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August 21, 2013

Projects Stall As Georgia's Saakashvili Prepares to Step Down

by James Brooke

When Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, inaugurated beach hotels in Anaklia two years ago, this resort town was to become the pearl of the Black Sea.

He envisioned a string of five-star hotels, jazz festivals, a water park, and an international airport. Infected by his enthusiasm, Georgian singer Pikria Mamporia composed a music video called: “I Love Anaklia.”

A few kilometers down the coast, work started on Lazika, an ambitious new deepwater port and a city designed to be home to a half-million people.

On one of many press tours to Anaklia, the home region of his ancestors, Saakashvili told reporters that he so loved the Black Sea resort that after he dies, he wants his ashes sprinkled there.

But political power is changing hands in Georgia, and now the president’s pet project is sliding into stagnation.

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Cows wander on what was to be the access highway. Anaklia’s planned yacht harbor is silted up. Tourist observation towers have not opened. Weeds surround the concrete shell of what was to be a government-financed hotel built in the shape of an egg.

Two summers after President Saakashvili opened the water park, VOA found it closed on a recent summer Sunday.

Sofia, a Georgian tourist, hung out with her friends in front of the shuttered water park.

"We came to Anaklia to swim and enjoy the weather," she said. "The weather changed on us a bit, so we wanted to go to the water park.  We did not expect the water park to be closed on a Sunday."

More than the weather changed. The politics changed. Last October, President Saakashvili lost elections.

This October, he steps down, ending nearly a decade in power.

Georgia’s new political strongman, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a pragmatic businessman.

“It's our priority to develop those sectors and borderline regions, but we should not do it by spending too much and with unwise planning," the prime minister said, referring to Anaklia's location just across a cease-fire line with Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region. " We should evaluate and develop in a professional manner and not just on one man's opinion."

Now the deepwater port project also looks like a failed dream of the outgoing government.

Giorgi Vashadze worked on the port and resort projects, both in President Saakashvili’s home region.

“Unfortunately the current government’s position is that they want to shut down, to close everything that was linked with previous government," said Vashadze, a member of parliament for Mr. Saakashvili's United National Movement. "I don’t think this good for government that wants well for this country.”

At the Hotel Anaklia, director Shorena Uchaneishvili says the new government continues to invest in the resort.

"We don't feel that big of a difference here actually," she said, noting that her hotel is largely full this summer. "There are already plans for the coming year to develop the current infrastructure, like filtering and cleaning the local river and expanding the beach area," she added.

But with muddy river water polluting beaches and the water park closed, the major attraction is sunbathing.

Ladislav Holko came here from Slovakia.

"I think the place has potential, but it's empty, it's too empty," he said as he paused on the resort's 540-meter pedestrian bridge. "So the problem is how to attract people to come here and how to keep them here."

As long as Anaklia remains an orphan of the new government, the striking, new Spanish-designed bridge will remain a bridge to nowhere.
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