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Occupation of Racha Forests [Journalistic Investigation]

The Russian law will suppress independent media and civil society organizations in Georgia, as it happened in Putin's Russia.

When you are oppressed, there will be no one to cover your problem and stand by you.

Mtis Ambebi will resist the Russian intention of the Georgian Dream to the end!

Friday, 08 September 2023 13:12 hits 367 times

The people of Racha found out about this unbelievable news a year ago. A third of Racha was handed over for half a century to an affiliate of Putin’s inner circle, Davit Khidasheli. 

The forests around Ambrolauri, Oni, Nikortsminda, Uravi, Mravaldzali, Shkmeri, Utsera, Chiora, Ghebi, Glola, Pipileti, Tsedisi, Iri, and 70 other villages of Racha ended up under the control of one man.

Yevtushenkov’s friend and sidekick

 

Davit Khidasheli – Vice President of the Russian Corporation SISTEMA from 2007-2014. SISTEMA is a large conglomerate that supported the annexation of Crimea. The company owns a Russian mobile television systems company, a timber enterprise, a network of clinics, and more. It also owns the company Kronshtadt, which has been producing military drones since 2021 and serves the Ministry of Defense of Russia.

SISTEMA is owned by Vladimir Yevtushenkov – sanctioned by Great Britain, Australia, Ukraine, and New Zealand since 2022. Yevtushenkov is a part of Putin’s closest inner circle.

On the day of the start of the war in Ukraine, February 24, 2022, when Putin met with the oligarchs, Yevtushenkov sat in the first row, third seat. davit Khidasheli is his friend and legman.

“Yes, Vladimir Yevtushenkov is my friend, whom I’ve known for 30 years,” confirms Khidasheli. He currently heads the Board of Directors of Intracom Telecom Solutions. This company is also interlinked with SISTEMA.

Based on secret recordings published a year ago, Khidasheli was a messenger between Yevtushenkov and Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili: Hello Valodia.

Yevtushenkov: Boryenka, hello dear.

Ivanishvili: I’m glad to hear your voice.

Yevtushenkov: Borya… yes, yes… I’m also glad.

Ivanishvili: The situation isn’t encouraging, but we have to endure, what are you going to do?

Yevtushenkov: Yes. Life has beaten us so much that it taught us to persevere. Borya, I have an idea that I wanted… Davit will bring it to you. And you look into it…

Ivanishvili: yes, yes!

Yevtushenkov: Uzdenov…regarding grain. This should be interesting to you too and others, and if you get involved, I will proceed with this.

Ivanishvili; okay. With davit? Will he call?

Yevtushenkov: No, Ali is sitting in front of me. He and davit will arrive there…

Ivanishvili: Okay, I will meet them here.

Yevtushenkov and Khidasheli partially confirmed the authenticity of the tape.

“This is the first time that a unique forest is being assumed by the Russian context.

Some will say that Khidasheli is a Georgian businessman, but it has been clearly revealed, unfortunately, that Khidasheli is a Russian businessman.

He was also involved in the Gareji case and was hailed as a hero for bringing some basic maps that are readily available everywhere, well, there are many such maps in my room. This is now he was introduced to Georgia, hyped up as a national hero and passed off as a Georgian businessman, when he has nothing in common with Georgia, except his surname,” says politician and Former State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zakareishvili.

The Georgian Dream election campaign #GarejiisGeorgia in 2020 was based on the “davit Gareji Case”. The government arrested the former members of the State Border Delimitation and Demarcation Commission, Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilichova. They argued that, on the orders of the previous government, the section of the border adjacent to davit Gareji was agreed upon to the detriment of the interests of Georgia, due to which part of the Gareji monument and monastery complex ended up on the side of Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili accused the arrested cartographers of treason and said that the National Movement, which handed over territories to another country and committed an anti-national crime, should be abolished.

 

Ivanishvili’s gratitude

The map on which the Prosecutor's Office of Georgia based its entire case was brought from Russia by davit Khidasheli. The main contributor to the case was thanked by Ivanishvili for this merit.

“I have to thank davit Khidasheli. Dato Khidasheli, who obtained these maps, spent a lot of his own funds, and besides, he spends a lot of his capital on the country. This man is no less a philanthropist than I am, no less a patriot, and has no less contribution to the country. I think what he did for the country is nothing short of true heroism. He saved us from conflict with our neighbor and from humiliation, given that our cultural monument was effectively being cut in half. He did this sincerely, selflessly, and using his own resources. I think he is a true hero, a true patriot, and a very likable person. I personally thanked him a lot, and I think that I am indebted to that man, he is a truly great man and a great person.”

