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Georgia refugee tower re-opens as luxury hotel

Tbilisi — Once home to hundreds of refugees and a symbol of Georgia’s decline, the 18-storey Iveria Hotel in central Tbilisi re-opened in September as a five-star Western-owned hotel.

Presiding over an opening ceremony for the Radisson SAS Iveria following its 100-million-dollar (70-million euro) facelift, President Mikheil Saakashvili praised the development as a sign of Georgia’s progress since the civil wars and chaos of the 1990s.

"This is the fulfilment of our promise … that in a place that was a symbol of destruction, desolation, humiliation and hopelessness, something which represents the new image of Georgia will be built," he said.

Critics, however, dismissed his comments as grandstanding, saying Saakashvili was responsible for creating thousands more refugees as a result of last year’s war with Russia and had failed to address deep-rooted economic problems.

"This does not signal any progress for the country, which has a new wave of refugees following last year’s war," said the leader of the New Rights opposition party, David Gamkrelidze. "These facades are not resolving the country’s real problems.”

Tbilisi’s grandest hotel during the Soviet era, in the early 1990s the Iveria was used to house more than 1,000 refugees fleeing war in Georgia’s rebel Abkhazia region.

Crammed into single rooms, entire families lived in the hotel for more than a decade, often without electricity or running water.

The Iveria’s concrete facade, covered in plywood and draped with laundry, became a symbol of Georgia’s political and economic woes.

The refugees were evicted in 2004, shortly after Saakashvili came to power, with each family receiving 7,000 dollars (5,000 euros) in compensation towards new housing.

In contrast to its former incarnation, the new Iveria is fronted by huge glass windows, features 249 "spacious" rooms and contains gourmet restaurants, a spa and a casino, according to its website.

The Radisson is one of several luxury hotel developments announced for Tbilisi during an economic boom here in recent years, including projects from international hotel groups Intercontinental, Kempinsky and Hyatt.

Other projects appear to have stalled, however. Foreign investments have plummeted in Georgia amid the global economic downturn and following last year’s five-day war with Russia over Georgia’s Moscow-backed rebel regions.

Irakli Metreveli/AFP/Expatica