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.

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.

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