Book review by David Sichinava

David Sichinava
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In the context of cultural and political geography, the South Caucasus resembles a multi-image carpet that reflects the variety of nations living there and of the local nature. The collection of articles published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation - South Caucasus at a Crossroad: Thorny Realities and Great Expectations - is equally colorful.

The capitals in the South Caucasus play a hypertrophied role in the respective countries. They host a significant part of the populations and educational institutions, politics are made while large business is also done here. What is most important, however, are the voice of their residents, who have the most significant impact on the public, political and civil discourse in the countries. The main axis of this publication is to study the development of civil society, cities and public spaces in the region.

David Losaberidze presents a summary of the specific features of Georgian civil society. According to the author, the role of civil society organisations in Georgia and countries in a transitional period is not uniform as they find it difficult to direct their efforts towards real problems and tend to adjust to the need of donors rather than people. Correspondingly, we are facing a dilemma: Civil society that does not express the interests of citizens is, according to the author, the main problem. The issue of neglected local self-government is also important. The author believes that strengthened self-government will provide the foundations for the replacement of clannish governance with real democracy, which, for its part, is going to make civil society groups based on local interests even more powerful. Losaberidze’s attitude towards various forms of street activism is rather cautious, as he believes that it is too early to say whether they can be successful or not.

The keynote of Lado Vardosanidze's article is the unclear relationship between public space and society in Tbilisi. The author reviews the dynamic of town-planning in Tbilisi with the specific features of the transformation of public spaces. He shows how old public spaces in Tbilisi that were "inclined towards communication" were transformed into so-called single-minded spaces - "non-places", as Marc Augé described them. In the Soviet period, public spaces and residents of cities lost the "feeling of emotional or social connection" with each other. They were permeated with ideology, parades, "shashlik and shows".

During the decline of Communism, public spaces in Tbilisi became arenas of anti-Soviet movements with the decisive vicissitudes of civil war also unfolding there. The activities of the government delivered a decisive blow to these places throughout the years of independence. A struggle for conquering social spaces began. Land plots were divided and sold and legislation was adjusted to the needs of privatisation. The situation did not change after the Rose Revolution either. On the contrary, attacks on public spaces started with a new force. The author concludes that the public should play a decisive role in shaping such spaces.

Zohrab Ismayil writes about the reconstruction of Baku and related problems. The text shows well how governmental policy, business interests, and big finances neglected a fundamental human right  namely, that to property. Since 1878 up until this day, Baku's development has been regulated by six general plans however the reconstruction of the historic part of the city was given little heed in these documents. Since the start of this century, the urban development of Baku received a new impetus first due to large amounts of investments and then due to government orders. The author gives an impressive numbers of demolished buildings and evicted people, noting that the reconstruction of Baku is chaotic and unsystematic. Ismayil eyes in detail problems existing in this sphere, compares the situation with international experiences and asserts that the violations of the right to property are due to major shortcomings in the legislation, with the situation being aggravated by ineffective work of the executive and judiciary branches.

Well-known urbanists and geographers Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore regard the elimination of public spaces, their full control, and transfer to elitist consumers as one of the main features of Neoliberal urban policy.[1] To a certain extent, the article about urban activism in Yerevan written by Arpineh Galfayan echoes the type of economic relations and aforementioned theoretical assumptions. The author describes in detail the characteristic features of the transitional period, noting that free space is not regarded as a value in post-Soviet Yerevan, as it "does not belong to anyone".

In Yerevan like Tbilisi, politicians and business representatives have proved to be most successful in appropriating public spaces. The Neoliberal economic discourse can clearly be seen in the present-day "reconstruction" and development of the central part of Yerevan. Large business representatives have successfully appropriated the historic part of the city. The author notes that urban activism in Armenia is linked to the growth of civil activity. Movements that are aimed at preserving cultural heritage, protecting public spaces and preventing their commercialisation have broadened in the capital city since 2007. The protests they organised to protect Moscow cinema, Mashtots Square and the Teghut forest have been met with a significant response not only within the country, but also abroad. The author believes that such movements can become more effective through education, mobilisation, practice and planning.

The articles under review clearly show the dichotomy between citizens and civil society on the one hand and the state and large businesses on the other regarding the control of public space. However, a new trend is now emerging: Urban activism appears to be linked closer to civil action. Citizens are demanding their right to cities and their resources as well as public spaces.

According to Enri Lefebvre,[2] the right to the city implies citizens' demand for a renovated and transformed urban life. Residents and society, those who create spaces, should have free access to urban resources. As David Harvey pointed out, the right to a city is one of the fundamental human freedoms, but large businesses and ruling circles often disregard it.[3] Citizens have the right to change or preserve the urban space that they themselves create and use.

At the same time, we should not forget Lado Vardosanidze's question: Is there a social and public space without society? This phrase resounds in every other text of the publication and is linked to a more difficult problem: Are transitional societies like those in the South Caucasus able to be genuine societies or just a mechanical unity of humans? Are they able to take care of not only what belongs to them personally, but also what is public? Do they have sufficient force to become transformed and change others in conditions of a complicated historic heritage and uncertain political situation?


[1] Brenner, Neil, and Theodore, Nik. "Cities and the geographies of “actually existing neoliberalism”. Antipode Vol. 34. No.3 (2002): 349-379.

[2] Lefebvre, Henri. Writings on cities. Vol. 63. No. 2. Oxford: Blackwell (1996), p. 158.

[3] Harvey, David. The right to the city. New left review, No. 53. September-October (2008).