry Maxfield Waldman Sherouse.

St’aianshik’ebi, who have existed in Tbilisi at least since the 1990s, represent an entrenched form of parking organization that operates alongside yet out of the control of the painted lines, metal signs, and ticketing mechanisms of CT Park. Because they manage to work alongside CT Park in a fashion that solves the immediate problem of where to put cars without creating new material infrastructure, st’aianshik’ebi have fallen outside of activist, political, and corporate concern. They are mediators, filling the gaps between multiple, overlapping systems and temporarily resolving the contradictions among them.15

In a pathbreaking article on the anthropology of parking, Liviu Chelcea and Ioana Iancu (2015) describe self-appointed parking attendants (parcagii) in the Romanian context, offering a portrait of parcagii as human laborers who function as infrastructure (cf. Simone 2004). Like the parcagii in Bucharest, st’aianshik’ebi in Tbilisi command a strip of pavement in areas of downtown that are tourist or work destinations—and hence car destinations. Attired in the weathered garments of the urban poor, they are identifiable by a bright neon sash or a loosely fitting neon vest. They often wield a white baton, modified with electrical tape or neon strips to enhance visibility. Their interactions with drivers consist primarily of directing drivers into empty parking spots, whether in makeshift lots on the sidewalk and edges of the street or in official CT Park spaces, after which they solicit donations in the form of spare change. Some English-speaking expatriates refer to st’aianshik’ebi as the “modi-men,” because they say modi, modi! (“come, come!”) to beckon drivers into free spots, particularly when apprehensive drivers in conditions of low visibility halt before backing up far enough. St’aianshik’ebi engage in other traffic services for regular customers, such as reserving spots and coordinating situations of double-parking or other parking maneuvers (cf. Chelcea and Iancu 2015, 66–67). Unlike in Bucharest, many of the self-appointed parking attendants in Tbilisi have a reputation for alcoholism, and it is not uncommon to find parking attendants who drink on the job.

Citizens as well as governmental officials have criticized CT Park. Aliko Elisashvili, a member of the city council, vocally reprimanded CT Park for the way the company has handled city parking. In 2014, Elisashvili even pursued an annulment of the city’s contract with CT Park. Mayor Davit Narmania, who was elected in 2014 and served until November 2017, has also been critical of the company.16 In a television interview, Narmania asserted, for example, that CT Park profits from the chaotic parking culture in Tbilisi but does nothing to improve it. “I’ll put it plainly,” he said, “CT Park will not remain in Tbilisi for long.” Yet canceling the contract with CT Park would cost an estimated 25 million Georgian lari (about US$10 million), exceeding what the local budget can supply. City Hall has sought renegotiation on several points of the original contract, while stopping short of proposing an annulment. In January 2015, Mayor Narmania announced that a new multilevel parking structure would be built in Tbilisi, one that would serve as a competitor to CT Park. Speaking to a journalist, Narmania said: “As for City Park’s fate, it currently remains unsettled” ( 2015). Later that year, the Georgian Parliament approved changes to parking laws that reduced the range of cases for which CT Park could tow vehicles.

A few months later, my friend Ilia17 and I conducted a telephone interview with a public relations representative from CT Park, Levan Tabidze. We inquired about why the organization had developed a negative reputation. Tabidze answered in this way:

First of all, there is no parking organization in the world where most people meet such an organization positively, as [such an organization] is associated with fines and taking cars away. It is associated with the negative. The kindness that this organization does nobody recognizes. . . . Let me give you a very simple example. I live in Vake. . . . I remember what chaos there was in my nearby street in terms of parking. Since CT Park entered the market and established the rule that cars can be parked on the left and not on the right, the traffic is more simplified now and is not so complicated. Even pedestrians, who can walk on the sidewalks normally nowadays, they don’t remember this. . . . We must also take into account the situation in Georgia before. We drew a city map of Tbilisi and the plan of how and where to draw the parking lines, we planned the city, we put up the signs—as for the [no parking] sign, there was none in the city. There were no parking methods, which we have nowadays. There was total chaos in the city, and nobody responded to it. We didn’t have parking problems resolved over the years, we didn’t have parking culture itself at all. There were no parking problems in the Soviet Union at all, and in the 1990s everything was ruined and complete chaos was set up. And from the 1990s up to 2007 the number of cars increased tenfold, and CT Park started to clean up this chaos.

Tabidze argued that parking problems did not exist in the Soviet Union. Once automobility intensified in the 1990s, CT Park stepped in to create parking order from “chaos.” The swirl of public, activist, and governmental discontent with the “parking culture” promulgated by CT Park raised questions about its efficacy. Meanwhile, CT Park policed only the zones in which they had been granted jurisdiction. In many other parts of the city, cars roamed freely.

Right before we interviewed Levan, a neighbor called to let Ilia know that his car, which was illegally parked on an adjacent street, was being ticketed. When Ilia came back inside after moving the car, I asked him how the ticketing system worked. He showed me the online CT Park interface, where customers could check and pay for their fines. I noticed that his account had eight unpaid fines. When I asked about this, he remarked that he would never pay them. This reaction reminded me of what James Scott (1985) calls the “weapons of the weak,” forms of everyday resistance available to the relatively powerless. Yet CT Park, as a private organization without widespread popular or governmental support, was also relatively powerless. Ilia did not consider the organization’s authority over parking legitimate, and was unconcerned about the possibility of CT Park’s retribution. He told me that CT Park mailed tickets in hard copy, but Ilia refused to accept the mail. The mailman understood Ilia’s refusal and would simply return the CT Park tickets, indicating that the intended recipient was not home.


Georgian activists and politicians alike hold a Euro-normative conception of modernity as an aspirational target for Tbilisi, even if they may disagree on the forms its material infrastructures ought to take. For Georgian activists, Russian influence, even in the form of inspiration for social action, is undesirable in part because of associations with the Soviet past. Russia figures as a second-order version of modernity, and many distance themselves from deploying signs of Russianness, as they call up the history of hierarchy in which Georgia held a subordinate political and cultural position. In an example of this insistence on Georgian difference, a pedestrian rights organization called iare pekhit (literally, “go by foot”) released a YouTube video in April 2015 that discussed the genesis and goals of their sidewalk social activism.18 In this video, called “vin aris Anonymous Georgian?” (Who is Anonymous Georgian?), a masked person called Anonymous Georgian introduces him or herself as a chveulebrivi mokalake (a regular citizen) and goes on to narrate the video in a low voice modulated to conceal the speaker’s identity.19 Anonymous Georgian describes how the idea of putting flyers on cars arose as a reaction to the parking and traffic problems in Tbilisi. The speaker refers to another activist who curates an online repository of photos of drivers in violation of rules (the Facebook page is called gaitsanit samartskhvino mdzgholebi [meet shameless drivers]), and says that Anonymous Georgian had likewise begun making videos of drivers, even going so far as blocking cars from passing on the sidewalk. Then the narrator makes a connection to the practices of Stopkham in Russia: “When I said this idea [of blocking the sidewalk] loudly, someone sent me a link to Stopkham. Some also accused me of plagiarizing Stopkham, but that is not so. I heard about the existence of Stopkham at the end.”

What is Stopkham? In Russia, drivers have taken to the sidewalks to circumnavigate congested roads. The Stopkham (“Stop a Douchebag”) campaign began in Moscow in 2010. The group, founded by Dmitry Chugunov, is a government-sponsored organization that spun off from the controversial pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. According to the journalist Eva Hartog (2016), Stopkham received about 18 million Russian rubles (US$300,000) in federal grants between 2013 and 2015. The concept behind Stopkham is that a group of citizens prevent motorists from driving on sidewalks by physically standing in the way and then, if motorists persist, as they often do, affixing large stickers to their windshields. They also affix stickers to cars whose drivers violate other traffic regulations, such as double-parking or parking in inappropriate locations. The stickers say mne plevat’ na vsekh / parkuyus’ gde khochu (I don’t care about others / I park where I want) or, for those driving on sidewalks, mne plevat’ na vsekh / ezzhu kak khochu (I don’t care about others / I drive how I want).


Figure 6. Stopkham sticker that reads: “I don’t care about others / I park where I want.” The text in the outer circle reads: “Federal Program Against Rudeness on the Roads.” Image by Stopkham.

These encounters with so-called douchebags are video-recorded, edited with an electronic music soundtrack, and uploaded to YouTube.20 Aside from providing a valuable repository for students of Russian swearing (mat), these videos, some of which have millions of views, are demonstrations of a new form of vigilante justice in action.

In addition to the entertainment value of these videos, the recordings also show how activists have intervened in public space to police the public/private divide. Upon discovering that the activists and the Stopkham stickers will not budge, drivers often scream that Stopkham is encroaching on their chastnaya sobstvennost’ (private property) or, more simply, their sobstvennost’ (property). The calculated indifference that members of Stopkham express at this sentiment reflects their mission to preserve the sidewalk as a domain for public, pedestrian movement. Their campaign assails the sanctity of the private vehicle by lacquering it with stickers. In a way, the Stopkham campaign refuses a nesting of the public and private. The same logic holds true for Stopkham antismoking videos, in which the activists extinguish pedestrians’ cigarettes with a spray bottle, thereby refusing to acknowledge the smoker as freely passing through public space in a private bubble. They treat smoking as a violation of standards of publicness. The Stopkhamcampaign thus contests the rights of private properties to pass or waft through the public space of the sidewalk.21


Figure 7. Still image from the video “Arrogant Smokers,” in which activists extinguish smokers’ cigarettes using a spray bottle. Image by Stopkham.

This form of activism is noteworthy as much for its innovative use of social media as for its focus on the public/private distinction as a crucial site of societal transformation. Though the teleology it presupposes is no longer from capitalist to socialist, the Stopkhamcampaign asserts boundaries between public and private property in ways that are reminiscent of earlier utopian projects of social transformation.22 For Stopkham, the target of transformation is renegade private property that rolls over curbs and down pedestrian paths. Such actions taken against private impingements on public space, however, should not be understood as reflecting a straightforward political position. Targeting the excesses of automobility, even if activists do not frame it in these terms, suggests that such excesses are the signs of a moral boundary has been crossed.23 Social actors who seek to transform urban parking culture by targeting excesses, through policy or advocacy, define modes of desirable (or adequate) urbanity in the process. The moral order that the Stopkham campaign asserts does not present a positive ideal, but mobilizes negative correctives against certain private behaviors that impinge on shared public space.

Such public shaming tactics raise the question: how are shame and freedom related in the liberal tradition of the city? Activists hope that shaming a douchebag driver will rebalance the pedestrian-versus-vehicle divide in a way that affords more freedom to the walking subject. But drivers, too, assert that their own freedoms are being impinged upon. In the Russian case, it is the state that restricts certain car freedoms in order to promote pedestrian freedoms. The Georgian state, by contrast, has ceded parking authority to CT Park, with poor results. With that, I return to the Georgian case to provide more detail on the contours of pedestrian activism and shame.


