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Georgia: Can Property Rights Survive the Digital Age?

Technological innovation is normally associated with progress. But for potentially hundreds of property owners in Georgia, the digitization of land registration records has turned into a nightmare.

A yearlong national investigation by a coalition of non-governmental organizations, headed by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia, has revealed instances of vanishing property titles. In some cases, what was once clearly documented as private property somehow during the digitization process ended up in the state’s hands.

The mysterious changes in land titles seem to be most prevalent in the Black Sea region of Achara and the northwestern alpine region of Svaneti. Both regions, coincidentally, are home to big development projects being pushed by President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration.

While situations vary, including instances in which people were reportedly forced to “gift” their land to the government, the investigation points to a “grave violation” of property rights, said Transparency International lawyer Gia Gvilava. [Editor’s Note: The investigation was funded by the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the Open Society Foundations, a separate part of the Soros network].

The digitization of Georgia’s property registration began in 2007 with assistance provided by the United States Agency for International Development. The initiative aimed in part to boost the country’s reputation as an investment destination. In the World Bank’s 2012 Doing Business survey, Georgia ranked 16th out of 183 economies surveyed in terms of offering a business-friendly economic environment.

By 2009, USAID was touting the digitization project as a success story. Hundreds of Georgians, however, most likely would beg to differ.

Omar Akubardia is among the program’s big critics. In 2007, Akubardia, impressed by Georgia’s reform credentials, decided to return home from Russia and invest $160,000 in a 47.92-hectare shoreline property in a Black Sea village called Anaklia. “We liked the direction the government was going,” recalled Akubardia, who is originally from breakaway Abkhazia, just north of Anaklia. “It was moving toward Europe.”

When, three years later, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced a mega-tourism development project for Anaklia, it seemed to Akubardia like another step in the right direction. Hotel investors were promised a 15-year tax holiday, while Saakashvili pushed for infrastructure improvements ranging from an airport to a new seaport. Akubardia was ready to cash in.

But then he got a nasty surprise.

In 2010, he attempted to re-register his Anaklia property in the country’s new digital database only to find that his land title -- though once legally documented on paper form with maps and a cadastral code – no longer existed in the property registry.

Without his knowledge, he claims, the registration code for his land was changed and a new GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) address was assigned. Subsequently, the government sold the land plot in 2009 to a private company charged with building Anaklia’s new port.

Transparency International’s Gvilava faults the government for flaws in the system. Older paper registrations appear not to have been uniformly updated into the new system, meaning that those who registered their property before the digital registry started were often simply not included. In effect, their land titles vanished.

Eka Meskhidze, the head of international relations at the National Agency of the Public Registry, challenged the notion that the government has been lax on respecting property rights. The registration process, she noted, includes an exhaustive search through the agency’s old, paper-based archive, as well as the new digital system to ensure property rights are not violated. “If they register it once, for example in the 90s, or before the reform, and it is registered once in the archive, it is not necessary to update it,” Meskhidze said.

Meskhidze was not familiar with Akubardia’s case, but denied that any exceptions would have been made for plots of land desirable to the government, or for any large state-supported development project.

Gvilava acknowledged that the government has tended to respect property rights as it promotes large infrastructure projects, such as the Batumi-Tbilisi railway modernization project. However, he also could point to some questionable cases, including one in 2010, when 271 property owners in the Black Sea village of Gonio lost their land under hazy circumstances.

Georgian Ombudsman Giorgi Tugushi told EurasiaNet.org that while fewer violations of property rights are recorded now than before the advent of the digital registry, the number of reported violations appears to be increasing.

That tendency disturbs Irina Lashkhi, an Open Society Georgia Foundation human rights and good governance program coordinator, who claims that the government and registry “in some cases” are fully aware that a paper title already exists for a piece of property, yet nonetheless re-register it in the electronic database under a different name. In addition to Transparency International Georgia, the other NGOs participating in the digital registry investigation were the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, the Georgian Regional Media Association, and the Green Alternative Association.

The National Agency of the Public Registry’s Meskhidze said that complainants can seek judicial redress in case of an “overlap” between property registered in the electronic database and their paper registration.

Akubardia, however, has exhausted his legal options in Georgia; a process he called “humorous.” Georgian courts, he said, declined to honor his paper property registration. Now, he is looking to another symbol of European standards -- the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France -- for compensation.

“I still have hope,” he said, with a shrug.

Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.

Georgia: Can Property Rights Survive the Digital Age?

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