A protest has already been scheduled in front of Tbilisi City Hall following the death of a 13-year-old girl who was electrocuted alongside two friends in a fountain located in central Tbilisi’s newly-renovated Vake Park.
According to the media, the incident happened when teenagers tried to retrieve a ball from the fountain pool. The three were rushed to a hospital, where the girl, succumbed to cardiac arrest following the electric shock. According to the doctors, one boy is in serious condition, while another’s injuries are not life-threatening.
The public outrage is directed at Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, who pompously opened the fountain yesterday evening. The mayor and the government offered condolences, but watchdogs and many Tbilisites blame corrupt procurement practices for the incident.
An investigation into the matter is being carried out under Article 240 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, which refers to breaches in construction regulations, and carries a possible prison sentence of 4-7 years.
Shortly after the news of the incident broke, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili released a statement via Facebook saying, “It’s hard to find words to express the heartache I feel because of the tragedy at Vake Park. In these most difficult moments, I wholeheartedly share the grief of the family members, relatives, and friends of the deceased teenager and express my support to them.”
“The investigation has already started, the causes of the tragedy will be established, and the strictest response will follow,” he emphasized.
Mayor Kaladze meanwhile told journalists in response to a question of whether the fountain had been inspected for safety, “of course, it had been inspected.” Asked about the responsibility he offered a general answer, “of course, it is a large matter, it is a very tragic matter… it is the very large responsibility of everyone, and of course, everyone will receive an appropriate answer.”
Like the PM, the Mayor also reiterated that an investigation had been launched and “everyone will be punished accordingly, within the confines of the law.”
Anri Okhanashvili, Georgian Dream MP and Chairperson of the Legal Issues Committee stood by the Mayor when asked by journalists about City Hall’s role in the accident and lambasted them for behaving in a way that was “shameful,” “manipulating a tragedy” and fueling “a partisan agenda…”
Meanwhile, Tamar Makharashvili, the First Deputy Minister of Education and Science, seemed to deflect the legal responsibility, saying “these particular children did not show up for a class in the morning… in accordance with regulation, she [the teacher] informed the parents that the children were not there… The teacher fulfilled the [school’s] obligation,” she said.
The opposition had a markedly different response to the tragedy and joined calls for Mayor Kaladze to promptly resign. Nika Melia, from the United National Movement, slammed the government and said the tragedy was the “result of the irresponsibility, a lack of care for people, and the practice of distributing tenders right and left … to relatives.” “If I were in Kaladze’s place I would resign, I would not have the moral strength [to remain,” said Melia, who was Kaladze’s challenger in a mayoral race.
The Strategy Aghmashenebeli party also placed full responsibility with City Hall and called on Mayor Kaladze to resign. They underscored that “the life of a 13-year-old girl was sacrificed to corruption, a lack of a system, incompetence, and chaos in the city.”
“Year-long road repair works, disorganized infrastructure, disorganized public transport, traffic jams, parking problems, chaotic construction – all of these are the result of the incompetence of Mayor Kaladze and his team…,” they said.
Khatuna Samnidze, from the Republican party, stressed simply, “Resign! [He] must resign!”
Besik Donadze, from European Georgia, noted, “A very sad fact happened in Vake Park, for which Kakhi Kaladze is fully responsible.” Donadze found an issue with the Mayor for his statements placing blame for the tragic incident on the company which City Hall commissioned the renovations from.
“I want to remind Kaladze that there has been a legal handover, the City Hall employees signed the paper that the fountains and cascade in Vake Park have been handed over [by the company doing renovation wors] and that everything is fine,” he said and added that “therefore, responsibility rests with all the signatories [from the City Hall]”.
Who Completed the Renovations?
According to documents published by Netgazeti, the rehabilitation of the Vake Park fountain and its cascade cost GEL 3,442,383 (USD 1,238,411). The Tbilisi City Hall officially accepted the finished project in August.
The handover act was signed on behalf of City Hall by Lekso Utiashvili, Head of the Green Landscape Planning Department of the City Environmental Protection Service, and Iuza Tsereteli, the Second Category Senior Specialist of the Environmental Department of the city Environmental Protection Service. Lasha Purtskhvanidze, Director of “Greenservice+” LLC, signed on behalf of the company.
Purtskhvanidze, the former gamgebeli (executive) of the Old Tbilisi District of the capital, owns 33% of the company’s shares, while his former deputy, Koba Kharshiladze, owns another 33%.
According to Netgazeti, the independent inspection of the works has been completed by “MshenInspect” company. The inspection document says the works were found in line with the agreement signed between City Hall and Greenservice+, and “in accordance with the construction norms and rules in force in Georgia.” According to the preliminary review of the procurement documentation by ifact, the procurement watchdog, “MshenInspect” evaluated only the financial compliance, but not the quality of safety of works. According to ifact, these elements had to be inspected by the dedicated municipal agency, but the documents confirming the verification are lacking in the registry.
Greenservice and its founders have been previously implicated in malpractice. “Transparency International – Georgia”, a government watchdog, published a report in 2018 which revealed that in 2013 Purtskhvanidze and Kharshiladze were detained on charges of fraud and insider trading. While in civil service, they were accused of establishing “Greenservice LLC” with strawmen owners and funneling public procurement contracts through it. The two paid a fine and re-established the company as “Greenservice+”, proceeding to win procurement tenders worth GEL 21 million from November 2013 to January 2018 alone. The watchdog has been calling on the government to permanently blacklist the individuals and companies that committed fraud from participating in public procurement tenders.