Reports keep coming in of purported sightings from all around the city but nothing is ever confirmed. It seems incredible but the killer tiger remains uncaptured, the last holdout, over two weeks after floods inundated the Georgian capital’s center on June 14 and famously caused the mass escape of zoo animals. They simply swam out when the waters rose higher than their enclosure walls.
Tbilisi residents and millions around the world were treated to unforgettably surreal images of the wild inmates promenading through urban streets: a hippo nibbling at low-hanging leaves, a bear sitting calmly on an air-conditioner unit several floors up, various feral beasts at bay. One of them, a white tiger, mauled a resident to death three days after the breakout.
Just the previous day the Prime Minister had assured the public that the streets were free of lions and tigers. In the end, most of the animals were summarily executed rather than tranquilized, which added to the public’s rage and dismay. All in all, the tragicomic saga of the flood and its epiphenomena have delivered an irrevocable blow to the credibility of the current coalition government led by the Georgian Dream party, the more so as further details emerge daily of its breathtaking incompetence during and after the flood, which killed some 20 people in all.
According to Temuri Yakobashvili, a former deputy prime minister and ambassador to Washington under the previous administration, “the events have become a kind of metaphor for the general paralysis, cynicism and dishonesty of the government.” Critics point to crucial failures in basic “common sense procedure,” as Yakobashvili calls it.
To begin with, heavy rains triggered a massive muddy landslide that in turn caused the Vere River, a smallish mountain stream in the city’s outskirts, to bank and flood. The torrent swept over a relatively new main road to Tbilisi because the water tunnels beneath it was blocked by trees. Some three hours or more passed between the landslide and the flooding.
During that time the government failed to officially alert citizens of the danger, according to Yakobashvili and Georgian media reports, despite countless social media postings, cellphone calls and even news media warnings on private channels. As a result, vehicles continued to use the road and got swept away as far as Tbilisi city center as the water arrived. Meanwhile, houses along the highway were also enveloped and destroyed during the night of the 14th over some six hours as the rain continued.
Irakli Vacharadze runs a leading NGO for LGBT rights entitled Identoba, one of the most active in Georgia. He organized a sizable volunteer response after the floods. According to Vacharadze, social media images were posted showing people stranded atop roofs making phone calls asking for help. Recordings subsequently obtained by media show that emergency services dispatchers acted with exasperating imperviousness.
“Help us, we’re drowning” came from one caller, to which the response was “What part of the country? Are you in Tbilisi? What seems to be the problem?”
Rescue services came too late and only by road once the waters receded over the next 24 hours. In the ensuing days, the media asked why no helicopters were deployed in time to lift people to safety from rooftops. After all, the previous government under former president Mikheil Saakashvili had purchased a modern fleet of choppers for just such a purpose.
The official response was that they had been a wasteful indulgence, a pointless act of profligacy and couldn’t fly in bad weather. Members of the media predictably contacted the French manufacturer and found that the choppers were built to operate in all weather conditions. In fact, the government had allowed the entire fleet to fall into disuse since taking office in 2012 so as to deprive their political rivals of credit for foresight.
The current administration’s obsession with discrediting the Saakashvili period has led to numerous such self-defeating actions. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarch-turned-politician who led the Georgian Dream party to power, openly declared at the outset that his overarching purpose was simply to oust Saakashvili. Having achieved that, Ivanishvili resigned as prime minister after a year in office and handed over power to the man he’d appointed as interior minister, current Prime Minister Iraklli Garibashvili. But nobody doubts that Ivanishvili still holds the reins of power.
It was he who, during his first visit to Davos while in office, declared that all the high ratings for transparency and ease of doing business given to Georgia under Saakashvili by world bodies such as the World Bank were “delusional.” Predictably, outside business investment took a dive soon enough. Similarly, they blamed all the troubles with Moscow on Saakashvili’s recalcitrance. The Kremlin spurned their emollient gestures by moving to integrate the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian Federation.
And so on this occasion, too, Georgian Dream officials blamed the flood on the previous government for building the new highway with inadequate subterranean water tunnels.
It turned out that the engineers under Saakashvili had added extra tunnels much wider than those that had been constructed in Soviet times. The water was not the problem. After heavy rains, the initial landslide had brought down such a volume of debris in the form of huge trees, rocks and mud—the better part of a mountain—that no tunnels would have survived the onslaught. The problem, according to Vacharadze and many others, came when the government failed in its role as information and emergency services provider.
“There was no warning, no emergency announcement, no evacuation—at any point” says Vacharadze. “They failed to inform people of the zoo breakout until everyone could see the rhinos and hippos for themselves in the streets.” The state television building sits next to the zoo. According to Yakobashvili, “all they had to do was point a camera out of a window to show that animals were escaping.” As it was, four days after the floods receded wild animals were in the streets fighting each other.
Vacharadze further complains that, left to the state, bad conditions would have deteriorated more. That is, without the thousands of volunteers taking the initiative, partly organized by NGOs (including his own). “Government personnel barely showed up for several days during the clean-up period after the flood, not until the 18th, when most of the work was already done,” Vacharadze said.
“I had to provide them with the bottled water that I had brought for volunteers. We did all the heavy lifting, digging out mud, righting upended cars, etc. and they sat about watching. After we had worked in the water for days, the authorities suddenly declared that they’d had to release sewage into it to relieve pressure on the system. They also tried to blame the zoo debacle on the zookeeper but that led to demonstrations in the streets because the public knew he was being scapegoated. So the authorities backed off and made a show of being nice to him on TV.”
Only on the 17th, after thousands of volunteers were working in the streets, did the government finally announce that tigers were roaming around and even had killed a man. “We desperately tried to get the police to evacuate the volunteers but they ignored us,” Vacharadze said. “Day after day it was chaos, incompetence, neglect and scapegoating.”
After the tiger incident, an intense disinformation campaign started to assign blame to everyone but the authorities. Again, Saakashvili, now out of power for years, was the main scapegoat, with trolls on social media suggesting that wild animals had been tranquilized and sent by the former president to cause chaos. The patriarch of the Georgian church claimed that the zoo disaster had occurred because church bells were melted down during the Soviet era to create the iron railings around the holding pens.
Finally, Ivanishvili appeared four days after the flood saying that every disaster has something positive and he pledged to help fund a new zoo, but only if private and state donations didn’t suffice. “This, while his party was pillorying the zookeeper,” Yakobashvili said. So Georgians took up a new protest cry. “The real zookeeper is blaming the nominal zookeeper,” they chanted, referring to Ivanishvili.