Two weeks after this interview, davit Khidasheli was officially “thanked” – the government agreed to transfer 104,712 hectares of forest to him for a period of 49 years.

“We are one forgotten village. No one can go up the mountains, Russia has already taken possession of the mowing pastures, and now they want to take over this region as well? Who was the chief that signed off on this?” asked a woman from Tsedisi.

That “chief” was Giorgi Gakharia. Exactly 17 days after Ivanishvili’s televised thank you speech, on January 29, 2021, the then-prime minister of the oligarch signed the 134th decree of the government, which approved the license conditions tailored exclusively for Khidasheli’s company.

A woman from Tsedisi: “What gave them the right to sell our forests?”

Aleko Sardanashvili, a farmer from Racha: “I don’t want to live in constant danger, and I am saying this because Racha was also bombed in 2008. Considering what Russia is doing in Ukraine right now, handing over land to Russia like this creates a military threat to our country. I don’t want forests around me to go into the ownership of a hostile state for half a century.”

Paata Zakareishvili draws a parallel with Russia's appropriation of Bichvinta forests in occupied Abkhazia – “Bichvinta was state-owned, soviet country houses. These buildings and yards belong to Russia, of course, illegally. Abkhazians put up with this. Now Russia wants to appropriate the entire forests of Bichvinta around it. Abkhazians are strictly against it. There, too, they are discussing a 50-year transfer of ownership.”

Something that even the de facto government in service of Russia in occupied Abkhazia opposes, the central government of Georgia under the leadership of Irakli Garibashvili is accepting with full enthusiasm in allowing the occupation of Racha’s forests.

“Whether he has it for 49 years or 50, once he takes over this forest, it’s his. The fact that this man is close to Russia makes it worse.

Russia is now invading in a cunning way. It is pretending to be peaceful, but when they move the border overnight and, in the morning, they are closer this is a violation and occupation, isn’t it?

If Russia is allowed to infiltrate without even having to use force and occupy our territories at our invitation, of course, we will fall under their influence. Georgia fought for over 30 years to gain independence. We don’t want to be under the influence of Russia,” the surroundings of the village where Mediko Maisuradze’s family lives were bombed in August 2008. Shell fragments killed their fellow villager. Exactly one year later, two other neighbors, a father and son who went out to mow, were attacked by Russian soldiers, tied up, and their bulls were stolen. Tsedisi is a village adjacent to the occupation line, and Russian control over the surrounding forests is doubly dangerous.

The forests on both sides of the occupation line, up to the Caucasus range, have been handed over to davit Khidasheli by the new decision, and they are directly adjacent to the forest massif already occupied by Russia in the Tskhinvali region.

Paata Zakareishvili: “You can dress it up all you want, this is very disturbing. You are alienating the land, and on whom? On Russia.

The entire territory of the occupied Tskhinvali region already belongs to Russia, and now almost half of Racha, as well. The entire central heart of northern Georgia is already under Russian control.”

 

Peasants' ancestral plots within Khidasheli's “occupational border”

The transition of the Racha forests under Russian control not only poses a danger to national security but has already become a threat to the private property of the Racha residents.

Utsera is located along the narrow valley of the river Rioni. Within Racha’s generally sparse land, this is an exceptionally small village. The locals have a small meadow by the forest designated for farming. The plots are so small that they are not even divided by a fence, otherwise, it would be difficult for the tractor to turn.

Irma Rekhviashvili owns at most 380 square meters of land. The other half of the plot belongs to her neighbor – “I have been living in Utsera for 25 years. I grow potatoes and beans here. Before me, my husband’s parents plowed and worked here.”

Utsera residents officially registered these parental plots as private property without any problems.

One month after the transfer of the forests to Khidasheli, the private property of the peasants was seized.

The government accuses 224 citizens in the Racha region of appropriating plots of land through fraud. The investigation has been ongoing for a year. However, the prosecutor’s office has not interrogated a single Utsera resident for involvement in the alleged crime, let alone proved fraud or charged anyone. Despite this, the right to private property of the people of Utsera has been limited for more than a year. All seized land plots fall within the forest area transferred to Khidasheli.

In Utsera, this is the only available area convenient for construction and attractive for the tourism business. Khidasheli’s declared utilization plans clearly state that he intends to arrange tourist infrastructure.

“I am also a human being, I need means to exist. This plot is the only thing I have and they want to take it away. I submitted the documents last year and they told me I crossed into the forestry area. I’ve been growing potatoes and beans in this field for 35 years. A neighbor has land registered over there, and another one over here, how is it a forestry area? Now they are disputing their land as well,” Lili Metreveli and other villagers, who tried to register their ancestral plots as private property after the transferring of forests to Khidasheli, were denied.