As the parking system expands, how do social actors envision new urban harmonies? In addition to being a generative topic of complaint in everyday conversation, the filling of sidewalk space with cars has also served as a point of critique for a variety of activist organizations. Here, I highlight the pedestrian rights organization iare pekhit.24Challenging uses of sidewalk space in Georgia, as activists have increasingly done over the past decade, has involved redefining publicness through the figure of the pedestrian, whose ambulatory paths have faced a changing bevy of obstructions including other people. The primary tension that has come to the fore in protests is the conflicted cultural symbolism of the personal automobile: a sign of comfort and individual prosperity, but also of disregard for pedestrians and the environment. Signs of prosperity are impoverishing pedestrian life. As cars circulate along sidewalks, activists have concentrated their work on defining and policing the threshold where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.

To describe models of the city to which Tbilisi might aspire, social actors often refer to other real or imagined urban landscapes in the manner of collage, fashioning a discursive composite of places such as Barcelona, Shanghai, Berlin, and Paris, as if they possessed a common denominator. The templates of imagined order to which activists appeal discursively combine diverse postmodern cities into a placeless modern composite, for which the car-free walking subject constitutes the centerpiece of urban life. In one example, Elene Margvelashvili, the then leader of iare pekhit, said in an interview that she wanted to meet Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, because in her view Peñalosa had managed to change public perception of pedestrian rights.25 Government officials and activists alike positioned Tbilisi uneasily amid a palette of eclectic, incommensurate modern elsewheres. Later in the same interview, when asked what her dream is for iare pekhit, Margvelashvili replied:

A city that fosters human dignity and respect, development, a sense of freedom. But a sense of freedom that stands a lot higher than your personal freedom. A sense of a community, equality, and just, you know, a cool city, where you really do enjoy your time outside. Because I miss this so much that sometimes I just want to rush out of Tbilisi and go to somewhere like Berlin where I can just lie down in a big park and just enjoy my day, which is something impossible in Tbilisi today. So yeah, European city [laughs].

Here, Margvelashvili simultaneously invests Tbilisi with aspirational resemblances to Bogotá and Berlin.26 In another interview, in response to a question about how people can help, Margvelashvili replied that what her organization needed was “foreign experience.”27She went on:

Many countries in Europe have managed to convince their government and managed to stop this unbreakable cycle of turning cities into places not for humans but for something else, for making money, for business, for prosperity of higher levels, for higher-income people and communities.

The sentiment that cities are turning into environments hospitable only to businesses, not people, serves as a reminder that iare pekhit centers the pedestrian in its reimagining of the street. Margvelashvili’s concern that Tbilisi was becoming a city “for making money” rather than one for “humans” also contained a critique of emergent class divisions. The relationship between pedestrian life and class divisions begs the question of how organizations like iare pekhit deal with the legacy of the Soviet past, as the Soviet reformulation of public space was also intended to disrupt class divisions. Margvelashvili’s solution was to selectively borrow from the Soviet past, rather than framing it as a nostalgic ideal. In the earlier interview, she simultaneously praised and criticized the Soviet experience for imbuing and depriving citizens of a “sense of community”:

This sense of community, which should be there, because the Soviet Union was actually very community-oriented, is not there. Because what the Soviet Union, I think, killed in our community is the sense that one person is responsible for the common good, and can actually contribute to the common good. This understanding was not there because everything belongs to everybody, and this responsibility of every single person to do something for the general development, for the general well-being, is not there. So this is where education should come in, and this sense of, you know, civic engagement, civic responsibility, the responsibility of every person to do good, not just in terms of pedestrian issues.

Margvelashvili does not provide an explanation of what the problem with the “community-oriented” Soviet Union was. Instead, she uses the Soviet era as a reference point to discuss the personal and community responsibility that education must address. The class politics of this vision for freedom and responsibility in urban space remain unclear. Perhaps she meant to suggest that the Soviet experience valued the right thing (“community”) but in the wrong way, or with the wrong effects. Referring to an array of urban places that have supposedly achieved a higher level of civilizational modernity than Tbilisi also served as a way to describe Georgia’s capital in terms of a state of comparative lack. Even though Margvelashvili’s comparisons included urban centers in South America and Asia, she nevertheless referred to these places with the shorthand of “European.” It is as though Europe were a roulette wheel on which it would be a privilege for Georgia to fall, regardless of the particular tile.

Redescriptions of an idealized past often form the basis for claims about future political trajectories (Gotfredsen 2014Khalvashi 2015). As Katrine Bendtsen Gotfredsen (2014, 251) has discussed, under Saakashvili, an unambiguous rhetoric of development and prosperity was constructed as an antithesis to the Soviet past. Preindustrial, Soviet modernist, and capitalist European forms served as reference points in narratives about clashes of values in the present. In Tbilisi, pedestrianism is not a return to an imagined harmonious past, but a new mode of order resonant with European forms. Reasserting boundaries, which activists imagine as a form of European order, stands as a mode of anachronistic imagining—but one without a clear relationship to the Soviet past.

A variety of other organizations in addition to iare pekhit are invested in so-called eco-urbanism in Tbilisi, harboring broad agendas for political and social change. My final example comes from a group called aighe kalaki (“take the city”), which promoted the construction of planters as makeshift sidewalk bollards. The group created a YouTube instructional video in which they describe how to craft bollards from car tires. In the video, group members fabricate bollards on Tbilisi streets with a portable lamp illuminating their work in the dark. This type of time-consuming DIY intervention straddles art and utility. The video ends with a shot of the completed bollards, standing on an otherwise empty sidewalk. Superimposed text reads daik’ave q’vela t’rot’uari! (Occupy all the sidewalks!). Like the Anonymous reference in the campaign by iare pekhit, this form of Occupy-style messaging links sidewalk politics to international protest movements. Tires filled with potted plants are more than barriers to cars: their digital representations are signs of belonging in an era of mediatized protest.

CONCLUSION: Walking into Modernity

The public shaming tactics that I have described—campaigns insisting that SUV drivers have small penises, or posting pictures of instances of rude driving and parking online, or extinguishing cigarettes with spray bottles—are intended to catalyze self-regulation on the part of their targets. They form part of a broader moral policing of how automobility has allowed public space to become invaded by a swarm of mobile metal private spheres. Self-regulation is taken as the mark of a modern, ethical liberal subject, as well as its socialist twin. Another aspect of the use of such tactics, however, is that they are designed to catalyze an affective response, and in doing so, to function as a means of exerting power over the target. As performative acts, such shaming tactics may accomplish a wide variety of ends, including occupying, insulting, threatening, and refusing. While shaming campaigns may generate reflection on the boundaries of acceptable public comportment, the more immediate activist goal is to generate attention and discomfort. Martha Nussbaum (2004, 15) describes shame as “normatively unreliable” as a punitive measure, in part because of the indeterminacy of its effects on subjects.28 In the context of social activism, though, the indeterminacy of shame’s effects can be beneficial insofar as the goal is to stir up sentiments, rather than to settle new norms of behavior.

In Tbilisi, emerging contests over parking demonstrate how local actors make sense of the aesthetic and economic conditions of urban lack. In response to the erosion of sidewalk boundaries, shame, as the “affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation” (Tomkins 1995, 133), occupies a primary position. One reason for this is that shame emerges in situations of unmet ideals. It operates, as Tamta Khalvashi (2015) has described, as a diffuse but pervasive affect in conditions of peripherality. Activists throughout the world wield shame as an instrument of social change; what is specific to the case of urban Georgia, though, is that shame, as a discursive hinge, joins dimensions of inferiority that exceed a singular politics and do not coalesce into a program with a positive ideal. Rather than offering a cultural-psychological explanation for the appearance of certain affects, then, I have focused in this article on how a series of interrelated conditions shape the particular contours and transformations of shame in urban postsocialist activism. As precipitated in encounters with material infrastructure, shame articulates a sense of comparative lack. In turn, activists minimize their experience of this negative affect by redirecting it toward inconsiderate drivers, thereby converting it into a tool of public good. Restoring or preserving the pedestrian function of the sidewalk is framed as a way to keep civility and personal dignity intact. Without a consensus about the ideal form of public good or an agreed-upon balance among logics of automobility, pedestrianism, and public transportation, a circuit of negative affect remains open. The lack of consensus about the shape of the public good remains an underlying cause of the dismal friction of Tbilisi’s urban condition. Pedestrian activists’ rhetoric about the desirability of European boundaries animates unfulfilled modernist dreams and, in so doing, draws attention to the irreparable gaps between the promises of urbanism and the practical realities of investor urbanist development. Furthermore, such rhetoric signals an ambivalence about the meanings of collective and material life in European modernity, encompassing nineteenth-century ideals of pedestrianism and their afterlives.


1. See Hartblay 2017 on practices and discourses around disability access in Russia.

2. Fountains, especially those equipped with amplified music boxes, came to be emblematic features of the urban development that Saakashvili promoted during his presidency (2004–2013). In front of the Concert Hall, for example, a large fountain decorated with a painting of a red rose had been installed. Paul Manning (2009b, 927) argues that the Rose Revolution formed a “culture of erasure, in which western capitalist brands were deployed to banish, once and for all, the last vestiges of socialism.” This erasure was a precondition for the material inscription of a European orientation, which, in turn, was to influence “mentality” (cf. Jones 2006Curro 2015). For further discussion of the Rose Revolution, see Manning 2007 and Jones 2012.

3. I follow the Apridonidze system of transliteration for Georgian to English, except in the case of personal names and other proper nouns, for which I leave off the diacritic markers in the English transliteration. All translations of Georgian and Russian are my own unless otherwise noted.

4. I follow Silvan Tomkins’s (1995) conceptualization of affect as a motivational system that operates alongside the drives.

5. In Georgia, everyday interactions with the car system reflect the consequences of poverty. In neighboring Azerbaijan, by contrast, the uneven consequences of renovation and hyperbuilding are objects of scrutiny in making sense of aesthetic and economic surplus and its discontents (Grant 2014).

6Lutz and Lutz Fernandez (2010, xi) define the car system as “a mix of industry, infrastructure, land use, governmental activity, consumer behavior, and habitual processes of daily travel.” I use the terms car system and automobility interchangeably in this article.

7Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox (2015, 3), in comparison, analyze roads as a mundane infrastructure that allow us to “register histories and expectations of state presence and state neglect.”

8. On networked infrastructure and technological mobilities, see Graham and Marvin 2001.

9. Scholarship on the links between socialist material culture and ideology has found distinctive footholds either in inner domestic spaces, with housing serving as a preeminent example (see Humphrey 2005), or in the construction of monumental public forms like statues. When semipublic spaces, such as the corridor or courtyard, appear in analyses of socialist and postsocialist architectural forms, they are often positioned as buffer zones between the inner realm of the communal apartment and the outer realm of the public street. Susan Gal (2002) has observed that the public/private distinction constitutes a malleable, shifting mode of oppositions.

10. Blomley’s concept of pedestrianism is not to be confused with competitive speed-walking, a sport popular in the nineteenth century that went by the same name. For an account of recent scholarly work on the social practice of walking, see Lorimer 2011.

11. Shared space is a “traffic engineering concept that eliminates physical barriers separating motor vehicles, pedestrians, and other road users to facilitate a sharing of street space” (Imrie 2012, 2261). This design model has negative consequences for vision-impaired populations (Imrie 2012Sánchez Criado and Cereceda Otárola 2016). As the scholars of urban planning Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht (2009, 33) have observed, historically, the figure of the pedestrian has been equated with the public, a process that characterized by social exclusion.

