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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Last Chance for Dinner On the Mtkvari's Banks

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The meal at the Mingrelian restaurant on the Tbilisi riverbank wasn't the worst I've ever eaten in Georgia -- but I still won't be going back there again. Mainly because the authorities knocked the place down last week as part of a campaign to smarten up the Georgian capital that is intensifying a dispute over property rights.

The restaurant stood amid a strip of popular dinner joints that are all set to be demolished. It wasn't particularly unattractive -- a bit tacky, perhaps -- but I would never have imagined it could become the focus of political controversy. The owners of the restaurants on the Mtkvari River claim, however, that they were pressured into handing over their properties to the authorities without compensation. They've been offered alternative space in a remote suburb, but say that isn't good enough.

The protection of property rights has become a fiercely debated issue in Georgia after several shops and street-side kiosks were bulldozed -- some of them disappearing overnight. The authorities say they were illegally privatized under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze or built without permission. Some, they insist, were just ugly.

But the Georgian ombudsman, Sozar Subari, who was appointed by the parliament, told me that violations of property rights have increased since Mikheil Saakashvili's government came to power three years ago after the Rose Revolution and began a crackdown on corruption. Subari cited various cases of businesses being threatened with legal action if they didn't sell their property for a fraction of its market value or simply hand it over. He compared the situation to the Soviet era, when the Communists expropriated private property, and spoke darkly about the lack of fair courts and an independent judiciary in the country.

The Georgian government has been warned by some allies that foreign companies might think twice about investing if their buildings could be snatched without warning. The International Monetary Fund has urged the government to strengthen property rights. In response, the government has proposed new legislation, but it has yet to be introduced. The authorities, meanwhile, have pledged to continue hunting down corrupt offenders.

When I passed by the remaining restaurants last week, a few forlorn diners were sipping their farewell glasses of wine, while all around them wrecking crews dismantled the neighboring eateries. The authorities are attempting to transform Tbilisi into a modern, European-style capital as part of their Western political ambitions. The restaurateurs, however, would like to know exactly who will be paying the bill.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.