Georgia: Tbilisi Pedestrians Rage Against the Machines
Last week, several car owners in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, found large stickers emblazed with the message “I don’t care for the law. I park where I want,” attached to their vehicles’ windscreens. These stamps of shame were signed off by Stopxam, a Moscow-born movement of self-styled traffic cops that is spreading throughout Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood. It has reached Tbilisi just as pedestrians begin to strike back against the cars which have long claimed the right of way here.
Drumming their fingers on their steering wheels and muttering an occasional curse, drivers trapped in Tbilisi’s increasingly congested district of Saburtalo often see a car speed past them on a sidewalk and then weasel its way into a lane. Many of the sidewalks in this city of some 1.1 million people and 400,000 cars now serve as a de-facto two-lane vehicular zone, with one lane used for parking and the other for getting in and out of traffic.
That can make walking on sidewalks a veritable obstacle course.
“I’ve got to learn pole vaulting,” bristled Elene Abuladze, a stay-at-home mom, as she tried to negotiate her stroller through cars on a sidewalk lining Chavchavadze Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the posh district of Vake. “I might as well take my son for a stroll in a junkyard. I swear, cars have more rights than humans in this city.”
Obnoxious driving and parking plague much of the post-Soviet world, but Georgia appears to be in a class by itself.
Some drivers even park their vehicles across sidewalks, denying access to both pedestrians and other cars. The more thoughtful ones leave their cellphone numbers on their cars.
Sidewalk-parking has long been accepted as a necessary evil here, and the authorities do little to discourage it. In Tbilisi, city officials have even designated certain sidewalks outside of the downtown area as parking areas.
Unlike Arturas Zoukas, the former mayor of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania has not yet driven an armored personnel carrier over illegally parked cars.
Yet complaints about the city’s park-and-let-park attitude have been growing. “If City Hall… does not consider pedestrians and people with disabilities to be second-rate citizens, it should immediately start removing illegally parked cars from the city’s sidewalks,” Transparency International Georgia, an anti-corruption and civil-rights watchdog, demanded in 2014.*
The city has made some attempts to correct the problem. It recently purchased new, German-manufactured buses, banned parking on several sidewalks and plans to build municipal parking lots.
One urban planner sympathetic to pedestrian rights believes city officials shy away from cracking down on chaotic parking lest they antagonize the car-owner vote.
“Pedestrians vastly outnumber cars in the city and they need to make their voices heard by the government,” advised Irakli Zhavnia, a board member of the pro-pedestrian activist group Walk (იარე ფეხით).
Metropolitan areas elsewhere often restrict car traffic by charging entrance tolls, high parking rates and taxes, and offering an efficient public transportation system and bicycle lanes.
Tbilisi has none of these. Parking – whether on a sidewalk or elsewhere -- costs a flat rate of 50 laris (about $20) per year; a fraction of the rates in European or American cities. Public transportation offers no viable alternative. Packed buses and mini-buses (marshrutkas) require passengers to surrender all right to personal space or comfort.
Meanwhile, strategies to change this are diverging. The Walk group is trying to work with City Hall to change its parking policy, while Stopxam is taking matters into its own hands.
“The inaction of the government has brought us to this juncture and we citizens are taking the initiative,” Levan Kenchoshvili, a young businessman and the leader of Stopxam, told Tamada Tales.
Stopxam (pronounced as “Stopham”) Georgia mimics the name and tactics of Russia’s Стопхам (Stop Rudeness), but says it has no organizational connection to the Moscow-based group.
Originally launched by the controversial pro-Kremlin youth movement Наши (Ours), Стопхам is known for its YouTube videos, depicting activists harrying delinquent drivers and often engaging in shouting matches and even scuffles to get them to obey the rules of the road.
The movement has been emulated in Belarus and Ukraine, but has not particularly gained traction in the South Caucasus.
In Georgia, anger with cars is often vented on social media. A Facebook group, The Gurus of Parking and Driving, features photos of cars sprawled across sidewalks, but until Stopxam, there has not been an organized attempt to confront and shame drivers in person.
Georgian drivers are next to no one for picking a fight. The brewing guerrilla war between man and car in Tbilisi may get tense soon.
Transparency International Georgia receives funding from the Open Society Foundation Georgia, part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org receives financing from the Open Society Foundation New York City, a separate part of that network.