12. For a history of the Soviet automobile, including its cultural symbolism, see Siegelbaum 2008.

13. For Georgian modernist conceptions of Paris as an incarnation of the fantastic Western European urban cosmopolitan wished-for homeland, see Manning 2013.

14. The Georgian term st’aianshik’ebi is a calque from the Russian stoyanshchiki, formed from the noun stoyanka (parking).

15. My use of the term mediator echoes Bruno Latour’s (1993, 77–78) opposition between intermediaries, which simply “transfer, transport, and transmit,” and the mediator, which is an “original event and creates what it translates as well as the entities between which it plays the mediating role.” Latour revisits the intermediary/mediator division in Reassembling the Social, where he explains that mediators effect transformations (in meaning) while intermediaries do not: they simply “transport” it (Latour 2015, 39).

16. The newly elected mayor Kakha Kaladze has also spoken out about ongoing public concern over CT Park’s practices and their overall effect on Tbilisi’s parking culture (Morrison 2017).

17. This is a pseudonym selected by the informant. All other names in this article are real.

18. The video is available on YouTube at

19. On the organization Anonymous and its links to protest, social activism, and hacking, see Coleman 2014.

20. The English-language channel is no longer available, but the Russian-language channel is available as of this writing at

21. The fate of the Stopkham movement, however, has grown uncertain as participants have enforced traffic laws against political elites, rather than exempting them (Hartog 2016).

22Susan Gal (2002, 86) points out that the “public/private distinction was . . . directly targeted by communist theorists in the nineteenth century—and by Soviet and, later, East Central European communist parties—as essential points for transforming bourgeois, capitalist society through social engineering.”

23. On the concept of excess, see Phillips 2010.

24. Iare pekhit was founded by an American named Mark Mullen. In June 2015, I spoke with him about the genesis and goals of the organization. He believed that without the consistent enforcement of parking rules, the problem of sidewalk drivers would remain. Mullen was optimistic that a zero-tolerance policy would fix the traffic problems of Tbilisi. By way of analogy, he described the seat-belt regulation, championed by Vano Merabishvili (minister of internal affairs from 2004 to 2012) as an example of a zero-tolerance policy that created rapid social change. Prior to the regulation, almost no one in Georgia wore a seat belt, but within a matter of weeks, that changed because drivers and passengers were fined 40 lari (about $15 at the time) for not doing so. Nevertheless, cultural obstacles to seat-belt use exist, as refusing a seat belt may be read as a sign of masculinity (Matosyan 2009).

25. The video is available at

26. Note that this perspective flattens the ongoing urban modernization histories of each city. For a post-Haussmannian perspective on urban political ecologies, see Rubio and Fogué 2013.

27. The video is available at

28Nussbaum (2004, 15) argues that within the context of liberal democracies, there is a variety of reasons “to inhibit shame and protect [liberal society’s] citizens from shaming” as a punitive measure. Nussbaum’s perspective on the use of public shaming is informed by her commitment to political and legal systems that promote human dignity and mutual respect among citizens. For this reason, she favors penalties that promote “reparation and reintegration” (Nussbaum 2004, 233).


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Memory Politics in Tbilisi

Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation  Feb. 2018

Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to the creation of 15 independent states that faced the necessity to construct their new identity – both internally and externally. The latter would pave the way to joining the “international community”. “To some extent, identities create opportunities and constraints for foreign policy-making, and also frame relations between countries.”[1]

The identity construction of a new state is a complex process requiring special instruments. Modern political communities use a collectively shared notion of the past as one of the main tools. Appealing to the past is a convenient instrument and resource for the legitimization of the existing political order. How the shared past is conceptualized and processed constitutes the politics of memory within a society.

In its turn, the politics of memory uses various instruments for the construction of a shared notion of the past. The official historical narrative is the principal of such instruments and is complemented, disseminated, and popularized by others. Among them, nation-wide holidays and commemoration days, school programs, national symbols, the creation of memorial sites and museums are the most efficient tools for the instrumentalization of the past and the construction of the state’s official narrative of history.

Undoubtedly, in this process those who carry out and experience the politics of memory have to deal with the heritage of the previous periods as well. “The history of most post-Soviet countries is characterized by the rise and triumph of nationalism and a radical revision of approaches to the history writing that dominated in the previous periods.”[2]Across the post-Soviet space, these revisions brought an overhaul of not only the official historical narratives but also the entire memory landscapes of the societies. This analysis looks into the post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscape in Tbilisi by re-visiting its memorial sites and monuments.

Georgia: History Revaluation

Caucasus Edition

The area of today’s Rike Park in the Soviet period. Electronic copy of the photograph obtained from the National Archives of Georgia.

Georgia was one of the first countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ever since, the state is seeking to form its identity. Like virtually every former Soviet Union country, Georgia started a revaluation of history as part of this quest. The political elites had to provide a memory project aimed at establishing a new foundation narrative, or a new “story” of beginnings, bringing back the “lost” historical memory[3]. The revaluation of history manifested also in commemoration policies and the memory landscape. Before delving into the examination of memorial sites and monuments in Tbilisi, let’s look at a few milestone events catalyzing this revaluation of history.

From Shevardnadze to Saakashvili

In Georgia, due to the chaotic political processes of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a new state politics of memory was not systematic or targeted. The ethno-political conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed by their independence claims as well as the economic and political crises in the country drew all efforts towards policies aimed at stability. Consequently, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither attention nor resources were directed towards conceptualizing and implementing a new politics of memory.

The shaky times of the first decade of independence unfolded under the rule of one of the most prominent Soviet politicians Eduard Shevardnadze, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. This period ended with the so-called Rose Revolution highlighted by massive protests against the results of the 2003 parliamentary election, skewed in favor of political parties supporting Shevardnadze. The name of the Rose Revolution derives from the culminating moment of the protests, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hands. Shevardnadze resigned in November 2003, and Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections.

The Rose Revolution

The Rose Revolution and the developments that followed marked a new direction for the independent Georgian state. The Saakashvili government made an unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with Western institutions and adoption of its system of values. As Saakashvili took the presidential office, the politics of memory emerged as the key instrument for constructing a new, modern, and pro-Western Georgia.

History was the first target of revision. The events of the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised. Even though since 2003 Georgia has changed 3 presidents and even switched from the presidential system to the parliamentary system, the politics of memory of the country remains sufficiently consistent. Perhaps the August 2008 war was the next milestone cementing this politics.

The August 2008 War

The August 2008 war played a crucial role in the formation of the new Georgian identity and became a catalyzer for the revision of history. The August 2008 events were perhaps the junction point where not only the relations between Russia and Georgia split into periods of “before” and “after”, but the entire Georgian politics of memory and identity.

It is true that starting from the early 1990s, Georgia’s major foreign policy objective has been balancing Russian power and influence, which is seen as key to enhancing the country’s national security. Yet this foreign policy was the result of the quest, driven by political elites, for a new national identity rather than pragmatic considerations[4]. Thus, the 5-day war of 2008 was a “logical” extension of the Georgian identity-driven foreign policy struggling to be within Western and Euro-Atlantic spheres of influence, contrary to Russia’s aspirations to keep Georgia in its own zone of influence. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the events of August 2008 reinforced this identity-driven foreign policy. The Georgian politics of identity and memory turned into a radical rejection of the country’s Soviet past and of any Russian influence at large.

One of the consequences of the war was the adoption in May 2011 of the Charter of Freedom with three main tenets: strengthening national security, prohibiting Soviet and Fascist ideologies and eliminating any symbols associated with them, and eventually creating a special commission to maintain a black-list of persons suspected of collusion with foreign special forces.

These events both influenced the emergence of a new politics of memory and were influenced by it. Moreover, their reverberations spread across the physical appearance of Tbilisi. As we view the transformations of the post-Soviet memory landscape, manifested in the memorial sites and monuments of Tbilisi, we have considered both those created in the Soviet period and those constructed in the independence period.

Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi

The 70 years of Soviet rule had a huge impact on the political, economic, and cultural domains of life in all Soviet Republics as well as the countries of the communist bloc. Bolsheviks, coming to power after the fall of the Russian Empire and the emergence of another empire – the Soviet Union, started creating a new cultural heritage that would reflect the communist view on political and social structures, their meanings and functions. The memory landscape and urban environment of the Soviet Union were the direct projections of the prevailing political system and its values. And of course, Tbilisi was not an exception.

As everywhere else in the communist world, in Tbilisi too there sprung up monuments bearing the mark of the Soviet political and social system. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meaning of those monuments and even their very construction was revised.

“[…] it is not a surprise that during times of political turbulence and change, some of the monuments gain an extra meaning and significance and become objects symbolizing or externalizing societal dynamics and changes.”[5]

The extra meaning and significance of monuments in times of political turbulence can mean both the construction and celebration of new ones as well as the destruction and demise of old ones. The early 1990’s was a period of Georgia’s release from the Soviet past and many monuments embodying the Soviet culture were dismantled from Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war brought a new wave of revolutionary changes to the urban environment of Tbilisi.

And yet, despite all the effort of the new Georgian political system to erase the legacy of the Soviet past, rather than to deal with the past, there is still political, social, and cultural memory that persists. And of course, there are still monuments of Tbilisi that date back to the Soviet times. In the new political system, these monuments gain new interpretations, meanings, and significance for the Georgian society.

We have examined two monuments erected during the Soviet times, preserved until now, and – in our opinion – significant for their social and political value. We have looked at how they have been reframed within the modern political system of Georgia and the construction of the new Georgian identity.

The Mother of Georgia Monument on the Sololaki Hill

The monument Mother of Georgia or Kartlis Deda was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli and erected on the top of the Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The 20-meter-tall aluminum statue, wearing a Georgian national dress and holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, is said to symbolize the Georgian national character; wine stands for hospitality and the sword represents every Georgian’s strive for freedom.

The notion of a “mother of the nation” and embodiment of this notion into a monument of a woman is not unique to Georgia; many states of the former Soviet Union have the very same statue. Moreover, these statues are all in the style of socialist realism hovering over Kiev, Volgograd, Yerevan, and other cities of the post-Soviet space.

Caucasus Edition

The “Mother Armenia” monument in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Tatev Bidzhoyan.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland Calls” monument in Volgograd, Russia. Photo Credits: Yuliya Drachenko, taken from

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland” monument in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Nevertheless, the modern Georgian society by and large does not perceive Kartlis Deda as a cultural remnant of the Soviet Union but rather as a collective image of the Georgian people. Not manifesting a specific individual, Kartlis Deda was easily integrated into the new national discourse and is supposed to be a figure that every Georgian could identify themselves with. Mother Georgia is “the most important woman in all Georgia: its protector and a standing definition to others of what Georgia is”[6].

Memorial of Glory in Vake Park

Another colossal monument erected during the very last years of the Soviet Rule, more specifically in 1985, is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to the 300,000 citizens of Georgia that lost their lives during the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the victorious triumph of May 9 over Nazi Germany.

The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze conceived the idea of the monument, aiming to prove his loyalty to the central Soviet government. This was an effective move since “Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia – or rather, the Russian-speaking world – was presented as its epicenter”[7].

