On March 9, the joint sitting of the Parliamentary Committees on Sectoral Economy and Environment was discussed for almost 6 hours on the expediency of building the Namakhvani Cascade. In response to the petition submitted to the Parliament of Georgia by 10,135 citizens. According to the petition, the construction of the Oni and Namakhvani cascades poses a threat not only to the Rioni gorge and nature, but also to the population of Racha, Lechkhumi and Kutaisi. The Ministers of Economy and Environment had reports on this issue in the Parliament. How the ministers’ hearing went and how convincing their arguments turned out for the public gathered at the meeting, which included the “guards” of the Rioni Valley and representatives of civil society. We offer an interview with the Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights Education and Monitoring, With Lina Ghvinianidze.
Was the joint meeting of the committees valuable to the community, including the activists who came from Rioni Valley especially for this meeting?
This committee hearing was delayed. Because this is the first attempt to hold members of the Georgian government accountable to the public and parliament. Namakhvani project, this whole process is accompanied by very strict confidentiality. All the documents, all the processes, all the decisions were closed, it was not open and it took a lot of effort, tens of thousands of people and a very large group of people overnight for four months to start this kind of communication with the Georgian government and at least try to respond. Questions.Thus the meeting in Parliament was a compulsion for the government to make their completely closed decisions open to the public.
To what extent have activists and other stakeholders achieved this goal?
From what we have seen, it was not a meaningful reasoning, but simply a re-fixation of positions and an indication that this demand for openness was met even by Mr., although it is a formal satisfaction. The main problem of this committee was that we could not discuss any of the questions in depth, neither technically, procedurally, and on the other hand we could not get a single convincing argument.
As for the publication of documentation, have you succeeded in this direction?
No documents were submitted to the committee. That is, the documents that became known about a month ago, this is basically an agreement, an agreement between the government and the company “Enka”, became known through the efforts of investigative journalists. And also an ordinance on the transfer of land rights, which became known a little earlier. This was one of the main issues in the discussion. However, we also requested the submission of such important documents, which have been closed so far. This is the conclusion of the Ministry of Finance on fiscal expenditures, this is the conclusion of the Ministry of Justice and the most important document, this is the cost-benefit document that the government should have had before concluding this agreement. It is an essentially well-documented analysis that weighs all the risks, all the benefits, all the threats, everything, and ultimately shapes the position of the government. These are the three most important documents that are still closed and yesterday we tried very hard to get the answers and ask for its publicity, however we could not get any answers from the Minister of Economy when these documents will be public. Thus yesterday’s meeting did not create an argument based on a new study or any document from the government.
What follow-up can this process then lead to?
Probably it will depend on the position of the government at the meeting to be held on Friday, which will be announced in Kutaisi. However I do not have high expectations for this meeting. We saw two things clearly yesterday – we saw one is that the government is only talking about small shortcomings, it is not actually acknowledging the substantive problems that exist with this project. Yesterday the Minister of Economy said very clearly that he was not going to make any substantial changes to this project. We see that they are ready to make small changes, however small changes will not be what will correct the failures that the Namakhvani HPP project has. Once again we have to say that this is the hardest agreement, devoted to the interests of the state, this is the hardest agreement with high and indefinite fiscal risks, which is impossible even to fully calculate and predict how many financial risks the state has signed. Thus, this is a fundamentally wrong project, closed, with very heavy burdens and concessions of state interests. Thus, we tried to get answers from the Minister of Economy on these issues yesterday, but we did not receive any answer.
What do you mean by small concessions?
For example, yesterday, for the first time, the Minister of Economy clearly acknowledged that the company has not made a commitment to employ Georgian citizens. And this is a weak agreement between the government and the company. Yesterday, the Minister of Economy also said that social protection measures are also not mandatory for “Enka”. He named two issues where the government could review and negotiate between Enka to make some changes to the agreement or the communication between them. However, naturally these are not essential and the main issues or the only issue that we and the groups involved in this process raise. Thus this attitude that small changes may be made, but fundamentally this project cannot be revised, is completely misguided by the attitudes, the demands, the arguments that stand on our side here and which the Ministry of Economy cannot respond to.
The Minister of Economy used three types of arguments when criticizing his opponents. Among them, he mentioned the generally negative attitude towards “hydropower plants” and homophobic and xenophobic attitudes towards foreign investors. How much did you expect such assessments from him?
Speaking of which, his rhetoric was light to say weird and heavy. These people are very clearly questioning a particular HPP, which is a project of Namakhvani HPPs, and there are many important arguments behind this questioning. The rhetoric of the Minister of Economy was heavy, and by that I mean also the long introduction to xenophobia and homophobia. Perhaps homophobia has been misused by him and the Minister of Economy should understand the names of such important social problems exactly as homophobia and xenophobia. We must clearly say that in a certain part of the society there are really xenophobic attitudes, initiated and raised in connection with this project, and this is related to the country of origin of the investor, of course this is a serious problem, this is a general problem in our country and in some groups , However, the main issue is what the state is doing. Why could this ground even be a breeding ground for xenophobic sentiments, and the state should oppose such sentiments not what it opposes, but openness, transparency, including the transparency of the agreement including the transparency of the ordinance on the transfer of land rights and so on. And naturally, this closure has also made a huge contribution to creating such sentiments in certain groups of the society, the state should look for the problem in itself, how it helped to stir it up and what it can do now to make the process even stronger.
Against this background, how do you think the protest will take place on March 14?
It naturally depends on the population of the Rioni Valley, the movement that is fighting to save the Rioni Valley. I think it became clear to them today that the Georgian government, in the form of the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Environment, is not going to back down in principle. Today their rhetoric was quite harsh, rude, completely incompatible with their current position. We saw a very rigid tone with a very confident tone that this project should be implemented. I think it became clear to the Rioni Valley movement and their supporters today that the Georgian government is not going to take into account the main demands of this group, so I expect that this action will be very crowded and of very important content.