The charges are filed against not just the peasants, but also against the state officials - they are accused of forgery by an official as if the plots registered to peasants did not belong to them.

Romiko Kafianidze worked in Oni's land management department for many years, until 2004. He confirms that influential persons have gotten interested in these plots before, but they could not take them away from the people: “People of Utsera used these plots even before the formation of Soviet collective farming. Then, during the Soviet era, there was a farm there. The farm needed space. When the collective farms were disbanded, these people came back. In fact, the owners took back their land. I don't know why they are disputing it. Who wants to get a hold of that territory now?”

 

Decision without involving the public and forgery by the Oni mayor

The government of Georgia made this decision in secret from the public. A year ago, Mountain Stories filed a lawsuit to obtain restricted information. As of now, the government has still not provided us with a significant part of the documents, which, by law, are public.

Evidence obtained partially as a result of the dispute indicates that this decision was agreed with the population. We visited more than 30 villages of Racha and both villages of Kvemo Svaneti, which are now bordered by Khidasheli forests and could not find a single person who was asked to weigh in.

Before deciding on the transfer of forests to HG Kapra Kaukasika LLC, which is owned by Davit Khidasheli, The Ministry of Environmental Protection asked the municipalities of Lentekhi, Ambrolauri, and Oni to state their positions in writing.

Oni Mayor promptly responded:

“The City Hall informed the population living in the respective villages of the municipality through Mayor’s representatives. Based on the study of the presented information, the City Hall agrees to declare an auction for the issuing of a special hunting farm license for the period of 49 years.”

Mountain Stories requested the complete materials of the proceedings from Oni City Hall in writing in order to determine what the mayor’s official approval was based on. Not a single document of the City Hall was found, which would prove that the Mayor’s “representatives” were really given such a task, that the meetings with the population were actually held, or that anyone studied the feedback.

Four months after signing the agreement, Oni Mayor Emzar Sabanadze was appointed as the director of Khidasheli's company, HG Kapra Kaukasika, and in the first 7 months, received 32,000 GEL in salary.

Emzar Sabanadze, who was the father of the First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, was not held accountable for forgery, as if he managed to inform the population through his representatives and received their consent.

Nodar Gobejishvili, Ghebi village trustee [the Mayor’s representative]: “We never held any talks about the transfer of forests. I never gave my consent to anyone.”

Paata Japaridze, Parakheti village trustee: It doesn’t concern my territory.

Mountain Stories: It doesn’t? Which villages are included in the Parakheti community?

Trustee: Parakheti, Chibrevi, Shardometi, Seva, Akhali Chordi.

Mountain Stories: Yes, forests around all those villages have been transferred to Khidasheli.

Trustee: I don’t know about that.

Mountain Stories: Did anyone task you with informing the population, gauging their opinion, and then relaying it to the mayor?

Trustee: No, definitely not. No one asked me and I didn’t ask anything to the population.

The first deputy mayor of Oni stumbled upon our meeting with the trustees.

“You are spreading disinformation and misleading the people,” Deputy Mayor Giorgi Nodarishvili first claimed that Racha forests haven’t been transferred to anyone. After we pointed to the specific decisions made by the government, he claimed he was not familiar with the issue. When we showed him the documents, the former State Security Service employee and current First Deputy Mayor of Oni promised us he would look into the matter of on what basis did the Oni City Hall give consent to the handover of one-third of Racha to the Russian businessman.

Ambrolauri’s mayor responded to the inquiry of the Ministry of Environmental Protection with two separate letters. The first one reads:

“The municipality considers it necessary to communicate more with the local population, to what extent their interests will be taken into account, both in terms of environmental protection and employment, etc. Only after that will the municipality consider it appropriate to discuss this matter further.”

In four months, without the Ministry of Environmental Protection having officially addressed Ambrolauri City Hall again, the mayor changed his tune and followed up with a second letter:

“We inform you that the municipality is not opposed to the implementation of the mentioned project, which will contribute to the inflow of investments and the creation of jobs, taking into account the interests of the population of the municipality.”

We asked the mayor of Ambrolauri whether the interest of the population was considered – “I agree if there is a discussion and an agreement with the population.” Does this mean consent? Whether the interest of the people was taken into account, you should now ask the person who granted the permission.

- Mountain Stories: Mr. davit, so you did not give consent?

- Davit Mkheidze: Of course, I didn’t. I didn’t, because if the interest of the population was not considered, I was against it. It says that plain and clear in the letter, doesn’t it?

- Mountain Stories: So, did you give consent after all or not?

- Davit Mkheidze: This is a provocative question. It’s written in the letter. Do you speak Georgian? Have you studied grammar in school? Leave me alone.

