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Can Georgia Shake Its Post Soviet Past With Bold New Buildings?

The country's 21st century architecture is eye-catching, but it's not doing much to revitalize the economy.

J. Mayer H. Architects

When Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili took his oath of office, he did so at the tomb of David the Builder, an early leader known more for military acumen than actual construction projects. But taking the name to heart, Saakashvili has tried to quite literally rebuild the country.

The Georgian president claimed that his administration has been responsible for building more over the past seven years than the country has "in the past eight centuries." This is, in part, thanks to its history - former Soviet country has faced a seemingly endless stream of Russian occupation, military coups, election fraud, and a stagnant economy.  

Saakashivili sees urban development as the easiest path to economic success, and he's tried to signal a new era for Georgia with a slew of attention-grabbing architecture. The new buildings are meant to signal a robust country to investors, tourists, and his own people.

But though new cultural and governmental facilities are going up in the country's major cities, the impact so far is mostly superficial.

"It's easier to build a bridge then a functioning government," says Lincoln Mitchell, former Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia and current Associate Research Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

"The narrative of Saakashvili administration has been 'we found Georgia in a state of disrepair and rebuilt it.' The extent to which they rebuilt it is ambiguous though," he says. Georgia still lacks financial resources - though its economy grew about 7 percent in 2011, its GDP per capita is in the bottom quarter of countries. And it is still heavily dependent on larger allies such as the United States for protection and support (perhaps alluded to with the recently completed Ronald Reagan monument (in the same city with a "George W. Bush Street")). 

And some state facilities (such as the Interior Ministry building in Tbilisi), glass facades are intended as symbols of a new-found transparency. But according to Mitchell, "locals see the 'transparency' in state architecture as ironic and not much else."

A lot of the energy behind this building campaign comes from the generosity of native billionaire and now presidential hopeful Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili (whose compound looks as wild as any new state project) has funded everything from town roads to combat boots in lieu of the government which is still unable to pay for some of the most basic public services. 

If anything, Georgia's next election may become a builders showdown. But not even the world's flashiest piece of architecture could solve the country's many remaining issues.

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