Hell in a Cell

Tbilisi is notorious for its lack of decent budget accommodation. Backpackers are usually forced to shell out for an overpriced two-star, or cram themselves in some flea-ridden guesthouse. But for a few short weeks this spring you could have stayed on the regal Rustaveli Avenue — the best address in town — for absolutely free. In fact, if you were lucky, you might even have been paid for the privilege. Admittedly, the facilities were basic: you’d have had to stay in a prison cell.
Hell in a Cell
Fake prison cells mushroomed on Rustaveli and nearby streets in April. They were part of an ongoing opposition protest campaign to force the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili. The cells are meant to represent the prison that Georgia has allegedly become under his leadership. Conveniently, they also proved to be very effective road blocks, allowing the opposition to lock down the centre of town even when the number of demonstrators had dwindled to a few hundred. Faced with a shortage of protesters to fill the cells, opposition parties allegedly began to offer up to 50 lari (about USD 30) a night to anyone who would set up camp in one. The move was deliberately provocative: the opposition had hoped that Saakashvili would become apoplectic with rage, and send his goons to break up the rally, as he did on November 7, 2007. Such a turn of events would have created public outrage, international condemnation, and an untenable situation for Saakashvili.

But it was not to be. Saakashvili may be many things, but a complete dupe he is not. His policy of masterly indifference meant that the city of cells quickly turned from a brave symbol of defiance to a grubby shantytown, which only served to annoy local residents and alienate taxi drivers.

The increasingly desperate protests have, according to at least one (government sponsored) poll, actually increased Saakashvili’s approval rating. As if this wasn’t dispiriting enough, tropical downpours followed by a mini heat wave left the centre of the city rubbish-strewn and smelly.  With the city authorities refusing to clean the area or provide toilets, the romance of urban camping was rather diminished, and more and more of the cells were abandoned by their inmates.

Hell in a Cell

Time Off for Good Behavior

Now just a few dozen dilapidated cells remain. The ever-fracturing opposition insist that they are moving onto a new phase in their protest actions, and that the cells served their purpose. They were certainly successful as an exercise in temporary pedestrianization of central Tbilisi, but as a form of protest they left much to be desired. Backpackers be warned, it’s back to the overpriced guesthouse.

William Dunbar is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. He first visited the Caucasus in 2003, conducting fieldwork for a dissertation on identity and history for Cambridge University. Aft ...read more

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