The risk of landslides on Georgia's main highway has disrupted cross-country traffic and threatens to draw public fury amid approaching holidays.
Authorities had to close the road connecting Georgia's east to its west on March 30 after detecting a progressive landslide process near the road. A detour road has struggled to cope with the excess traffic, with jams being reported.
And wth Easter celebrations approaching, the government has very little time to restore the flow of traffic and the public's trust in its big infrastructure projects.
"Following observations by experts and upon their recommendation, we made a decision to restrict car traffic," Giorgi Tsereteli, head of Georgia's Roads Department, told reporters on April 3.
According to the Roads Department, the progressing landslide process was detected after the winter snow melted, roughly 200 meters from the main road, at the Rikoti pass, which is the linking point between the country's eastern and western halves. Widening cracks and advancing landslide trends have been observed on the slope. So far there has been a minor rockfall but no serious incidents reported.
Far worse scenarios are feared, however, should the landmass advance downhill.
The department says it has engaged groups of local and international experts to study the trend and give a more precise outlook. For the time being, the road remains closed, and the traffic is diverted to an alternative highway which reportedly faces significant jams due to the ongoing rehabilitation works in a six kilometer-long section. Freight vehicles are still allowed to use the main road.
But the chaos and ensuing discontent can be expected to grow if the usual traffic is not restored in a week's time: On April 14-17, Georgia celebrates Orthodox Easter, a major holiday when many people leave Tbilisi to celebrate with families and relatives around the country.
Easter celebrations already tend to cause heavy traffic on the highway, and now it is feared that many will be either trapped on paralyzed roads or have their travel thwarted altogether.
The main highway, known also as Tbilisi-Senaki-Leselidze, not only connects Georgia's east and west. It also has the potential to become a major link between Europe and Asia.
Its most challenging section is the Rikoti Pass, which traverses the difficult mountainous terrain of the watershed Likhi Range. The many turns and tunnels in the area make driving risky and stressful, with frequent need but little space for faster cars to overtake the slow-moving international freight trucks.
That section has been experiencing disruptions for a while now due to the intense and complex construction works of an East-West highway megaproject that has been underway, section-by-section, for over a decade and is expected to significantly shorten trips and facilitate local and international travel from Tbilisi to the Black Sea.
The Rikoti Pass section of the new highway -- which largely traces the same route as the old road -- is due to be completed this year. Various experts and business circles have identified this work as one of the remaining infrastructural challenges for Georgia to take advantage of the Middle Corridor, a multimodal route that connects European countries to Central Asia -- and further to China -- while bypassing Russia.
The route drew more interest, and more trucks queued at Georgian borders, after Russia invaded Ukraine and Moscow was further isolated from the Western world.
But alongside their ambitions for a greater role in global trade, Georgia's authorities are faced with the challenge of gaining the public's trust in big infrastructure projects, particularly as some have pointed at ongoing construction works as a possible cause of the landslide risk to the old road.
"From what we can see, such a thing wouldn't have happened if proper studies had been conducted and the [road construction] project had been prepared accordingly," Zurab Javakhishvili, professor in Geophysics at Georgia's Ilia State University, told Mtavari TV, pointing at the need to ensure safety during such infrastructure projects.
The current problem was preceded by two similar but not directly related incidents: In February, flooding carried a pier of a newly built bridge onto the same highway to the west of Rikoti. In mid-March, a landslide took place elsewhere in the Rikoti Pass causing damage to a newly built tunnel on the new roadway under construction.
Some in the political opposition attributed the problem to negligence and corruption and called for government accountability.
But the authorities say the construction project is sound, and emphasize that the landslide process is developing in the vicinity of the old road, not the one under construction.
"The construction project of the Rikoti sections was prepared by leading American, Italian, Korean, and Turkish drafting companies and approved by specialists hired by the international financial institutions" that fund and supervise the project, the Roads Department said in an April 5 release.
In a separate interview with Palitra TV, Levan Kupatashvili, the deputy head of the Roads Department, said it might be an older, isolated landslide process. According to the official, the relevant slope has not been "touched" by the new road's construction, and even if a new tunnel were built nearby, that construction was done without drilling or dynamite.
Kupatashvili also argued that the earlier landslide incident on the new road occurred as the reinforcement works that should have prevented it were still underway.
The Roads Department says the prospects for reopening the road will depend on the findings of ongoing studies expected to be completed in the coming days.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.