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing de-Sovietization policies, made efforts to change the meaning of the monument and the significance of the victory day itself. For example, in 2005, he celebrated the victory in World War II, and no longer in reference to the Great Patriotic War, with the US President George Bush in Liberty Square, and not in Vake Park. A further attempt to downplay the Soviet meaning of the monument was the multiple depiction of the modern Georgian flag on the lower part of the monument.

In 2011, in another move aimed at re-focusing attention between historical events, Saakashvili’s government initiated a project that would mount a new memorial in Vake Park, dedicated to the 1924 anti-Soviet riots. The site was to commemorate Kote Abkhazi, a well-known leader of the liberal nobility of Georgia, and his division that the Communist regime shot in Vake Park in 1923[8]. The installation of the monument was planned for February 2012. However, the monument was not erected. The Georgian government that came after the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party returned the celebration of the victory in World War II to Vake Park. Nevertheless, in both official and public discourses, the celebration is said to commemorate the victory in World War II, and not in the Great Patriotic War.

Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi

Caucasus Edition

The cityscape of Tbilisi from Rike Park. Photo Credits: Katie Sartania.

Modern Tbilisi is a dynamic city with a multi-layer architecture. It is an eclectic mix of the medieval, the imperial, the Soviet, and the modern. The most remarkable monuments of the memory landscape in the capital of independent Georgia were constructed after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government paid a special attention to the politics of memory and symbols.

We have examined three monuments crowning the city-scape of Tbilisi and that – in our opinion – best illustrate the new politics of memory of independent Georgia.

The Statute of Saint George on Freedome Square

The statue of Saint George tops the column in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The square itself, or rather its name, deserves a small excursion into its own layers of transformation. Its name unveils the turns in Georgian history. When Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, the square bore the name of Knyaz Ivan Paskevich-Erivanskiy and was called Erivanskiy Square. This name lasted until the Sovietization of Georgia. In the Soviet era, it was initially named after Lavrentiy Beria and later on renamed after Vladimir Lenin, with his statue erected in the square in 1956. Following Georgia’s independence, the place was renamed Freedom Square. This was the name of the square at the time of the first Georgian republic that existed in 1981-1921, between the fall of the Russian Empire and Sovietization. Despite this change that bridges the old and the new, even today, some of the older residents of Tbilisi call the place Lenin’s Square.

In the place of the dismantled statue of Lenin’s, a new one dedicated to Saint George was mounted on November 23 in 2006. Designed by the well-known Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the monument embodies Saint George killing a dragon.

In the new political mythology of Georgia, Saint George is not only the patron saint of Georgia and its protector, it is the symbol of Georgia’s fight for freedom and independence. In this new interpretation, the defeated dragon on the monument symbolizes the imperial legacy – both Russian and the Soviet. Hence the monument not only echoes the distant mythological past but also the recent past. Moreover, as literary scholar Zaal Andronikashvili argues, it promises a future victory as well. The mythological past is projected onto the modern political context and foreshadows the future[9].

Heroes Memorial

One more remarkable example of Mikheil Saakashvili’s sophisticated politics of symbols was the opening of the Heroes Memorial on the Heroes Square in 2009 right after the August 2008 war. The 51-meter memorial is dedicated to Georgians who died in the fight against the Red Army in 1921, the anti-Soviet revolt of 1924, the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Around 4,000 names of soldiers are engraved on the marble tiles of the memorial.

The Heroes Memorial not only fuses together the past events by the mechanism of analogy but also alludes to the future. As former president Saakashvili noted, the memorial is not only for the heroes who have already died for their country but for the heroes who will sacrifice their lives for the country in the future as well. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he made a clear point: “If we want Georgia to exist, we should all be ready to put on this uniform [referring to the military uniform he was wearing]; we should all be ready to take arms in the decisive moment; and we should all be ready to fall on our land and ready to inscribe our names on the empty parts of this monument. That is the genetic code and historic experience of our country and a major guarantee of our future”[10].

Earlier, in 2003, near the same square, another memorial to Georgians fallen in the wars of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was put up again following the initiative of Mikheil Saakashvili who was then the head of the Tbilisi City Council[11].

The opening of both memorials gave two specific messages made by the government of Georgia to its society and the international community. The first message is that Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are absolute values. And the second message was about the government’s perception of who is perceived as a threat to those absolute values. The Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, as well as the August 2008 war followed by the recognition of their independence, contributed most to the formation of the perception of Russia as the number one foe of Georgia.

The Statue of Ronald Reagan in Rike Park

New memorial sites and monuments appeared in Tbilisi not only to mark the distancing from the Soviet past but also to mark new alliances. The relatively new statue of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan is an example of that element of the new politics of memory and symbols in Georgia. Unveiled in November 2011 near the Mtkvari River in Rike Park, the statute depicts Ronald Reagan, sitting on a bench with crossed legs, smiling, and looking off into the distance towards north, perhaps in the direction of Russia? Inscribed on the bench is one of Reagan’s remarkable phrases: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.

Following the pattern, Mikheil Saakashvili presented the statue as a symbol of freedom and victory over the biggest evil – the Soviet Union. During his speech on the opening ceremony of the statue he said in reference to the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words: “the leader of our invader state has announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Soviet Union that was brought down by Ronald Reagan – was the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical catastrophe. […] While they [Russia] have restored the anthem of the Soviet Union, we are unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan as a sign of the difference between our ideology and theirs”[12]. Referring to the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Mikheil Saakashvili once again associated the Soviet Union with Russia only and made an attempt to distance Georgia from its undesirable past.

Dealing – Away – With the Past

A changing politics of memory is always indicative of a changing political course and is called to justify that course. In this analysis, we looked at a number of memorial sites in Tbilisi both from the soviet and post-Soviet periods, analyzing them from the perspective of the modern Georgian political system, the quest for and construction of a new Georgian identity, and the politics of memory and symbols.

The revaluation of Georgia’s past in the Imperial Russian and Soviet realms, the celebration of freedom and independence, and Georgia’s turn towards a pro-Western path of development are at the core of this politics. Some old monuments that have no hope of surviving in the new system of coordinates are demolished. Others are revised and reinterpreted into the new paradigm. Yet new ones are mounted and unveiled.


[1] Kakachia, Kornely. 2013. “European, Asian, or Eurasian?: Georgian Identity and the struggle for Euro-Atlantic Integration.” In Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security, 41-53.

[2] Kirchanov, Maksim. 2017. “Politics of Memory as Historical Politics in Georgia: From Desovietisation to the Invention of the Sovietness.” Georgia Monitor. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[3] Toria, Malkhaz. 2014. “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. Historical Analogy as a Memory Project.” In The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and Its Successors, edited by Stephen F. Jones, 316-335. New York: Routledge. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[4] Kakachia, Kornely. 2012. “Georgia’s Identity-Driven Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Its European Destiny.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 4-7. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[5] Javakhishvili, Jana. 2016. “Stones Speaking: Reading Conflicting Discourses in the Urban Environment.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 8-11. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[6] Constable, David. 2012. “Kartlis Deda: The Importance of Georgia’s Most Famous Woman‏.” Huffington Post. October 29. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[7] Edwards, Maxim. 2016. “Victory Day in Tbilisi.” Open Democracy. May 10. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[8] 2011. “In Vake Park the Memorial to be Installed in Commemoration of 1924 Riot.” GHN News Agency. August 28. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[9] Andronikashvili, Zaal. 2011. “The Glory of Feebleness. The Martyrological Paradigm in Georgian Political Theology.” In Identity Studies, Volume 3, 92-119. Tbilisi: Ilia State University. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[10] 2010. “Saakashvili Addresses Nation on Independence Day.” Civil.Ge. May 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[11] 2004. “В Тбилиси у мемориала воинам, погибшим в боях в Абхазии и Южной Осетии, установлен почетный караул.” Ria Novosti. February 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[12] 2011. “Ronald Reagan Statue Unveiled in Tbilisi.” Civil.Ge. November 23. Accessed January 7, 2018.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos of this story were taken by Katie Sartania and Tatev Bidzhoyan unless credited otherwise.

*** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi, Georgia — A globalizing metropolis in a turbulent region

By Joseph Salukvadze and  Oleg Golubchikov

Published in Cities

Volume 52, March 2016, Pages 39-54


Tbilisi, a city of over a million, is the national capital of Georgia. Although little explored in urban studies, the city epitomizes a fascinating assemblage of processes that can illuminate the interplay of geopolitics, political choices, globalization discourses, histories, and urban contestations in shaping urban transformations. Tbilisi’s strategic location in the South Caucasus, at the juncture of major historical empires and religions in Eurasia, has ensured its turbulent history and a polyphony of cultural influences. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi found itself as the pivot of Georgian nation-building. Transition to a market economy also exposed the city to economic hardship, ethnical homogenization, and the informalization of the urban environment. The economic recovery since the early 2000s has activated urban regeneration. Georgia’s government has recently promoted flagship urban development projects in pursuit of making Tbilisi as a modern globalizing metropolis. This has brought contradictions, such as undermining the city’s heritage, contributing to socio-spatial polarization, and deteriorating the city’s public spaces. The elitist processes of decision-making and a lack of a consistent urban policy and planning regimes are argued to be among major impediments for a more sustainable development of this city.


Post-socialist city
Post-Soviet city
Urban planning
Urban governance

1. Introduction

Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a post-Soviet country in the South Caucasus.1 The 2014 census estimated its population at 1.118 million (Geostat, 2015).2 Tbilisi is not only the largest city in Georgia, but is also one of the key socio-economic hubs in the Caucasus as a whole. The city presently accommodates 30% of Georgia’s population, but produces almost a half of Georgia’s GDP and, furthermore, contributes 60–75% to the country’s key statistics in entrepreneurial and construction activities (Geostat, 2014a; Geostat, 2014b).

‘Tbilisi… is like a Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other Europe’, wrote the Zakavkazskiy Vestnik newspaper in 1847 (Vardosanidze, 2000). Such hybridity remains a hallmark of the city located at the conjunction of the European and Asian continents, different cultures and geopolitical realms.

Tbilisi rose to its prominence through the centuries of a turbulent history. Its location on the edge of ancient and modern empires (Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian) and on major trading routes, rendered the city geopolitically and economically significant — if only guaranteeing a continuous struggle for survival. The historical dynamism has left its marks on the social and cultural hybridity of the city. Tbilisi traditionally featured a cosmopolitan and multicultural character, as well as the tolerance of ethnical and religious differences (Frederiksen, 2012). Its urban forms and spatial fabric similarly inherited a peculiar mix of different cultural layers, superposed on the city’s rather peculiar topography.

The modern Tbilisi could have recreated itself through this indigenous tradition of distinctiveness, polyphony and tolerance. Becoming the capital of a newly independent Georgian state in 1991, the city, however, found itself entangled in the turbulent economic and political processes. The installation of a market economy coupled with an economic freefall in the 1990s, the rise of nationalism and the territorial disintegration of Georgia, as well as its government’s entanglements in the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the NATO powers have all produced a myriad of previously untested challenges — which have also left their marks on the city’s social and physical change.

