CNN’s Eye On series is visiting Georgia. Read and watch reports from the country online and on TV until June 24.
New parliament building being constructed away from capital Tbilisi
Structure resembles a huge, glass bubble, cost $83 million
Critics claim it is an expensive folly in impoverished country
President defends it as symbol of revitalized nation
For a new parliament, it was an inauspicious beginning.
While most new buildings are inaugurated with a ceremonial shovel, a gentle turning of the first sod and possibly a brass band, Georgia turned the earth on its new parliament by demolishing a 46-meter-high Soviet-era war memorial with explosives.
The blast ended in tragedy when it killed a Georgian woman, her 8-year-old daughter and left several more injured.
“According to preliminary information, safety measures were not met,” Murtaz Zodelava, the country’s chief prosecutor, stated at the time.
Three years later and the glass dome – a vast structure that would not be out of place on the set of a science fiction film – is still dogged by controversy.
Costing almost $83 million, critics see the building as a gigantic folly in an impoverished country.
Others say the decision, which effectively takes the seat of power from the capital Tbilisi and puts it in Georgia’s second city Kutaisi 220 kilometers (137 miles) to the west, will mean less rather than more transparency.
For the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, however, the building represents Georgia’s hopes for the future.
His pro-Western government, which suffered a defeat at the hands of Russia’s military in 2008, has continued to defy its giant neighbor. The destruction of the war memorial, which commemorated Russian and Georgian war dead from World War Two, was denounced by Moscow as an act of “vandalism”.
For Saakashvili, the new parliament sends a potent message to Moscow.
“This new building of our parliament is a symbol of the new Georgia,” Saakashvili said at the official opening of the yet-to-be finished legislature late last month against a backdrop of marching troops and military hardware.
He warned in his speech that Moscow still wanted to “accomplish its cherished dream: to topple Georgia’s government”.
“I am confident that the Georgian people will stand guard to save Georgia’s independence,” he said. “We have fought so that Georgia would not have a single elite and that the country would not be managed from a single street.”
Meanwhile, opposition groups maintain the construction of the parliament has been shrouded in secrecy and at least $45.3 million in public funds has been allocated for the project in a ‘totally non-transparent’ manner, according to a report by the Tbilisi-based legal advocacy group, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), released in April.
The GYLA report said papers requested under the country’s freedom of information laws only resulted in the partial release of some documents, while other documents on the public record were not released at all.
“It became obvious from the very beginning of the monitoring that information about construction of the parliament building was totally concealed,” the report reads.
“The absolutely non-transparent process gives a legitimate reason to conclude that 73.77 million Georgian lari ($45.3 million) has been handled in an absolutely vague and, possibly, corrupt manner.”
The group also maintains that the move to Kutaisi will sideline the country’s opposition, taking the legislature to the industrial city where it will not be called to account by protests or petitioners.
The Georgian government, however, is unperturbed by the critics, saying the move makes a clean break from the brutalist Soviet-era architecture that dominates Tbilisi.
The Regional Development and Infrastructure Minister, Ramaz Nikolaishvili, who heads the construction work, recently told foreign media on a tour of the site that the building would raise the bar on Georgia’s levels of visual education.
“We don’t want our children’s taste to be ruined by communist architecture,” he said. “We want beautiful buildings and we want the next generation to grow up with good taste. This will help them live in a better and more dignified way.”
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