A view of Tbilisi, Georgia
A view of Tbilisi, Georgia's largest city and capital David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Grassroots environmental activism is on the rise in the capital of post-Soviet Georgia.

One chilly morning last December, the residents of Tbilisi woke up to an unusual sight. Statues in prominent locations around the city—in parks, at traffic intersections, and in front of landmarks—were wearing surgical masks. Soon it became clear that this was the work of an anonymous group of environmental protesters, or “Oxygen Ninjas,” who had grown frustrated with the city’s increasing air pollution.

In 2016, when the International Energy Agency released a report on air pollution (based on data from 2012), it named the small Eurasian country of Georgia as having the highest mortality rate in the world caused by air pollution, with close to 300 deaths per 100,000 people. By comparison, China, which is known for the bad air quality in its cities, reported slightly over 150 deaths per 100,000 people.

Georgia is a fledgling post-Soviet democracy with an economy centered on tourism and dependent on foreign investment. One-third of the population lives in its capital and largest city, Tbilisi. The city’s roads are dense with an ever-increasing number of vehicles—most of them secondhand, and with questionable emissions status. The city is also losing its green cover to development.

Until recently, most Tbilisi restaurants allowed smoking indoors. Smoke emanating from metal garbage cans on street corners as a result of uncontrolled burning is a common sight. An acrid smell from vehicle emissions pervades the major thoroughfare of Rustaveli Avenue.

But two years after the IEA report, a growing number of citizens and organizations in Georgia are fighting for their quality of life. Through street protests and campaigns, television debates, and discussions on social media, Tbilisians are seeking to change the status quo. It seems that their voices are being heard, even if most people aren’t prepared to follow the lead of the Oxygen Ninjas.

Urban activism stirs

Take Nata Peradze, who runs a vigilante group called Guerilla Gardening. Since starting the group on Facebook, Peradze has worked with other activists to conserve Tbilisi’s green space. “We are a very small group, entirely run by volunteers, so whenever there is a tree [felling] in the city, we get a call from the neighborhood citizens and we run to the rescue of trees,” she said.

Armed with her cellphone camera, Peradze accosts contractors who are removing trees without proper approval and broadcasts it on Facebook. Her protest to protect the large Vake Park went on for more than a year. “We camped in front of the park to stop the illegal construction of a hotel,” she said. “A lot of enthusiastic people from all walks of life joined us. A few young lawyers took our case, and we fought for it in the court.”

After a protracted legal battle, in 2016, the city court revoked the hotel’s construction permit. “At least for now, there is no construction happening in the park,” Peradze said.

Haphazard, and in some cases illegal, construction is a problem in Tbilisi. Irakli Zhvania, an MIT-trained urban planner based in the city, said that previous governments paid little attention to sustainable development, leading to a free-for-all.

A new apartment building among Tbilisi’s Soviet-era residential buildings (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

“There were few regulations before, and that encouraged a lot of illegal constructions and irregular development,” Zhvania said. “This not only resulted in very unattractive urban architecture, but also [a worse] urban quality of life. This kind of uncontrolled urban development led to triple the population in some streets, not to mention triple the cars, bad air, and traffic jams.”

More roads, more traffic, more pollution

The current city administration intends to build additional overpasses to ease traffic. One that is now under construction, in the Saburtalo neighborhood, is the site of regular protests.

“By building more roads inside the city, you are also increasing the flow of vehicles and causing air pollution,” said Joseph Alexander Smith, a British resident of Tbilisi who is also a local politician. The Georgian-speaking Smith is a frequent guest on television shows discussing environmental and urban-development issues. He leads an activist group called Hippodrome SOS that is trying to stop construction of the overpass, arguing that it will exacerbate air and noise pollution and restrict pedestrian access to the nearby park.

Respiratory diseases caused by air pollution are becoming a public-health crisis. According to statistics released by Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control and Public Health, at the end of 2016, the number of registered cases of respiratory diseases stood at more than 225,000 in Tbilisi alone. In a city with population of 1.1 million, that is a rate higher than 20 percent. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) caused by inhaling tobacco smoke accounted for a large chunk—74 percent—of those respiratory cases.

Smoking is culturally embedded in Georgia, so the city chokes under a haze of tobacco smoke. “Georgians have a very welcome attitude towards smoking,” said Beka Gabadadze, a social worker, who took part in a campaign pressuring the government to impose a smoking ban in public places. “On my daily commute, when my taxi driver asks me if he can smoke in the car, I usually say ‘okay’ to avoid awkwardness or confrontation. That forces me to open the car window—and I realize there’s no fresh air outside the car to breathe, either. It’s a double whammy,” he said.

Dirty diesel

That raises another problem: Most vehicles on Tbilisi’s roads are old and run on diesel.

Traffic in Tbilisi in 2013 (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

“The main contributor to Tbilisi’s air pollution is old vehicles,” said Eka Laliashvili, who works for an NGO called the Georgia Alliance for Safe Roads. An influx of tourists has resulted in a proliferation of taxis in the city. While this provides needed employment opportunities, it also floods the roads with older cars that have dubious emissions status. These cars are mostly imported from Europe on the cheap, since Georgia has done away with customs tax for cars from Europe.

Georgia’s weak enforcement of emission controls exacerbates the country’s use of dirty diesel. While the standard for sulfur in diesel in Europe is currently 10 parts per million (ppm), Georgia’s is more than double that, 22 ppm. Handling of vehicle emissions has been so backwards that, in 2004, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili ended inspections altogether, reasoning that it encouraged corruption among the enforcers.

Laliashvili wants to work with both the government and city businesses to bring about change. Her NGO’s campaign for clean air in April led to private companies approaching her based on the media coverage. As a result, 20 companies and the city government signed a memorandum promising to implement more green initiatives.

Small victories

“People used to say activism in ex-Soviet countries cannot be successful, because everything is done from above, with no clarity on who is running [behind] the scenes,” said Peradze of Guerilla Gardening. But the recent successes of Tbilisi’s urban activists indicate otherwise. Their efforts have seeped into mainstream consciousness enough that the environment was one of the main issues in Tbilisi’s recent mayoral election.

People cross the street in front of a poster for candidate (now Mayor) Kakha Kaladze on the eve of Tbilisi’s local elections in October 2017. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

“Politicians realize that the quality of urban life in Tbilisi is deteriorating,” said Zhvania, the urban planner.

Emissions tests became mandatory this January, and 25 percent of vehicles tested between January 1 and early April failed. At the end of April, the city administration launched a mobile station to monitor air quality. A smoking ban in restaurants and enclosed spaces went into effect this month, although enforcement is tricky because smoking is still very prevalent.

With a new EU grant, the city will add 100 lower-emission buses to its fleet. A recent study also revealed a spike in the sales of electric cars. Priuses are seen on Tbilisi’s streets with increasing regularity.

Taken together, these small things seem to point to a larger shift. “In 2007, there were no rules necessitating seat belts while driving,” recalled Laliashvili, the fresh-air activist. “It was a challenging problem back then. We worked towards it, and legislation was passed in 2010. As you can see, a lot of things need to be mended here. But there is hope.”  

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