As a globalizing city in a small nation in an economically peripheral and yet geopolitically strategic region, the case of Tbilisi can make an important contribution to urban studies, such as with respect to the meaning-making of the trajectories of “ordinary” non-Western cities in global urbanism (Robinson, 2006), to comparative and conceptual post-socialist urban studies (e.g. Borén & Gentile, 2007; Golubchikov, Badyina, & Makhrova, 2014; Sjöberg, 2014; Sýkora & Bouzarovski, 2012; Wiest, 2012), to a better understanding of variegated pathways of transition and neoliberalism (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010; Pickles & Smith, 1998), or even to the critical urban pedagogy of transition (Golubchikov, 2015). However, despite attention to Georgia from the disciplines such as international political studies, there is still a lacuna of internationally circulated knowledge of urban change in Tbilisi (although see Van Assche, Salukvadze, & Shavisvili, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). With this contribution, we intend to further unlock Tbilisi for urban studies by providing an overview of its urban trajectories as a basis for hopefully further localized and comparative investigations. By doing so, the paper outlines some of the essential, even if controversial, processes, problems and outcomes of the city’s convoluted past and present.

The paper is structured as follows. We start with outlining the location, demographic and physical conditions of Tbilisi and then proceed with its main historical development phases — from the medieval period to the Russian Empire and Soviet eras and to the more recent period of post-socialist transition. We then consider the establishment of the real estate markets and recent urban policies and transformations in the built environment, and pay particular attention to the current urban development initiatives and associated political, planning and governance issues and concerns.

2. Physical, administrative and demographic settings

Tbilisi is located 120 km south of the Great Caucasus Mountains, on the Kura River (Mtkvari in Georgian). It shares the latitude of cities such as Rome or Barcelona, similarly enjoying a mild climate. The city has a complex topography, shaped like a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains on three sides. These physical conditions, once favorable for controlling the valleys, today represent a physical obstacle for urban growth. However, the climate, topography, and hydrography have also granted Tbilisi a unique cityscape, attractive panoramas, and peculiar architecture featuring laced wooden balconies and internal patios, traditionally used as places for socialization (Fig. 1).

Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 1. Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The present-day Tbilisi has a special status of the capital of Georgia. Internally its territory is divided into six administrative districts, with five of them being further subdivided into Ubani — 30 in total. These spread on the territory of 504 km2. However, the city topography circumscribes an island-like geography, with a few densely built-up areas surrounded by undeveloped land: more than half of the city’s incorporated territory is not built-up. The mountainous environment particularly limits new development on the right bank of the Kura River; at the same time, the built-up area on the left bank of the Kura stretches for 40 km.

Tbilisi’s present spatial structure is a product of a long historical process and expansion (Fig. 2). However, the city’s territorial expansion mostly occurred during the Soviet era: between 1921 and 1991 Tbilisi expanded six times in terms of population (Fig. 3) and ten times in terms of incorporated territory. Tbilisi’s Master Plan (Fig. 22) illustrates the city’s resultant layout, including built-up areas squeezed between mountainous areas. The city expansion has recently accelerated even further, aggravating the problems of the integrity and connectivity of the city.

The administrative expansions of Tbilisi

Fig. 2. The administrative expansions of Tbilisi. Source: Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2013.

The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011

Fig. 3. The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011. Source: General Population Censuses; * Estimates.

After gaining the independence, Tbilisi experienced a dramatic 15% population reduction. This was due to a mass outflow of population, mostly to Russia, coupled with a very low natural growth to compensate the out-migration (Meladze, 2013; Salukvadze & Meladze, 2014). However, the population growth reversed to positive in the 2000s, fuelled by migrants from rural Georgia. The city has consequently undergone ‘Georgianization’ — the acceleration of even a longer-term trend of the replacement of its once multinational composition by ethnic Georgians, due to a disproportional outmigration of Russians and Armenians (Fig. 4). Recent demographic trends have also included: aging population; a smaller family size; decreased levels of marriages and increased divorces. Coupled with lifestyle change, these factors have amplified demands for housing and developable land.

Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi

Fig. 4. Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi. Source: UN HABITAT, 2013:208.

3. From a medieval capital to an imperial powerhouse

Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century AD, although archeological findings reveal even earlier settlements. Emerged as a stronghold in the Kura valley, in the vicinity of the ancient Eastern Georgian capital and a religious center of the Orthodox Christianity — Mtskheta, Tbilisi eventually became a strategic settlement for controlling the lowlands between the Greater and Minor Caucasus ranges and major trade routes. In the 6th century AD, Tbilisi was made the capital of the Eastern Georgian kingdom Iberia. Since then it has maintained its status of the chief city of either Eastern Georgia or a united Georgian Kingdom.

The strategic location of Tbilisi between Europe and Asia made it vulnerable in the context of the rivalries between the main powers in the region, including Persia, Byzantium, Arabia, Mongols, and Ottomans (Lang, 1966). At the dusk of the Middle Ages, Georgia, the only Christian enclave retaining its statehood in the otherwise Muslim region found itself squeezed between hostile powers — Persian and Ottoman Empires, and North Caucasian tribes. Due to constant wars, Tbilisi shrank in population and economically. This required seeking protection from the growing Russian Empire in the north, sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, with whom Irakli II signed a treaty in 1783. This did not avert, however, a devastating Persian invasion in 1795. The Russian Army eventually liberated the Kingdom, but this cost the abolishment of the Georgian independent kingdom altogether in 1801. At the time of the incorporation in the Russian Empire, Tbilisi had only 15,000 survivors (Lang, 1957).

The consequent rebuilding of the city under the Russian rule marked the start of a post-medieval era in Tbilisi’s development. Known as Tiflis in the Russian Empire (like even today in some languages), the city retained its primacy and started serving as an important administrative center of the empire; from 1844 Tbilisi became a seat of the Emperor’s representative (Governor) in the Caucasus (Namestnik Imperatora na Kavkaze). The political importance of the city also boosted as the authorities regarded the city as a strategic military stronghold for protecting the south-western borders of the empire, as well as for monitoring and controlling political processes in the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Tbilisi had retained the status of the largest trade center and the most populous city of the region until the oil boom made Baku a larger city in the second half of the 20th century.

Tbilisi, hitherto a compact settlement with a medieval social organization and an irregular oriental-style layout, started a transformation towards ‘European-style’ patterns. Through an active city-building process, it gained the feature characteristic for a colonial ‘dual city’ with oriental-type, irregular, topographically diverse and culturally mixed Old Town, and newly-built European-style areas, established in accordance with a regular plan on relatively plain terrains (e.g. Sololaki). This changed the main axis of territorial development from the Kura River to the new wide avenues, which were named after the Governors Golovin and the Grand Duke Michael Romanov (today named after, respectively, Rustaveli and David Agmashenebeli) — one stretching westwards from the Old Town and the other located on the left bank of the river. The new districts were socially more homogeneous, residing the emerging strata of bureaucrats, affluent entrepreneurs, and Georgian aristocracy.

The appearance of the city and its internal structure and centrality changed dramatically (Fig. 5). The old town, rebuilt from ruins, with its labyrinthine of courtyards and balconies, contrasted with the new districts of neo-classical architecture (Fig. 6) (Suny, 1994; Rhinelander, 1972). The involvement of European architects brought in Western influences: neo-renaissance, neo-baroque, Italian Gothic and Art Nouveau (Ziegler, 2006; Baulig, Mania, Mildenberger, & Ziegler, 2004). Among newly introduced components were administrative buildings (e.g. the City Hall, currently the City Council) and palaces (e.g. the Governor’s palace, currently the Youth Palace), usually located in commanding heights and conspicuous locations, as well as squares connected by boulevards (e.g. on modern day’s Rustaveli Avenue), and parks (e.g. the Alexander Park, currently the 9th of April Park). A botanic garden, an opera, theaters, museums and schools also emerged in the city over 19th and the early 20th century.

A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov)

Fig. 5. A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov).

The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century

Fig. 6. The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century. Source:

Tbilisi of that era became a visiting venue or a place of residence for many prominent people. Writers, intellectuals, and artists who then visited or lived in Tbilisi, included, among others, Russians Alexander Griboyedov, Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Feodor Chaliapin, French Alexandre Dumas the father, Norwegian Knut Hamsun, German Arthur Leist and Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt, British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop, German businessmen the Siemens brothers, Armenian oil magnate and financier Alexander Mantashev, German architect Otto Simonson.

By the late 19th century, Tbilisi had grown as a major trade, culture and manufacturing center of the Russian Empire. The railroad (built in 1872) and new roads were built to connect Tbilisi with other major cities of Russia’s Transcaucasia – Batumi, Poti, Baku – and other parts of the empire. The abolition of serfdom in Russia and the growth of capitalist manufacturing and trade attracted many rural residents, mostly of Georgian origin, to Tbilisi. Some informal settlements emerged accommodating the growing in-migrant population turned in the proletariat on the slopes adjacent to the newly built railway (e.g. Nakhalovka).

The social composition of the population also diversified across ethnicities and confessions (Suny, 2009). Several neighborhoods (e.g. Avlabari on the left bank) had a strong Armenian flavor; some others were Muslim (mostly Azeri, but also Kurdish, Persian — e.g. Abanoebisurani: ‘a neighborhood of baths’), Jewish (e.g. Bread Square in the Old Town) and even German (e.g. Alexanderdorf or ‘German Colony’ built from the 1840s). This composition made the city’s life cosmopolitan and multicultural: Tbilisi developed a distinct urban culture that transcended ethnic origins (Gachechiladze, 1990).

The transformation of the city also touched upon the way of life of Tbilissians. For example, the traditional meeting places such as bazaars, baths (especially the sulfur baths in the Old Town), and feasting places (e.g. Ortachala gardens) were succeeded by new gathering places, such as the opera, literary salons, and even the Georgian national drama theater (opened in 1850, then closed in 1855 and reopened in 1879).

The Georgian national theater and Georgian newspapers played a significant role in raising a national liberation spirit and consolidation of national identities. Additionally, the new education system – schools, gymnasiums and seminaries – brought in not only literacy but also anti-Tsarist attitudes, which eventually lead to spreading socialist, nationalist and liberal ideologies, the formation of political parties and their struggle for workers’ rights, on the one hand, and anti-imperialist values, on the other hand. Notably, Joseph Stalin (born in the neighboring town of Gori with the birth surname Jughashvili) was converted Marxist while studying at the Tiflis Seminary at the turn of the century; Tbilisi effectively became the site of early revolutionary activities for the later most powerful Soviet leader.

4. Soviet Tbilisi: urban growth and industrialization

In the period preceding and following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tbilisi was in the center of political struggles over the future of the nation. After the February Revolution of 1917 in St. Petersburg, the Russian Provisional Government installed the Special Transcaucasian Committee (Osobyy Zakavkazskiy Komitet) to govern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi took the function of the de-facto seat of the Committee. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, on 24 February 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat proclaimed the establishment of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic with the capital in Tbilisi. The new political entity was short-lived as its members showed divergent geopolitical preferences — Georgians’ orientation was perceived to be pro-German, Armenians’ — pro-British, whiles Azeris’ — pro-Ottoman. As a consequence, the federation fell apart, following the proclamation of an independent Georgian Democratic Republic on 26 May 1918 and the declarations of independence in the other two republics within two days.

