The Georgian Road to Russia: when everything goes south
The North-South Corridor, widely promoted by international financial institutions, aims to facilitate the transport of goods as the ‘only land access to the Russian Federation’, as well as to Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan, running through Georgia. Yet the project impacts the cultural heritage of picturesque landscapes in Georgia without answering the major question raised Georgian taxpayers – why should they pay for a new road to Russia, a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Georgia, has occupied Georgian territories, and presents one of the major obstacles to Georgia’s European future?
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) financed up to EUR 423 million in 2019 for the Kvesheti-Kobi road project, part of the North-South Corridor, an investment that continues to raise concerns among the Georgian public, environmentalists and cultural heritage specialists. The contribution of the Georgian government (EUR 73.7 million) was supposed to cover the costs of compensating landowners and preparing the project. The construction of the 23-kilometre highway with six bridges and five tunnels affects 9 kilometres of the Khada Valley, a unique area with a rich cultural and natural heritage. The construction of the road led the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to recognise the Khada Valley as an endangered cultural landscape area in 2020.
In addition, the Georgian Road Authority started construction on the road without a proper environmental, social and cultural impact assessment. As a result, numerous failures have been noted in relation to the protection of cultural heritage, resulting in retaliation against local landowners, and the destruction of livelihoods.
Until now, there has been no road through the valley, and locals had to leave their homes every autumn once it began snowing to access major services such as schools, medical clinics and shops. The promoters of the project claim that thanks to the project, the people living in the Khada Valley will have a road available to them all year round. A visitors centre, designed by the project’s sponsors, is intended to help them promote the valley’s cultural heritage. But after two years of construction, locals are losing hope that the valley will survive the scale of transformation and retain its unique identity and cultural heritage, not to mention the safety of local communities. Locals have consistently asked for support from the banks’ management and later via their redress mechanisms. Despite their efforts, the situation has not improved.
Livelihoods stolen in the name of development
One of the concerns reported by locals relates to land ownership. From the outset, the land acquisition and resettlement plan failed to present any evidence that the road would positively impact people’s lives. The plans did not provide for adequate compensation to restore the livelihoods of people who used the land for subsistence. In addition, the plans do not entitle those whose land or assets have already been acquired to in-kind income and livelihood improvements. In 2019 and 2020, locals demanded adequate compensation and recognition of their rights to the traditionally owned land. (This type of land ownership establishes their right to property based on historical residence; it has been recognised by the international financial institutions even though Georgia’s legal system does not recognise it as a legitimate form of ownership.) They repeatedly called on the EBRD and ADB to take action. In 2020, to meet the banks’ requirements, the Road Department was forced to increase the amount of compensation owed to locals whose land or assets had been acquired four times, and to support the locals in registering their lands as traditionally owned.
Since 2021, there have been increasing incidences of land grabbing and intimidation in the valley. Some villagers from Arakhveti, one of the valley’s villages, have been accused of fraudulent appropriation of land. Two people were arrested after they openly expressed their concerns to the media and accused the prosecutor’s office of intimidation as part of community protests. Yet claims against accused individuals have nevertheless proceeded: in total, the Shida Kartli and Mtskheta-Mtianeti regional prosecutor has opened investigations against 20 residents of Arakhveti.
In 2022, land grabbing continued and expanded to other villages. In 2023, the Roads Department started demanding the repayment of compensation from more than 75 households that had registered traditionally owned land. The land titles were given to them with the support of the project funded by international financial institutions, and the government was forced to pay them compensation. According to the locals, representatives of the Road Department argued that the project had become more expensive than initially expected, and that the locals would have to return the land and compensation to the state. The public prosecutor’s office has even initiated criminal proceedings against those who refuse to comply.
Such practice criminalises locals who register their ancestral land; violates their rights; and significantly reduces trust in the government, financial institutions and the project. When people understood that multiple households were victim to the same demands, protests and anger grew in local communities. In response, the government began to deploy police forces, while the affected people started organising direct actions, such as road closures and protests. In a disturbing trend, the government started to apply this practice in other communities in the region, such as in the cases of the Nataktari – Jinvali and Stapansminda-Gveleti road projects.
Some people’s land has been damaged due to the construction. Construction works have also changed the valley’s natural drainage systems, and some agricultural land plots were eradicated. The rise in the groundwater level is also recognisable in basements in the region, where humidity has increased.
