Public Space and Private Interest
27 June, 2013
On Saturday, I walked from Rustaveli down Gia Chanturia Street with an international journalist to Alexandres Park. There were so many cars parked on the sidewalk above the Literature Museum, we had to walk in the street. When we arrived in the park and sat on a bench to talk, two security police came by and said interviews are forbidden unless we have approval. It all served to show me once again how vulnerable we are when in public space
and how vulnerable public space is in Georgia.
For some reason, probably having to do with the residue of Soviet mentality, there is a feeling that people in a park can be told what to do and what not to do, with no control on that.
When I asked the security police what law was being violated, they said what they always say, they don't know but that their boss told them that was the rule. By the way, they couldn't remember the name of their boss. Representatives of the state seem to think that they somehow own public space. Just as people have the right to ask visitors to take their shoes off when somebody comes into their house, if the head of the security police decides to make a rule that people can't "give an interview" in the park without permission, there isn't really anything to stop him. The police said it was because there was a camera. I asked if a parent can film a child. They said yes. I asked if the cameraman had been my father could he have recorded me without permission? The situation was very stupid.

And it is the same with sidewalks. Who looks after them? Cars park on sidewalks and nobody in the government cares. Supposedly tickets could be given out but the tickets don't seem to be expensive enough or given out enough to deter people from blocking people from walking by storing their cars there. There is also quite a bit of building that goes on on sidewalks. Very often when a new building is put up, they in one way or another encroach on the public space on the sidewalk and nobody worries about it.

The same is true of public parks and nature reserves. It is common for trees to be cut down or several other private uses of public space to take place, mainly because even if the law is clear, there is nobody really to pay attention and those who have oversight of these places don't have the ability or interest to exercise that oversight.

So what is this Soviet mentality? To me it is the mentality that the state not only has the right to control anything and the responsibility to control everything but that at the same time individuals don't have much responsibility, for the simple reason that the state is supposed to take care of everything. I think of that each time I see senior officials break the law by parking their giant cars with dark windows illegally on the sidewalk, or when some nameless boss in the security police makes up some stupid rule for "his" park.

Of course, at times this goes beyond mentality into pure corruption. And it happens all the time. Mushtaidi Park is one of the most famous examples of public space being sacrificed for private interest but there are countless others. This was a direct result of officials thinking that they in one way or another "own" a park even to the point of giving it to a friend.

What we need is a Public Spaces Ombudsman. This should be a person whose specific task is to protect public spaces, and to look into violations of public space by anybody, individuals, business or the state itself. Public space needs to be clearly defined as space that is not privately owned. Parks, sidewalks, and other areas that the public owns and has the right to use. The abuse of public spaces by private individuals including by representatives of the state is reaching epidemic proportions in Georgia. This is mainly a problem for Georgia's citizens, but is also often commented on by international visitors and damages Georgia's international reputation.

So a recommendation for journalists. When you need to do an interview, the weather is lovely, do it in a park and don't ask for permission. And for anybody who has a camera or tape recorder or a smart phone, take the time to interview a friend in the park. And for those of us who use sidewalks (everybody), carry a pen and paper, and the next time you pass a car parked on the sidewalk, write them a polite note asking them not to do that, and put it under their windshield wipers. Because that's really all we can do until somebody in the government decides to start protecting our rights to public space.