Georgia: A Deal Done in the Dark

Stark lights illuminate rock formations inside the Prometheus Cave in Georgia. Ecologists say the lights may be damaging the delicate environment.

By Nino Bakradze

A move by the Saakashvili government to redo a lighting and sound system in an environmentally sensitive cave is leaving many in the dark. The move, which may be damaging the cave’s delicate ecosystem, also appears to have drained the state budget unnecessarily.

It may just come down to politics.

Prometheus Cave is a natural wonder located in Tskaltubo, 300 km west of Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. About 1,100 visitors tour the cave daily during the summer tourist season, riding boats on a 1,400-meter underground river through chambers filled with lights, music and spectacular rock formations.

Officially opened in 2011 by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, the project was funded by his political rival, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who replaced Saakashvili as the leader of the government in 2012 and held the office of prime minister for a year before stepping aside in November 2013 for a hand-picked replacement.

Prometheus Cave was discovered in 1983 by an Institute of Geography expedition team associated with Tbilisi State University. Its name comes from the Greek myth of Prometheus, the god-hero who gave fire to mankind before being chained to a Caucasus mountain by an angry Zeus.

The cave has eight different chambers and unique plant specimens that survive in the dark. When the Department of Tourism decided in 2007 that the cave should be opened to the public, it awarded the project to Association ATU, a non-profit organization of Ivanishvili’s, to implement with its own money and then turn over to the government. This type of philanthropic activity was common for Ivanishvili, who made a fortune in Russia before returning to his homeland to lavishly finance projects throughout Georgia.

A lighting system designed to protect the cave’s ecosystem was torn out and replaced, apparently solely for political reasons. Total price tag: more than US$700,000.

Association ATU spent US$3 million and more than four years transforming the cave and surrounding area into a tourist attraction, according to a tourist attraction, according to a document filed with the Ministry of Economy. On January 25, 2012, at a time when Ivanishvili had begun his political campaign to unseat Saakashvili, the Ministry suddenly demanded --with no explanation -- that the cave be handed over immediately before the project was finished.

Two months later, in March, control of the cave was passed to the Ministry of Environment Protection’s Agency of Protected Areas. Although all the lighting, sound and other equipment was in place and functioning, the agency announced it would begin its own cave reconstruction project.

Teimuraz Chochua, who managed the cave project for four years for the Ivanishvili organization, says ATU had installed a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system through Germtec, a German company.
“[Germtec] chose the lights and every piece of equipment especially for this cave,” Chochua said. “When we hired those German guys, our goal was to use technology that would not harm the cave. We did the scientific research. We know this cave has a living ecosystem and we did not want to destroy it.”

Chochua says the Germtec lighting system emits minimal heat. The lights were installed with rectangular protective wings, directed so that plant life stayed mostly in the dark while bright lighting illuminated the rock formations.

When Saakashvili personally led a media tour through the cave in 2011, the lighting system was up and running. A sound system was installed in the eight chambers that guides could adjust via remote control. Whenever a group left the cave, a staff member would shut off lights and sound to further protect the plant life.

Association ATU paid Germtec US$312,410 for the lighting and sound systems, which extended 900 meters into the caves. The warranty for the bulbs was 25 years, while the warranty for the whole system was 1.5 years based on proper use.

But as of January 2012, the government abruptly went in another direction. The Agency of Protected Areas paid a Georgian company, LTD Gesko, US$188,000  to install a different sound and lighting system that extended 1,450 meters into the caves. There is no record of a competitive tender or an auction for this contract.

In addition, Gesko officials say, they had to make an additional payment of US$212,430 to the Ministry of Economics to get the cave project . Gesko director Goga Dadiani said the payment was to settle the balance on a US$303,472 fine imposed by the ministry in 2010, which he now claims was simply a government shakedown. Revenue Service officials would not provide information on this case to journalists.

The total price tag for lights and sound so far—adding together the costs of the Germtec system and Gesko’s--is US$712,840. 

Take a trip into Prometheus Cave today, and you will see lighting installed very close to living plants and aimed directly at them. Indeed, there is plant life visible now that wasn’t there before the new lighting was installed, and when staff workers remove it, the new plants grow back. 

According to Gocha Kubaneishvili, head of the cave’s ranger service, the temperature inside the cave should stay between 13.4-13.8 degrees Celsius. But according to daily records, temperatures at some locations are as high as 17.3 degrees Celsius .

Giorgi Dvalashvili, a cave specialist in the geography department at Tbilisi State University, says the new lighting is incorrectly placed, which is very harmful.

“The lights must not be near the stalactites or the floor of the cave,” Dvalashvili says. “If they are too close, the balance of nature will be broken. In any case, every new device which is brought into the cave may change its environment.”

In some locations, the lights are installed only 20 centimeters from the stalactites or the floor of the cave. Visitors can and do shift the lights so they can see different corners of the cave.

According to cave ranger Kubaneishvili, the decision to change the lighting was made after some visitors complained that the light show was boring. The new system adds color lighting.

In a written response to questions, government officials from the Agency for Protected Areas agree that visitors wanted more colorful lights than had been installed by Association ATU.

Tourists ride through the cave in 15-seat plastic boats. The agency spent US$260,300 to blast through the rock and widen a narrow underground river into a boat channel.

Elguja Jamrishvili, the chairman of the National Federation of Diving who worked with engineers on setting the explosives, said that US$95,375 had to be spent later to take out loose rocks that he found while diving and inspecting the boat channel. 

In addition to the lighting problems, the cave needs a solid gate at one location about 300 meters inside to block the weather outside and control internal temperatures.

According to a budget document , the Agency of Protected Areas spent US$3,260 to install a gate that would open automatically when a boat approached. However, there is no gate now because it wouldn’t open automatically and the cave managers removed it.

A gate might have served another useful purpose. Equipment began to disappear. According to a comparison of inventories taken before and after the Agency took over, missing items  valued at US$8,777 include a video projector and screen, seven computer monitors, two computer modems, two televisions, one DVD player, seven power surge protection systems, six garden chairs and a selection of toys for children.