During a brief period of independence of 1918–1921, Tbilisi became a seat of important nation-building projects, including Tbilisi State University, the first university in the Caucasus.

In 1921, the Bolsheviks finally gained control over Georgia and the republic was integrated into the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Tbilisi took the function of the regional capital once again. In 1922, the three South Caucasus republics were organized into yet another confederation, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (TSFSR). It was disbanded in 1936, after which Tbilisi became the capital of a separate Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Under the Soviets, Tbilisi was transformed from a medium-sized and relatively compact settlement into a large industrial metropolis. It was an important political, social, and cultural center of the USSR — even if remaining behind the ‘first-tier cities’ of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad with regard to its economic status. While the main driving force in the 1930s through the 1950s was the expansion of industrial activity (during WWII also fueled by the evacuation of manufacturing from the European part of the USSR), since the 1960s, industrial growth slowed down, and mass housing became the main driver of the city’s territorial growth.

Tbilisi developed according to the master plans (Genplans) of 1934, 1953 and 1969 (Van Assche et al., 2009). The growth of Tbilisi was in line with the Soviet policy of stimulating hyper-urbanization of the capitals of the Soviet republics to ensure ‘agglomeration effects’, i.e. economic gains from the concentration ‘of decision-making, diversified employment opportunities and better infrastructure in the capital city and its neighborhood’ (Gachechiladze, 1995: 157). The growing city enjoyed diversified public transport services with different transportation modes — busses, trolleybuses, trams, cable roads. In 1965, Tbilisi became the fourth Soviet city, following Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, to gain an underground metro system. The Tbilisi Metro has proven to play a pivotal role in the city mobility, not least by providing accessibility to remote and otherwise isolated districts.

Architectural approaches evolved over the Soviet era (Bater, 1980). The Stalinist monumentalism with neo-classical and national elements, as well as the Soviet constructivism is notable in the Rustaveli Avenue (Fig. 7) and other main streets (e.g. buildings of the Zarya VostokaEasts Dawnnewspaper, and the IMELI Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin). However, from the late 1950s, with the shift in policy to mass housing, the preference was given to mass-produced cost-efficient and uniform built environment (Fig. 8). Of the late Soviet era, internationally renowned were still, for example, the Road Department (Fig. 9), the Palace of Celebrations (currently a private residence of the family of late tycoon Patarkatsishvili), the Sport Palace, and the Dynamo Stadium. Many engineering mega-projects were completed — such as the embankment and retaining walls for the Kura River, a large water reservoir (18 km2) inside the city administrative boundaries (known as the Tbilisi Sea), the metro. All of these remain essential for the city’s functioning.

The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building

Fig. 7. The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance

Fig. 8. Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters)

Fig. 9. The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

In 1978, with a growing attention to heritage protection, a large-scale reconstruction of the old town was launched. Old Tbilisi had remained largely untouched in the Soviet period (apart from some destructions occurring for new roads and embankments) and therefore preserved its historic unity and ambience. Although the reconstruction was criticized for its ‘facadism’ (Khimshiashvili, 2001), it had a positive effect on the pre-Russian sections of the city and boosted tourism. The project also enhanced the urban environment of Old Tbilisi and prolonged the lifespan of many buildings.

Soviet Tbilisi was not only an important economic and administrative center of the Soviet Union; it was also a center of political struggles of various factions, including those breeding the Georgian identity (Suny, 1994). As a rare scene of mass protest for that era, Tbilisi witnessed ethnic-based riots in 1956 in protest against the de-Stalinization policies of the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; these were violently suppressed by the Soviet Army. New mass demonstrations took place in Tbilisi in April 1978 in response to an attempt by government to change the constitutional status of the Georgian language from being the sole state language in the republic to giving an equally official status to the Russian language. Moscow conceded to the popular demand to allow the status quo to continue, thus boosting the morale of Georgian nationalism. However, this also stirred up discontent in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, some fractions of which began seeking to split from Georgia. The radicalization of the anti-Soviet opposition and protests in the late 1980s also culminated in the so-called Tbilisi Massacre of 9 April 1989, when the army violently dispersed an anti-Soviet demonstration, resulting in several deaths. In both the popular and political culture, this event still demarcates Georgian struggles for independence.

5. Post-Soviet transition

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tbilisi, like other ex-Soviet cities, stepped on the post-socialist transition treadmill. Following the laissez faire political ethos and conditioned by the expediencies of capitalism-in-the-making, the city turned away from planned development in favor of spontaneous real estate markets. This was, however, against the backdrop of a civil war and political and institutional disorganization and instability in Georgia under Gamsakhurdia Government (1991–1992) and the early years of Shevarnadze Government (1992–2003). Violent conflicts erupted over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence, but also in other parts of Georgia and even in Tbilisi itself, which witnessed a militarized outbreak of violence in winter 1991/1992 over state power, which eventually ousted Gamsakhurdia. As a cumulative effect, the Georgian economy was one of the most hit among the former Soviet republics. By 1994, its real GDP collapsed to less than a quarter of its value five years before.

That was a shock to Tbilisi; as documented by Gachechiladze (1995:164),

Factories stopped; so did most urban transport; electricity failed; central heating radiators became useless decoration in the apartments… The city emerged as unprepared for the new situation, unable to purchase raw materials, fuel or machinery at market prices and in the quantities required for an urban settlement of such a size.

In just a few years, trolleybuses and trams disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi and public busses significantly limited their operations. Private mini-busses (marshrutkas) alongside the metro became the only street public transport routes for many years.

These problems coupled with the increased levels of crime and interethnic tensions promoted the out-migration of many Tbilisians to Russia and other countries — starting with ethnical Russians and Armenians but followed by Georgians themselves (Gachechiladze & Bradshow, 1994). The majority of these were educated white-collar workers. The population loss was offset by in-migration from provincial towns and rural areas and less educated and poorer groups. Rural in-migrants often struggle to adapt to the urban way of life, especially as employment was curtailed due to the crisis. The omnipresence of the newcomers was perceived by the native Tbilisians as the ‘provincialization’ of the capital (Gachechiladze & Salukvadze, 2003:20). Tbilisi also witnessed an influx of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs), fleeing, particularly, from the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Soviet-era image of Tbilisi as a well-off and educated city, albeit somewhat exaggerated, in a short period transformed into its opposite.

Tbilisi’s IDP population is still estimated at up to 10% of the city population. Many of IDPs have struggled with the integration into the mainstream society. The unemployment rate exceeds 50%; most of them live in the so-called Collective Centers. These are state-owned buildings converted from other functions such as hotels, schools, kindergartens. The IDPs adaptation strategies have involved changing these buildings to accommodate their everyday needs, building extensions, and illegal occupation of surrounding spaces (Salukvadze, Sichinava, & Gogishvili, 2013). Until recently, IDPs occupied almost all Soviet-era hotels, including those in the city center, giving these areas a slum-like impression. The attempts of the Government of the President Saakashvili (in power between 2004 and 2013) to clear up such areas by removing IDPs to other parts of the city (e.g. providing moderate funds to buy apartments in remote districts) and to rebuild those deteriorated structures has improved the appearances of many areas (Fig. 10). However, a lack of a coherent strategy towards the resolution of the problems of IDPs, along with a virtually non-existent social/public housing sector, ensures that these problems will be haunting the city.

The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the…

Fig. 10. The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the Radisson Blue.

6. The establishment of the housing and real estate markets

A cornerstone of the market reforms in post-Soviet Tbilisi was destatization and the privatization of land and real estate. As early as in 1990, the mass privatization of housing already started, followed by leasing out of urban plots and sale of non-residential buildings. Although the Soviet system maintained a considerable portion of public and cooperative housing – which made the entire stock of the apartment bock buildings – by the late 1990s, more than 90% of the housing stock in Tbilisi was privatized. In 1999, the privatization of urban land began. The land and real estate market, however, emerged under the conditions of incomplete and weak institutions, poor governance and murky practices. A poorly regulated land market was locally described as a ‘wild market’, emphasizing its violence-based nature (Salukvadze, 2009).

In the 1990s, almost no investment went into important development projects. Emerged institutionalized developers focused on businesses that did not require large investments but could generate fast returns: petrol stations, car repair shops and washes, restaurants and bars, open markets, guesthouses. The most desirable places were those located between residential neighborhoods, in proximity to major street and highway junctions or easily accessible from metro stations.

Large housebuilding activities disappeared; rather the episodic construction of villas and otherwise cheap homes took place, often ignoring formal permission systems. A more widespread phenomenon was a ‘do-it-yourself’ extension of homes and apartments. That process was actually triggered by the late Soviet decrees of the Georgian Republic, particularly the 1989 resolution “On attaching of loggias, verandas, balconies and other auxiliary spaces to the state and cooperative houses at the cost of the dwellers/tenants”. Following that, apartment building extensions (ABE) mushroomed across Tbilisi. Initially, the construction was carried out by state companies following prescribed procedures; however, after the disappearance of the public construction sector as such and especially following the housing privatization, this process went out of control. Tens of thousands of ABE were completed — in various forms and materials, and violating the norms of security, safety and esthetics (Fig. 11) (see Bouzarovski, Salukvadze, & Gentile, 2011).

Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi

Fig. 11. Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi. Photos by Joseph Salukvadze.

Despite the possibility to marginally increase living spaces through ABE, housing conditions of the population generally deteriorated. The new homeowners showed institutional and financial inability in managing multi-family apartment blocks (UNECE, 2007). There were no effective obligations on apartment owners’ to maintain common spaces in privatized houses. Problems rapidly grew with leaking roofs, broken elevators, lack of thermal insulation, and other structural problems. All these have become problematic and, in some cases, have rendered buildings unsafe. In order to improve the situation, from the early 2000s several municipal programs for housing maintenance were initiated, centered on the establishment of homeowners’ associations (HOA). In 2004, the city of Tbilisi established Tbilisi Corps, a municipal unit for supporting the development of HOAs. Buildings managed by HOAs are eligible for municipal co-financing for repair of common spaces (roofs, staircases) and public spaces (courtyards). Between 50% and 90% of the cost is covered by the municipalities. Currently there are more than 6000 HOAs in Tbilisi; almost all multi-apartment buildings are managed by them.

The period from the early 2000s witnessed improved macroeconomic conditions, including resumed economic growth in neighboring Russia and increased volumes of FDIs (including by Georgians living abroad) and remittances. As elsewhere in post-Soviet space, the economic recovery was uneven, favoring larger cities and their proximity (Golubchikov, 2006). This bolstered economic growth in Tbilisi and changed the demand of the population and the business sector towards housing and the built environment. The development of the real property registration and cadastral systems assured better property security and facilitated the establishment of the credit market and the involvement of banks and other stakeholders in property transactions.

7. Urban policies and transformations in the built environment

The spatial development of Tbilisi has been lacking plans and planning laws for a long time (Ziegler, 2009; Salukvadze, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Rather, the building and planning activities were guided by the old Soviet legislation unless they were substituted by new rules. Such a regime was supported by the 1995 Constitution and a decree of the Minister of Urbanization and Construction of Georgia from 5 February 2002 on the Prolongation of the Terms and Validity of Construction Norms and Rules and Other Normative Acts (UNECE, 2007:8). However, in eyes of many, the old Soviet legislation was already outdated, if not lost legitimacy, and was not obligatory to follow. At the same time, when the new rules were introduced, they were increasingly relaxed, following the new worldview rejecting the Soviet planning practices as ‘unreasonable restrictions’ (Golubchikov, 2004).

