Following weeks-long environmental protests, the Georgian authorities announced plans to call off a scheme that threatened to turn vast acres of highland woods into a corporate hunting club.
Environmental activists intend to continue demonstrations to make sure the authorities follow through on their promise.
Residents of Racha – a picturesque, mountain paradise in northern Georgia – put up a fierce fight against the government leasing off 260,000 acres of wooded areas to a private business. Under the scheme, nearly a third of Racha's territory was licensed to a Georgian tycoon Davit Khidasheli to be developed as a hunting business.
While privately managed, the area would remain public property, but locals said the deal effectively amounted to selling Racha's woods to a private owner. Led by the Saving Rioni Valley environmental movement, protesters called for revoking the deal between the authorities and the businessman.
"The license was issued in a clandestine manner, without discussion and consent of the people," said Saving Rioni Valley. "Almost the entire region with its vast woods, minerals and water resources ended up in private hands and the local population is denied access to vital resources."
After a series of sit-ins at local municipal buildings and regional highways, the protesters came down to the capital Tbilisi and continued their battle at the Ministry of Environment and Agriculture. Protesters clashed with police in front of the ministry and 11 activists, including Saving Rioni Valley leader Varlam Goletiani, were briefly arrested over the past weekend.
"We are trying to show that we have the right to protest, but they are telling us that we don't," Goletiani told Palitra news service on November 21. He and other activists alleged that police used excessive force against protesters.
Minister of Environment and Agriculture Otar Shamugia said that there were already plans to revoke the license for Khidasheli's company, HG Capra Caucasica. Thus, he said, there was no reason to protest, and called on the activists to "go back home to their families."
Mistrusting official promises, activists say that the protesters will continue until the deal with Khidasheli is formally voided.
Shamugia maintained that Khidasheli's company failed to meet license terms and conditions, but the businessman accused the ministry of looking for excuses to break off the deal. "If they are not interested in my investments, they let them be on their way without me," the businessman told the Netgazeti news website. "There are plenty of other countries waiting for my investments with open arms."
HG Capra Caucasica was the only bidder in the government auction of Racha forests in 2022, which prompted suspicions that the whole auction was created to reward the businessman, who allegedly has close ties to the ruling Georgian Dream and its founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
"The circumstances of the case indicate that the decision [in the Racha forest auction] was made contrary to the state's financial interests and for the benefit of a specific businessman with Russia connections, which may have been the result of a corrupt deal," alleged Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, in its report on the case.
Khidasheli was once based in Russia where he served as a vice president of Sistema, a conglomerate owned by Vladimir Yevtushenkov, an internationally sanctioned mogul and a friend of Ivanishvili.
Khidasheli also played a key role in a 2020 scandal over an alleged conspiracy to surrender a sliver of disputed, culturally significant land to neighboring Azerbaijan. The scandal helped Georgian Dream implicate its political competitors and former leaders of Georgia in alleged treasonous activity, and succeed in the parliamentary election that year.
Ivanishvili personally thanked Khidasheli for his involvement and many believe that the businessman was given the Racha forest deal as a return favor for giving Georgian Dream a leg up at the election.
Getting the controversial license revoked would amount to the second major success of environmental activism in Georgia in recent years. An earlier campaign led by Saving Rioni Valley successfully pressured the government and its corporate partners to scuttle construction of a massive, environmentally controversial hydropower reservoir in western Georgia, at the foothills of the Racha region.