The Khada Valley’s unique treasure at risk
The valley’s cultural heritage monuments, as well as the majority of the houses in the valley, are built with a dry stone method, which makes them more vulnerable to cracking and destruction as a result of vibrations and nearby earthworks. Therefore, from the beginning, there were concerns that drilling in the mountains and some blasting operations could disturb these buildings, as well as increase the risk of possible avalanches and landslides. Unfortunately, the proposed and approved Environmental and Social Impact Assessment offers neither a proper assessment of the potentially adverse impacts, nor proposes effective measures to decrease them.
According to the ADB Compliance Review Panel report, the Bank’s management did not conduct proper due diligence on the physical-cultural resources and cultural dimensions of the Khada Valley landscape, as required by Bank policy, prior to approving the project. An initial three-day fieldwork on cultural sites was deemed satisfactory, but subsequent studies revealed the presence of an additional 155 cultural heritage objects within the project area. These monuments have yet to be given protected status by the Ministry of Culture. In addition, although the National Heritage Conservation Agency has collected artefacts from excavated sites, no public statement has been made about their significance and planned actions. Delaying the project to provide enough time to complete archaeological studies has been ruled out.
Similar findings were echoed by the EBRD Independent Project Accountability Mechanism (EBRD IPAM), which stated that the EBRD failed to verify that the project had an up-to-date cultural heritage study to assess impacts. The Bank also failed to identify appropriate stakeholders and did not ensure a meaningful public consultation process.
People remain deeply concerned about the cultural heritage of the valley. Promises that the construction works in the valley would not endanger residential houses and cultural monuments have rung hollow. Cracks are already visible, for example, on a tower in the village of Rostiani.
From 2019 to 2022, residents also raised their concerns directly with the management of the two international financial institutions. There have been attempts by these banks to address some of the shortcomings of the project, such as developing a historical reference plan for the Khada Valley, defining the general protection zones, and even preparing a Development Plan to relieve locals of the impacts of the road project. The draft plan was presented to both civil society organisations and local community representatives in January 2023, but the important questions of who will fund its implementation and how it will be implemented remain unanswered.
Living under the threat of man-made hazards
Construction-related safety standards have also raised concerns. For example, the construction company China Railway 23rd Bureau Group (part of China Railway Construction Corporation) informs people about blasting operations 15 minutes before the event, and sometimes only after the fact.
Local communities are concerned about the safety of the construction, considering the number of accidents that have already occurred, including those in June 2022 in which one worker died and 10 were heavily poisoned by CO2 emissions in the Kobi-Tskere tunnel. The ADB’s CRP report also highlights that the social impact assessment failed to consider how to avoid or mitigate social impacts, maximise social benefits and enhance positive social influence. It is obvious from both the CRP and IPAM reports that the road construction started without proper due diligence, and as a result, the project’s design did not comply with the banks’ own safeguard policies.
The elephant in the room – Russia
The Roads Department is eagerly working to continue construction of the North-South Corridor, namely the Nataktari-Jinvali and Stepansminda-Larsi highways. According to the Georgian government, the same international financial institutions and the World Bank are also interested in investing in other parts of the corridor. However, the question of why Georgia needs a road to Russia has not been addressed by the government or the banks.
In 2019, the banks were enthusiastic: ‘The project extends the efforts of the ADB and other development partners to upgrade the country’s national highway network along key economic corridors. It will promote inclusive economic growth and regional connectivity.’ The reasons behind the decision are strange, however, considering that 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory is currently occupied by Russia and the two countries have no diplomatic relations. In addition, since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, which was followed by numerous international sanctions on Russia, the project should have been considered a ‘no-go’ for the EBRD, which effectively suspended all of its activities in Russia that year.
The Russian government recently openly praised the Georgian government for building the new road. Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Georgia has become one of the main routes through which Russia receives banned goods from Armenia, Turkey and Iran, according to the United States State Department. With increased traffic, the lack of capacity at border checkpoints creates better opportunities for the shipment of prohibited goods to Russia.
Finally, one more ominous question lingers in the air: will the banks turn a blind eye if the project does not comply with their own safeguard policies and continue to support Georgia’s increasing ‘connection’ with Russia? If so, why?
Originally published on www.bankwatch.org