Parliament backed on Thursday with 58 votes to 14 a proposal to establish an ad hoc investigative commission of lawmakers to look into recent developments over Sakdrisi, which some archeologists believe is the world’s oldest gold mine.
Launch of gold mining activities at Sakdrisi, a hillock in Bolnisi municipality of Kvemo Kartli region, by gold and copper mining company, RMG, after it received go-ahead from Ministry of Culture, caused outcry from preservationists and opposition parties; it also drew condemnation from the Georgian Orthodox Church and has been disapproved by President Giorgi Margvelashvili as well.
Proposal to launch a parliamentary investigative commission was tabled by opposition Free Democrats (FD) party and was also supported by the UNM parliamentary minority group.
Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition was divided on the issue with lawmakers from the Republican Party and the National Forum in favor of the parliamentary probe.
Senior lawmakers from the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, as well as some other lawmakers from the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group, spoke against of setting up of such commission.
But as the vote results late on Thursday evening showed, they failed to convince many of their colleagues from GD to vote against of the proposal, and FD’s initiative was endorsed.
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Sakdrisi has been in the center of dispute since 2013 when the Ministry of Culture removed it from the list of protected heritage sites, which was then followed by the ministry’s decision in March, 2014 to give permission to RMG to launch open-cast mining at the area. But facing resistance from a group of preservationists, backed by some civil society organizations, including through a court case, RMG was not able up until December 13 to carry out works.
The Culture Ministry’s March 13, 2014 decision was challenged in court by Tbilisi-based legal advocacy Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) and as an interim measure, pending final verdict, court ordered in early June not to carry out any operations at the disputed site.
But on December 12, after hastily going through otherwise lengthy bureaucratic procedures, the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation at the Ministry of Culture took a decision allowing RMG to launch activities at the Sakdrisi mine. The decision was endorsed by Culture Minister Mikheil Giorgadze on the same day and next morning, on December 13, the company carried out couple of blasts at and sent heavy equipment to the site, prompting protest from activists, who have been campaigning against open-cast mine at Sakdrisi.
Since then PM Irakli Garibashvili defended twice the decision of the Culture Ministry and spoke strongly against of Sakdrisi campaigners. His main argument is that halt of operations at Sakdrisi would leave about 3,000 employees of RMG without livelihood. He also argued that economic benefits from gold mining at Sakdrisi should not fall victim to, as the PM put it, “sterile archeological site.”
Sakdrisi campaigners hold regular protest rally since mining activities were launched. RMG employees also rallied outside the government building in Tbilisi on December 23 to back mining operations at Sakdrisi.
Parliamentary opposition parties Free Democrats, led by ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania, and United National Movement (UNM) proposed separately to set up a parliamentary investigative commission. UNM’s proposal also includes draft of a resolution, calling on the government to order suspension of mining activities at Sakdrisi.
On December 25 Parliament discussed FD’s proposal.
FD MP Nino Goguadze, who presented the proposal to lawmakers, said that non-transparent and hurriedly taken decision by the authorities to allow the company carry out mining activities at the heritage site was a “crime” and “violence committed against the society and history.”
Chairman of parliamentary committee for culture and education, GD MP Vano Kiguradze, said that setting up of investigative commission was premature at this point; he said that his committee summoned the Culture Minister Mikheil Giorgadze at a hearing planned for December 29.
“Let’s at first hold such a committee hearing and it will help to find out whether the investigative commission is needed,” said MP Kiguradze, who is from the Georgian-Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party.
GD MP Zurab Tkemaladze from the Industrialists party voiced the similar position in favor of holding a committee hearing on this issue at first; Industrialists faction also had a proposal to set up a group of rapporteurs to look into the issue.
But FD MP Zurab Abashidze responded that holding of a committee hearing in an attempt to address the problem was too little too late.
“It is obvious that there are signs of crime and it has to be investigated… to find out who was behind it and why it happened,” he said. “The committee should have reacted much earlier. I do not think the committee will be able to resolve the issue.”
Many lawmakers from the UNM parliamentary minority group, who spoke during the debate, were saying that going hastily through all the bureaucratic procedures in a course of one day to give go-ahead to RMG would not have been possible without instructions from ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, who, according to UNM, might have business interests in gold mining. UNM MPs were also saying that parliamentary probe may substantiate this allegation.
MP Gia Volski, who chairs GDDG’s parliamentary faction, said during the debate that investigative commission should not be established because opponents, referring to UNM, wanted to use it only for the political motives for the purpose of “discrediting” the authorities and also for “destabilizing” situation in the country.
“Our opponents are now directly telling us that Ivanishvili has business interests in this [gold and copper mining] company. It [calls for parliamentary probe] has nothing to do with the desire to actually find out what is the situation [with Sakdrisi],” MP Volski said, adding that he was not referring to Free Democrats. “We should not let setting up of a group, which will aim at discrediting and destabilization.”
In his speech during the debate, a senior UNM lawmaker Giorgi Gabashvili, who was Minister of Culture in 2006 when Sakdrisi became protected under the heritage laws, spoke less on politics and focused mostly about the site’s importance for the country from its archeological and historical point of view. He, however, also said that GD should not get infuriated if in political debates opponents express suspicion about main decision-maker in the country, referring to Ivanishvili, having links to Sakdrisi-related issues.
MP Tamar Kordzaia of GDDG, who is no stranger of voicing views different from those of her party mates, spoke in favor of setting up of the parliamentary investigative commission.
“Parliament should get involved and provide for more transparency and it should guarantee observance of the law through setting up of this commission,” she said during the debate.
Republican Party, which is voicing views dissenting from those of its partners from the GD ruling coalition more and more frequently recently over various issues, also spoke in favor of the investigative commission.
GD MP Gubaz Sanikidze of the National Forum said that his faction was also joining supporters of the commission. MP Sanikidze, however, also said that he was skeptical that such a commission would yield any result, but would vote for its creation because he does not want anyone to call him supporter of “blasting” Sakdrisi.
113 lawmakers registered in the chamber before the voting started.
Proposal to set up investigative commission required support of majority of MPs present in the chamber, but not less than 50.
Just before the start of voting, a lawmaker from GDDG faction, Gia Zhorzholiani, offered to postpone the vote on FD’s proposal and to hold it after the Parliament discussed UNM’s similar proposal on the same issue following day. The proposal to delay the vote was perceived as an attempt by those against of the investigative commission to buy time to try convincing undecided GD members to vote against. FD, which as a sponsor of the proposal had a final say, insisted on an immediate vote.
Now the Parliament has to compose the commission, which will be established for a three-month term, with a separate decision.