Thousands gathered today in downtown Kutaisi, a key western Georgian city, to protest against the construction of the Namakhvani Hydropower Plant in the Rioni River gorge in the Imereti and Racha-Lechkhumi regions.
Addressing the rally, Varlam Goletiani, a 28-year-old activist at the forefront of the Save the Rioni Gorge movement, urged the Georgian Government to retract the “illegal, wrong, anti-state” permission of the project.
Noting that locals were not aware of handing the Rioni Gorge – “collective property of us all” – to a foreign investor, Goletiani called for unity to decide the issues of concern “without any politicization or parties, [or partisan] flags and symbols.”
Goletiani said the Government’s failure to meet their demands would equal greenlighting confrontation between the anti-HPP activists on one hand, and the police and the Turkish company on the other. If the Government “disregards the will of the Georgian people” and attacks activists, we will have a legitimate right to “confront back,” said Goletiani, and pledged the Government: “Don’t provoke these people to defend their dignity with throwing stones.”
“We will never get bothered by defending our land,” Goletiani addressed the government and warned that anti-HPP activists would picket the city of Kutaisi by abandoning their cars parked in two weeks if the authorities keep ignoring the demands of the protesters.
Along with locals from the Rioni gorge and surrounding areas, people have arrived in Kutaisi to protest from other parts of the country.
„People are against similar projects… We have terrible examples [before us]. Let me tell you what happens in Batumi – the Government seized schools, kindergartens, [seaside] boulevard and transferred them to the so-called investors. The system is against the people,” Irma Zoidze, an activist from the coastal city of Batumi addressed the crowd to voice her discontent. “the Government is selling the people’s property to wealthy persons, and we are left with nothing, like second-class [citizens],” she added.
The Namakhvani project encompasses two separate HPPs of 333 MW and 100 MW on the Rioni River. The government hopes to enhance its energy security and to employ up to 1,600 Georgians with the “foreign direct investment in the amount of USD 800 million.”
Locals have been opposing the idea of a large-scale HPP in the seismic active regions for years, and the resistance moved into a more active phase months ago as Enka Renewables, the Turkish company in charge of the HPP project, launched the preparatory works.
The locals’ demands include ENKA Renewables to leave the Rioni gorge, as well as the Government to annul orders granting ownership rights and construction licenses on the territory.
According to the opponents of the project, the construction works were launched without prior sufficient research and thorough consideration of risks, including immediate security risks due to the active seismic processes.
Further concerns include potentially devastating environmental impact for the regions affected, their unique biodiversity and cultural heritage, as well as microclimates that are crucial for producing notorious Georgian wines.
- Read more about the project and its concerns here.
Part of the protesters has been taking shifts in tents in Namakhvani village, Imereti’s Tskaltubo Municipality, near the HPP site for more than a hundred days to obstruct the construction process. The works have resumed in January, leading since to more clashes with the police.
Today’s rally, initially planned near the Enka office in Opurchkheti village of the Tskaltubo Municipality, has been moved to Kutaisi as activists feared possible provocations that might have grown into clashes with police or the representative of the construction company.
Also, starting tomorrow, larger groups of 80-100 people will be taking shifts in the tents in Namakhvani, pledging to block the movement of specialized equipment if the preparatory works resume.