The arrival of the liberal president Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 via the so-called Rose Revolution, only further legitimized a liberal urban development policy regime. On the one hand, such policies significantly reduced corruption in planning, architectural and land administration systems; the acquisition of land plots and getting permissions for construction became relatively easy. For example, according to the Doing Business survey Georgia is ranked 3rd worldwide for the ease of issuing building permits and 1st for registering ownership rights (The World Bank, 2014). On the other hand, the same neoliberal approach has failed to attune to public needs. Hence, it is capital/investors that have determined the urban development process through the past decades, with one result being that the development is focused on the more lucrative central areas of Tbilisi, producing many infill constructions, over-densification and urban congestion.

Several key dimensions further characterize urban transformations more recently. Housing construction has skyrocketed after a near-stoppage in the 1990s, and reached the volumes of the 1960–70s (Fig. 12). The peak was in 2007–2008 when almost 2 million m2 a year was completed. The global financial crisis and especially the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia resulted in a rapid drop in construction activities, with many suspended projects (Fig. 13). However, Tbilisi municipality moved to inject confidence into the market by guaranteeing to purchase all finished developments at the cost recovery price of US$400/m2. This guaranteed at least a cost-basis return on investment and while no significant amount of such transactions was actually pursued, it lowered the perception of risk, unlocked banks’ willingness to offer credits, and encouraged developers to unfreeze projects (Gentile, Salukvadze & Gogishvili, 2015).

Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction

Fig. 12. Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction.

Source: JLL, 2012.

A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010

Fig. 13. A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The new housing projects, even if customary delivered as ‘core-and-shell’ (i.e. without any internal decorations or installations), exceed the quality of the previous-era constructions. However, the majority of the population cannot afford buying homes in organized housing developments. New projects rather cater for those with high disposable incomes, so that the proportion of so-called luxury apartments in new construction has been 40–50% (Fig. 14).

Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold…

Fig. 14. Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold dwellings in Tbilisi in 2006–2012. Source: JLL, 2012.

Again, some projects, seeking high profit, fail to comply with the preservation regimes and damage the historical and cultural identity of many areas. This is encouraged by widespread neglecting (even relaxed) building norms and rules, as well as by allowing developers to purchase ‘additional height limits’ over those specified in zoning regimes. This has had a negative impact on the quality of urban space, architectural composition, traffic, car parking and public spaces. In many neighborhoods, old structures are torn down to give place for new high-rises (e.g. Barnovi Street, Paliashvili Street, Piqris Gora, Sairmis Gora).

Old Tbilisi has been particularly vulnerable. The retreat of the state from the housing sphere had damaging effects on the older housing stock in Old Tbilisi, which due to its age is prone to deterioration (Fig. 15). This was aggravated by the retrenchment of conservation protection; according to Khimshiashvili (2001), Georgia’s monument protection authorities had the budget in 1999 which was less than 1% of their 1990 budget. The local population, often living at the edge of survival, could neither afford investing in the maintenance of their estates. Many buildings in Old Tbilisi have become unsafe for habitation and a few fell apart (Khimshiashvili, 2001) — the situation was further aggravated by an earthquake in 2002. Some areas now appear slum-like with collapsed homes amid a deteriorating built environment. However, the potential land value in such central locations is high. Even so, the unwillingness of the local residents to move to distant parts of the city, coupled with still extant heritage restrictions in these areas, for many years curtailed commercial redevelopment projects (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). In the 1990s and early 2000s, few rebuilding projects were accomplished here – mostly as hotels, restaurants or small estates – often lubricated by corruption and enforced through violent means such as a deliberate damage to the existing structures to force the residents to move out. Despite this, the process of gentrification, like in in many other ex-socialist cities in the 1990s, was more piecemeal than systematic.

Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 15. Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

However, more recently, the gentrification of Old Tbilisi has become rather policy-led (cf. Badyina & Golubchikov, 2005), as the government began providing investor-oriented funds and programs for the reconstruction of the old town, such as the New Life for Old Tbilisi. The scheme was described in the following terms:

The government provides working capital that allows developers to finish residential blocks. Slum dwellers, if they agree, then move in to the new housing, vacating land in Old Tbilisi. The government puts the land out to tender for property developers to develop, sell off and use the profits to repay their original debts to the banks (Economist, 2010).

This approach targets particular neighborhoods and has helped to improve some areas both in the old town (Fig. 16) and in the 19th century part on the left bank along the David Agmashenebeli Avenue (part of former Alexanderdorf) (Fig. 17). Hundreds of families have been given a chance to acquired better homes through this scheme. At the same time, the process mediates gentrification, changing the social composition and cultural diversity of the historic areas. It also causes the criticism of heritage professionals, because buildings are normally not repaired but demolished and ‘rebuild’ creating replicas of traditional houses, but destroying the original authenticity of the neighborhoods (Fig. 18).

Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction

Fig. 16. Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction

Fig. 17. David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014)

Fig. 18. Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014). Photos by Oleg Golubchikov.

Policy-driven gentrification of the old town appeared, however, only part of the urban ambitions of president Saakashvili. His policies were particularly aggressive in promoting the construction of ‘shiny’ glass-and-steel structures. Investments especially focused on the historic center. As a result, Tbilisi began changing its spatial structure even more rapidly — which at least until the late 2000s was happening in the absence of any urban strategy framework. Investing in flagship projects is a common feature of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, including in ex-socialist space (Golubchikov, 2010; Kinossian, 2012). Similarly, Saakashvili regarded extravagant post-modernist structures designed by world-renown architects as a quick fix in achieving a modernized and globalized image for the capital and, by implication, in linking the whole nation to the ‘European civilization’. Dozens of such ‘geopolitical’ projects were inserted in the fabric of the old town or its vicinity, at a considerable public cost. While the projects such as the Bridge of Peace (designed by Michele de Lucchi), Public Service Hall and Rike Park Theater (both by Massimiliano Fuksas) are certainly nothing short of masterpiece, many find them distorting the scale and flavor of historic Tbilisi (Fig. 19). Among other new-built dominants are also the Presidential Palace, the Trinity Cathedral (Fig. 20), as well as some hotels and commercial buildings (Fig. 21).

The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi's panoramas

Fig. 19. The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi’s panoramas. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004)

Fig. 20. The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008)

Fig. 21. The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The public opinion has been divided over such major infills. One could argue that some of these projects are better tolerated than the others. For instance, out of the signature projects the glassy Bridge of Peace and mushroom-looking building of the Public Service Hall are better accepted than the ‘the tubes’ of the new musical theater or the Shangrila Casino buildings, which are almost universally considered as inappropriate for the Old Town fabric.

Even so, these projects have created a new powerful landscape that has significantly modified the perception of the city, and project the city in a new light onto the international scale.

A common feature of ex-socialist cities has been a rapid suburbanization (Stanilov & Sykora, 2014). While the booming housebuilding sector in Tbilisi has aggravated the pressures on suburban land and made the city further sprawl, some authors note that the suburbanization trends in Tbilisi do not qualify as ‘strong’ (Sulukhia, 2009). This is because suburbanization is not necessarily taking the conspicuous form of detached homes or gated communities as in many ex-socialist cities (Hirt, 2012), but rather continues the Soviet patterns of (sub)urbanization through the expansion and absorbing of existing satellite settlements or high-rise developments on the metropolitan periphery (Golubchikov & Phelps, 2011). Gated institutionalized developments do exist around Tbilisi but so far not on a scale of a phenomenon that creates its own dominant urban patterns (e.g. in Digomi, along the E-60 highway, and Tsavkisi: see Sulukhia, 2009).

8. Urban planning and future developments

In the context of rather chaotic and ad hoc development process, the establishment of a new planning system for Tbilisi has been long advocated by concerned professional societies (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). The adoption of a new general/master plan for Tbilisi in 2009 might be seen as a substantial step towards finding a balance between planning and the market. The plan envisages a number of strategic changes in Tbilisi (Fig. 22). Inspired above all by the US zoning system (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011), it divides the city into different functional zones, separates commercial, residential and industrial areas, identifies heritage protection areas, and introduces the layouts of land-uses and general regulations for building and development for each functional zone.

The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009

Fig. 22. The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009. Source: Tbilisi City Council.

It is important to note, however, that the production and implementation of the city plan has not been without its own controversies. Firstly, many urbanists, architects, and planners complain that the plan was drafted and adopted without participation of professional and public circles. Secondly, the plan fails to incorporate sufficiently detailed schemes for transport and infrastructure development, thus raising questions over its usefulness for spatial development. Thirdly, it is rather a declarative document, as it lacks a solid view of what kind of city with what priorities will be developed. Furthermore, the emerged tradition of ad hoc development has not ceased after the adoption of the new city plan. The provisions of the plan can be changed by the Building Development Council of the Tbilisi City Council; for example, from December 2009 to February 2014, more than 1500 changes were applied to the functional zones, such as changing recreational and landscape protection areas into a residential, commercial or transport use. Besides, the government officially allows developers to buy ‘excesses’ deviating from designated building parameters in certain zones, thus actually allowing them constructing much larger and taller buildings.

The city plan still envisages several larger-scale projects. One of those is moving the railway line – rerouting it along the east side of the Tbilisi Sea to bypass the central districts of Tbilisi – thus releasing the city from transit traffic. This is envisaged to free up more than 150 ha of centrally located land for redevelopment and to better integrate otherwise isolated parts of the city. The space under the current railway infrastructure will accommodate a new public-business center with offices, retail, convention facilities, recreation and luxurious housing. Among other large-scale projects, the priority is given to the (re)construction and installation of high capacity motorways that should relieve the congested traffic regime in many parts of the sprawled city.

With the arrival of a new government in 2012 (the Georgian Dream coalition), the city authorities started a revision and partially stopped some projects approved by the Saakashvili government. For instance, the already initiated project of the bypassing railroad was halted for several months, although resumed with some changes in 2015. Some dimensions of the 2009 Master Plan have been reconsidered and it is likely that Tbilisi City Council will be requested to revisit the plan. As a step in that direction, the city government has prepared a City Development Strategy. It proposes a vision for Tbilisi in 2030 to become ‘a hub for global supply chains — creating a bridge between different civilizations in the competition for talent, technology and market’ (Tbilisi 2030, 2013: 5).

For its part, the new national government has also begun promoting new strategic projects in Tbilisi, continuing the practice of ad hoc interventions. For instance, a new flagship megaproject is envisaged to be the Panorama Tbilisi, which is to embrace formerly protected landscape areas of the Old Town. It is advertised as “the largest ever real estate development in Georgia’s history,” consisting of a multi-functional development of hotels, serviced apartments, offices, exhibition centers, conference halls and swimming pools linked by a series of cable cars. Financed by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund (GCF), driven by the tycoon, ex-Prime Minister and informal leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, it envisages a total funding of USD 500 million, supported by a number of foreign funds (Anderson, 2014). However, numerous opponents – urbanists, architects, planners, cultural heritage protectors – argue that its implementation will finally kill the authenticity of Old Tbilisi (as well as ruining the hopes of including it on the UNESCO World Heritage list) and will aggravate the traffic conditions and environmental problems. Yet, after an initial refusal in March 2014, Tbilisi City Council, following a pressure from the national government, has hinted that it will approve the project.