Citizens demanded a clarification on the Ambrolauri mayor’s inconsistent grammar and cancellation of written consent at an extraordinary session of the City Council. According to the meeting report, the mayor explained that he did not give his consent:

“At the council meeting, they finally determined that the National Environmental Agency made the decision without meetings and consent with the population, and if the population wrote to the City Hall with the request to cancel this decision, the Mayor would send a corresponding letter to the National Environmental Agency.”

Activists from Racha collected signatures, but the mayor of Ambrolauri did not keep his promise.

 

Violations in the transfer of forests to Khidasheli

The forest was handed over to the company of Davit Khidasheli, a Russian businessman of Georgian origin, with a number of procedural violations.

The license was issued without the company even requesting it in its application. Also, none of the statements indicated mandatory information about existing and planned roads, buildings, and infrastructure in the forest area. It is known that the license implies the establishment of a hunting farm. It is not clear from the documents who and how will protect the prey, forest, or people over the 105 thousand hectares.

“We know it's going to be firearm hunting. It is quite dangerous for people to move into this area. It is not clear from the issued license how the LLC is planning to ensure the safety of people. 105 thousand hectares is a very large area for one organization, even the state would struggle with ensuring protection over such a massive area”, says Nino Gujaraidze, executive director of Green Alternative.

The condition of Khidasheli’s license is the reintroduction of hunting species, in particular, noble deer and domba, also known as the European bison, in accordance with the requirements defined by the game management plan.

The conditions of the license contradict Georgian legislation - the red deer is included in the red list of Georgia, which means that hunting it is strictly prohibited, and the European bison is not in the list of species subject to hunting.

On how will it become possible to hunt red-listed animals the National Environmental Agency explains that a breeding ground will be set up on the territory of the hunting farm to proliferate these species.

According to the legislation, the breeding of farm animals requires a separate license, which the Khidasheli company does not have.

Georgia, as a signatory state of the Berne Convention, is obliged to create and protect the so-called emerald network.

The Emerald Network is an international protected area, 6 sites of which are located exactly in the area where the forests were given to Khidasheli for hunting.

This decision directly contradicts the requirements of the European Union, according to which the impact of any activity on or near the Emerald Network must be studied in advance and agreed with the European Commission.

“Nothing of the sort happened. In this case, the Khidasheli company was ordered to conduct a post-facto evaluation in the license conditions, which is a complete violation of the legislation,” Irakli Macharashvili, director of SABUKO (Society for Nature Conservation).

Khidasheli’s long-term attempt to take over this area delayed the creation of Racha National Park for several more years. In the end, the park was created, but not to serve the interests of nature, the country, and the people, but those of the Russian businessman.

The status of the protected area was given to what survived Khidasheli, mainly peaks, passes, and inaccessible places. In this picture, in fact, we see ecological absurdity.

Irakli Macharashvili: “Th borders of the national park should be complete, not fragmented. Most importantly, it should include ecosystems as a whole. Now we have a national park that is fragmented, with areas of mining licenses cut in the middle with more licenses in the pipeline. All rivers are cut off, no rivers are included, which is absurd from the point of view of ecology and protected area planning. Also, for the time being, approximately 7,000 hectares of forests transferred to Khidasheli under the pretext of setting up a hunting farm are in the middle of the national park.”

Creating a relatively large protected area would bring more income to the country. An international donor organization, which has invested many millions in nature conservation, pays 45 USD per hectare, 10 times more than Khidasheli's “tariff” (11 GEL). The budget of Georgia suffered an opportunity cost of several million.

During the Soviet years, arsenic was mined in the forests now transferred to Khidasheli. There are deposits of gold, crystal, ruby ​​, and other precious metals. Tungsten, which is used in military production, has also been detected. To date, there is still the ore left in the closed quarries and it is under Khidasheli's control.

“It’s some kind of a scheme, we all think so. There is a hidden intention behind the transfer of these forests. Deer and bison breeding is just a cover story,” believes VePkhia Gavasheli, a resident of the furthermost borderline village of Ghebi.

The forests of Racha were transferred to the “next-door oligarch” of Putin's with many violations of the law - secretly from the people who use these forests, secretly from environmentalists, community organizations, and the media.

The transfer of tens of thousands of hectares threatens the private property and livelihood of the people of Racha.

This decision violates both national laws and European conventions and creates ecological and historical absurdities - to formalize the control of the occupier in the country by our own will, with our own hands, by our own decision.

Author: Gela Mtivlishvili

Editor of English version: Mikheil Dzebisashvili

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Mountain Stories is an independent online news publication. The website is managed by the Information Centers Network.

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