Georgia sees glass parliament as symbol of future
- 10 June 2012
- From the section Europe
An enormous glass bubble has sprung up in a field in the middle of Georgia.
Looking like some sort of 1960s sci-fi spaceship, a 40 metre-high domed eye, with a huge concrete eyelid, stares out blankly.
This is Georgia's new parliament building.
It's the pet project of the country's architecture-enthusiast president, Mikhail Saakashvili.
It's located hundreds of kilometres from the capital Tbilisi, in the town of Kutaisi, and MPs will move here after October's parliamentary elections.
The huge glass dome will contain split-level gardens and glass-fronted offices. Voters should be able to see right in.
At its heart, sunlight streams into a white semi-circular parliamentary chamber, made entirely of natural wood.
All the glass is meant to symbolise democratic openness and transparency in a country, which until 1991, was part of the Soviet Union.
"Just like the new Georgia, this building is modern, impressive and transparent. And just like the new Georgia, this building represents equality and accessibility for every member of our society," proclaimed President Saakashvili in a recent speech to MPs in the newly finished parliamentary chamber.
The bright space-aged curves are very different to the old Soviet-era parliament building in Tbilisi.
Built while Joseph Stalin ruled the USSR, it's an intimidating stone-pillared fortress, with few windows, and lots of locked gates.
Originally the stonework was engraved with Soviet stars and hammer-and-sickle emblems - that is until they were quietly knocked off by the authorities.
Many members of Georgia's fervently West-leaning government have tended to regard this hulking Soviet-era relic, which looms over Tbilisi's central boulevard, as a bit of an embarrassment.
The Regional Development and Infrastructure Minister, Ramaz Nikolaishvili, says the new parliament is a sign that Georgia is shaking off its communist past.
"For a long time in our country, during the Soviet era, square ugly communist blocks were built," he said during a tour of the new parliament building.
"We want to change that, and build other sorts of buildings. We don't want our children's taste to be ruined by communist architecture. We want beautiful buildings and we want the next generation to grow up with good taste. This will help them live in a better and more dignified way."
For local people in Kutaisi, the benefits of having the parliament here are much more concrete.
This was once a thriving industrial town. But the collapse of the former Soviet Union 20 years ago changed all that. Now the factories are decaying husks, and unemployment is high.
Moving the parliament here is all part of the Georgian government's plans to decentralise power away from the capital - and boost local economies.
The new jobs, which will come as government workers move here, are very welcome.
Davit Chikovani, the owner of a local restaurant, says until now people here have felt neglected because all the attention and money usually goes to Tbilisi.
"It'll really make a difference because we'll get much more business. Actually we're now planning to renovate the restaurant, and change the design to cater for all these new customers. We're really going to see a big increase in our profits."
The government is building a motorway to connect the new parliament with the capital. But that won't be ready for another couple of years.
Until then you have to use a narrow winding unlit mountain road. The journey usually takes about three hours.
It's the only connecting main road between the eastern and western halves of the country. So it can often take much longer because of heavy traffic, slow trucks or snow.
The new parliament is not just hard to get to. It's also far away from the political debate, say critics.
Back in Tbilisi, a couple of hundred activists stage a demonstration on the steps of the old parliament in support of civil rights. Since Soviet days, this has been the traditional place to protest in Georgia.
Most government critics are in the capital. So activists say, moving the parliament away, makes it hard to call the government to account.
"The parliament will be weaker, the parliament will be less accessible and there will be no participation of the general public," says protest leader Tamar Gurchiani.
"Sometimes I think they just hate our past. They want to hide everything that belongs to our past. They want to build a new country and I'm just wondering for whom - because the people of Georgia don't participate. They just don't ask us anything."
Total cost unclear
Many Georgians also worry about the cost.
Georgia's finance ministry wasn't able to immediately provide the BBC with an estimate for how much has been spent on the building so far.
But according to a statement given to Georgian press by the finance minister, construction to date has cost $83m. There are no estimates yet publicly available about how much the entire project will cost in total.
The official unemployment rate is 15%. But many analysts estimate that the real figure is at least double that. And over 1.5 million Georgians are registered with state social service agencies as living in poverty.
So many wonder whether cutting-edge architecture and relocating the entire parliament is really the top priority right now.
But at Independence Day celebrations in May, as Georgia's emotional national anthem is sung for the first time in front of the gleaming glass dome, it's hard not to be impressed.
Just over a decade ago, Georgia was almost a failed state, struggling to provide its people with water and electricity. And during the 1990s the country was racked by crime, corruption and civil war.
So for many Georgians, building this shining new parliament, is a moving symbol of how the country is also building itself.