Although so far the powerful stakeholders manage to overplay other voices, protests increasingly disturb the former. Urban activism fuelled by younger groups begins to make a strong presence in Tbilisi and often manages to halt some projects (e.g. in Gudiashvili Square). The activists efficiently use social media to consolidate the public opinion. This tendency of a growing public interest and involvement of social groups in the urban development process gives the hope that a more balanced and participatory processes will finally gain momentum.

9. Conclusions: evolving urban governance

The modern-day Tbilisi reveals a peculiar juxtaposition of the layers of urbanization shaped around the successive historical and geopolitical rounds of empire building, industrialization, independence, marketization, and associated struggles. The present post-Soviet era in the development of Tbilisi has yet been the one that lays bare the contradictions of transition and globalization. Basing on our analysis, the period can be conceptualized as consisting of three loose phases, following the evolving configuration of the most prominent actors in urban governance:

In the 1990s, during the period of political instability, economic hardship, and weak state institutions, it was population’s small-scale initiatives that dominated the development process — though in a limited way, due to a lack of capital. Their development practices were limited to ‘self-help’ small projects and fixes. That phase could be seen as a ‘Do-It-Yourself Urbanism’.

From the late 1990s, the improvement of economic situation and strengthening business and banking sectors allowed development companies to benefit from weak planning institutions. Developers found that it was possible to enter formerly restricted yet attractive public spaces. As a result of that opportunistic ‘Investor urbanism’ phase, infills mushroomed and filled up vacant public spaces in central areas of Tbilisi, over-densifying spaces and often ruining urban landscapes.

The consolidation of the state power from the mid-2000s put national government as a major player in urban development. The ‘Rose Government’ initiated many development projects, most of which took place in the central city, dramatically changing it. The adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009 brought some regulatory frames, but the government still commonly violates them. This ‘Politically-determined urbanism’ phase has not finished with the arrival of ‘The Georgian Dream’ coalition in power.

Overall, the entire post-Soviet period has witnessed an imbalanced urban process. Tbilisi, the city that had been developed under the Soviet planning system for 70 years, has been largely rejected planning as a tool for urban regulation and consensus building. This situation is not unfamiliar in the South Caucasus more widely (Valiyev, 2014) or indeed in the ex-socialist space (Stanilov, 2007). Even during the Soviet era, Tbilisi was not a good example of a well-planned city and existing plans were not followed too strictly (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Nevertheless, the new practices of non-planning have been of quite a different scale.

While the early transition process was the one of institutional disorganization, which may be argued to be responsible for the initial neglect of urban planning processes, the more recent lack of progress in that direction, under the arguably neoliberal yet authoritarian government of Saakashvili, rather hinted at a more deliberate ideological choice, where geopolitical aspirations for integration with the European and Transatlantic institutions were sold to the population in conjunction with laissez-faire deregulations and a further neoliberal package of reforms. However, weak urban planning also meant fewer obstacles for arbitrary interventions, including from the government itself and other powerful circles, and by no means a non-interventionist approach. Indeed, a modus operandi that emerged during the Saakashvili rule was that the central government began acting as a de-facto principal ‘driver’ of urban change, even if in a peculiar, urban entrepreneurial format. Most notably, in the name of the renovation and modernization of Tbilisi, the government initiated and sometimes co-financed fancy post-modernist signature projects designed by famous architects from abroad. In combination with the historic areas’ rebuilding, these have considerably changed the city’s outlook.

From a certain perspective, these post-socialist unregulated and ad hoc urban processes are innovative, affording varied participants the opportunity to contribute in the creation of new spaces: liberated from planning regulations, they have transformed the city from the uniformity tendencies of the previous era towards a post-modern eclectic and irregularity. However, professionals and the public are seriously concerned about the impacts of this state of affairs on urban integrity, functioning and heritage. A sporadic character of such constructions, violations of building norms and rules, the occupation of public spaces by buildings of oft-questionable quality and esthetics, and the dramatic change of the historic cityscape all attract criticism of both professional community and the civil sector. More and more frequently, one could hear that Tbilisi deserves a more careful approach in order to protect its uniqueness and traditional features. Irregular infills by modern high-rises and other commercial projects in inner city are no longer easily tolerated by citizens. Both the city and national governments have recognized the need in a comprehensive urban plan for Tbilisi and have started working in that direction, as evidenced by the adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009. Overall, this suggests that the citizenry becomes more sensitive regarding city development. The population is increasingly recognizant of the importance of more ordered spatial processes. This also gives the hope that a more inclusive urbanism, which would balance different interests with a strategic vision as well as functionality, will eventually manifest itself more vividly.


The study was supported by the Academic Swiss Caucasus Net (ASCN) operated by the Interfaculty Institute for Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (grant “Social Contents of Changing Housing Landscapes of the Capital Metropolises of Armenia and Georgia: Institutions, Stakeholders, Policies”). The authors are also grateful to the Urban reconfigurations in Post-Soviet space research network (IRA-URBAN) for offering further opportunities to refine this research. Views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.


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The South Caucasus region refers to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also been historically referred to as Transcaucasia, from the Russian Zakavkazye, “the far side of the Caucasus”, reflecting the Russo-centric geopolitics of the previous eras.


This was a 3.4% increase in comparisons with the 2002 census, although this growth was mainly due to the expansion of the city’s administrative territory.

Informal Governance in Urban Spaces

Abel Polese, Lela Rekhviashvili, Jeremy Morris



Drawing on evidence from the competition for public spaces between street vendors and the authorities in Georgia our contribution through this article is two-fold. First, we provide empirical evidence showing the diverse role of informality in a series of settings, and its capacity to influence decision and policy making. Second, we explore the relationship between informality and power (and in particular the policy-making process) to go beyond a legality-illegality binary. Our goal is to show the influence that informality has on governance at the local but also national level. In particular, by mapping the various sources and expressions of power, informality is shown and conceptualized as a space where formal institutions and citizens (or informal institutions) compete for power, where certain aspects and mechanisms that regulate public life in a given area are played out. The importance of such a space of informal negotiation is shown to be vital in contexts where none of the two ideal types of social responses to policy problems – exit or voice options- are available.

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The Mysterious Tbilisi Courtyards

The Mysterious Tbilisi Courtyards
Published by The Cultural Spotter

By Alyona Kustovska

Alyona is an architect from Ukraine who is currently exploring Georgia. Her main interests are the history of architecture, ethnography, backpaking travelling, hiking and climbing. She often hitchhikes alone or with friends. Strongly interested in discovering interconnections between architecture – especially folk architecture- and people’s mind and way of life.
May 9, 2015

It will never stop embarrassing me in Tbilisi: few garishly renovated streets are always full of tourists but when you turn to any side street from restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, various tradesmen gazing on you, you might be alone and only cats jumping and staring on you. However the most interesting sights of the city are used to be outside from the main touristic routes. And one of them is mysterious Tbilisian courtyards.



People often name this type of courtyards ‘Italian’, but it were rather Persian caravanserais which influenced to Georgian tradition structure of houses. Unlike the both of them mostly square shaped and surrounded by solid stone arcades, the Georgian ones will impress you by unpredictable shapes, light and elegant wooden arcades richly decorated by carving with unique combination of Classicist and Oriental motifs; crazy combination of numerous superstructures, overhanging bridges connecting houses , spiral staircases, glazed loggias, patches of various materials used during renovations, picturesque bunches of pipes and wires, riot of greenery ( thanks to the wet Georgian climate) – the effect is breathtaking.

Typical Georgian houses have huge balconies on facades. The balconies were used to be the place of gathering and entertainment. People had tea, breakfast, dinner and sometimes even slept on the balconies. On Sundays Tbilisi inhabitants would keep an eye on the city life from their balconies. During the 19th century the Russian imperial politics provided the construction of houses with mostly neoclassicist facades without traditional giant balconies, but these official faces of the houses successfully coexisted with the traditional courtyards inside. Next years the Art Nouveau style has left it’s impact in the architecture of courtyards themselves. The crossroad of cultures shaped the unique face of Tbilisi and made it’s people tolerant.

Inhabitants of the courtyards often tell that their neighbors are almost families for them; they are always ready to help each other, or just to spend time around the table in the middle of courtyard or on someone’s balcony eating, talking, singing songs and playing board games. Yards are always full of children running and playing here.

By the way, it was not their own choice to live so close to each other. In the beginning of 1920th when the Soviet regime established here, the living space of wealthy citizens used to be reduced by so called ‘uplotnenie’ (compression): private apartments were forcibly settled by additional residents in them. Several families often were forced to use one shower and one tap with water out-of-doors. And now the conditions of life of most of them don’t getting better in the new century. These houses are decaying, their inhabitants don’t have enough money to renovate 19th century structures, and Georgian officials don’t care.

When somebody notices me standing and sketching, almost every time he or she goes out and proposes to bring a chair for me, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a bottle of lemonade. One man gifted me a drawing of his child. People are used to know well the history of houses they live in, proud of it and gladly tell it to me and make a small excursion around their home. Nobody asked me to go away from the private property even when I come up on their balconies. Entrance doors of the houses are always open.

This beauty and this way of life are going to die one day. People are leaving their decrepit homes. Dirt-encrusted, decrepit and wasted by years of neglect, buildings of Tbilisi have long been desperately in need of serious renovation, but the usual technique is to knock down the original building then to reconstruct it around a reinforced concrete shell re-faced by old bricks, in a rough approximation of its former self. The structures usually carry an extra floor, often topped mansard-style by uniform roofs made from cheap Turkish tiles. According to customers’ or builder’s tastes, without any proper laboratory researches the plastered facades have been renovated with cement lining and new paint; the metal details have been coated. A lot of authentic details were lost. Tbilisi is losing its face.

A couple years ago, when Georgia was more economically successful, you could leave the city for the couple of months, then return and see – johnny I hardly knew ye – a construction site instead of several houses you’d fallen in love with. Building normatives are simplified for the purpose of preservation from corruption, but now customers can legally and paying no bribes destroy 100-years old house. But all these sad things are the real life of the city, not the streets with souvenirs. Enjoy it, deepen in it, while it is still alive.

Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi

 Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi
The architectural and social landscapes of many post-socialist cities have been 
transformed by an emergent urban phenomenon: the construction of vertical building extensions (VBEs) on the balconies and façades of multi-storey residential buildings.
While such structures are often of a makeshift, improvised character, many of them possess reinforced concrete frame constructions that often parallel the ‘host’ building in terms of size and function.
This paper examines the social and spatial underpinnings of such extensions, with the aid of a field study based in Skopje and Tbilisi – the capitals of, respectively, Macedonia and Georgia. We highlight the embeddedness of this phenomenon in a set of policy decisions and economic practices specific to the post-socialist period, as well as their complex implications for the
present and future use of urban space. One of our key arguments is that VBEs ‘spatialize’ coping strategies in post socialism, embodying a kind of ‘DIY urbanism’ that has deeply transformed the conduct of everyday life in the city.