About two weeks ago whilst preparing for teaching our photography students I took a walk in the quiet backstreets of Tbilisi in a neighbourhood full of beautiful decaying 19th century buildings. I was preparing to take photos for a charity event called Children for Children where our students would be taking images to be sold at auction in order to help disadvantaged children here in Georgia.
Sololaki, the real old town of Tbilisi is in serious need of investment to save the cultural and architectural heritage of the city.
The title of the project is called Save the Old Town, now there is a certain amount of mischief on my part because the Imedi TV channel (it means “Hope” in English) on which the program will be transmitted is owned by the former prime minister and major shareholder of Gazprom, Bidzina Ivanishvili. He owns a steel and glass megacomplex mansion-cum-factory that towers menacingly over Sololaki, and indeed he plans to construct an even bigger residential complex called Panorama.
It would appear that the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition will allow the construction of this project to go ahead despite serious misgivings by the number of Georgian citizens and pressure groups. A decision in its favour would indicate that precisely nothing was learnt from the catastrophic flooding of 13 June 2015 in which a number of people died and the Tbilisi Zoo was 80% destroyed whereby wild animals roamed the streets of the city in the aftermath. International experts suggest that the severe flash flooding was made worse by the uncontrolled construction boom in the city which has meant that there are very few run-off areas for water and no flood plains. The city currently has approximately 7% green space. When sudden heavy rain occurs in a mountainous region and lands in a densely populated city covered in concrete it’s clear that there are severely increased risks of flash flooding which is exactly what happened on that night.
Whilst we were wondering the quiets backstreets of Tbilisi we paused outside the only Vegan Cafe, called Kiwi Cafe. There we met a group of international exchange students from Spain, Poland, Ukraine and France — impressed that there was a community run cafe of this type using the fresh natural produce available in Georgia to provide an alternative to the meat dumplings and cheese bread staples of the Georgian diet.
Fast forward to the 26th May, Georgian Independence Day when following a show of patriotism and military strength on Freedom Square, just a couple of hundred yards from the cafe scenes turned ugly and a small group of Ultra Nationalists started some violence. According to reports across international media a group of Ultra Nationalists occupied the Kiwi Cafe and proceeded to eat sausages and throw fish around in the cafe. The owners of the cafe have gone on the record on their Facebook page to suggest that these “Neo Nazis” reject the ideas of the Vegan movement and wish to impose their lifestyle on everyone in the country. Certainly a sausage-eating-fish-throwing protest is a major affront to the Vegans of Tbilisi. It’s also a symbol of the highly polarised political situation in this young democracy in an election year. You don’t have to go far to find stencilled “Street Art” imploring people to “Go Vegan” — those responsible for these stencils are far left wing activists concerned with the serious environmental issues faced in the city of Tbilisi which can often be choked in smog caused by poor traffic management and congestion, further compounded by the non-existent vehicle inspections, routine removal of catalytic converters from ageing cars imported from Europe and Japan where they have exceeded their useful life and fall foul of tight emissions controls and taxation.
Vegans are a small minority in Georgia, as are gay rights activists. The Police response to the attack on the cafe is reported to have consisted of turning up and laughing.
Whilst the stupidity of the situation has caught the imagination of the global media and caused amusement and dismay in equal measure it’s also indicative of the struggle between traditionalism and modernisation, orthodoxy and liberalisation and a society sandwiched between Europe, Turkey and Russia desperately trying to define its identity.
Minority rights are a major challenge for a country trying to define itself as a functioning democracy. Whilst the rule of law has been achieved, corruption largely banished and economic liberalisation implemented it’s undeniable that events such as Sausagegate present a major challenge to the authorities.
The sausage attack threatens to overshadow the far more serious issues faced by Georgian society and the city in particular. Little has been done to improve the situation since the flash floods of 13 June 2015 except for repairing damage to roads and buildings, there is still no disaster response planning and construction continues at a rapid pace with seemingly no limitations. The most successful construction company Maqro has taken the PR line of branding their developments Green, with Green Budapest completed the city is covered in billboards promoting their new Green Diamond projects.
Whilst the Old Town crumbles away and the city loses the most valuable architectual heritage in the Caucasus Ivanashvili & Co race to cover every inch of green space with steel, glass and concrete. It’s the building of all these apartments and Panorama that are the major issues facing the city, not Sausage-wielding Ultra Nationalists or stencil spraying Vegan street artists. Of course the irony of calling the attackers Neo Nazis is that Hitler himself was a Vegan.
All images copyright Adrian Scoffham, except where image credits indicate Ryan McCarrel & Anna Scoffham.
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